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How to gauge mobile users' behavior without stalking them

It can be pretty difficult guessing how consumers will use a mobile app without being able to see it firsthand.

This guest post was submitted by Lorinda Brandon, Director of Strategy at Smartbear Software

Personas are nothing new in software development. Before you can build an application, you have to have a sense of who you are building it for. Usually, personas are derived by a group pounding back Dr. Pepper and scribbling pictures on a whiteboard of who they believe will use their product. Often there are multiple personas involved, depending on the functionality. We give them clever names and try to pigeonhole their personalities into iconic worker-bee positions:

"This is Sally. She is the owner of a busy retail store in Small Town, America. She does the books, stocks the shelves, waits on customers, and orders inventory. She is college-educated, understands how to run a small business, and is comfortable with a computer."

From there, you can figure out what Sally cares about in your product and how you can design it to fit her. When I worked at Intuit years ago, the company took that need to understand the customer one step further with a program they called "Follow Me Home." Sounds kind of stalker-y, but once you get past that, it’s probably the best customer-focused program I’ve ever seen.

The premise is this: you build software to enable someone to do their job but their job is rarely just using your software. So…what does their day look like? Follow Me Home was not a usability test – it was not about watching someone use your software. It was about seeing their day, including the parts away from their computer, and how your software helped (or didn’t help) them get through their workday.

But now software companies have to extend that understanding of their users from their professional lives to their personal lives. Our users have come to expect that at least part of the functionality we provide them will be available on a mobile device and will follow them home after hours. But they also don’t want us stalking their activity in a way that invades their personal life. So how do we define who our users are in that context? It’s much easier to stereotype a professional role than it is to define an after-hours persona that fits a broad set of users. What do they need from our apps when they can carry them around in a purse or a backpack or interact with them in front of the TV?

What you care about in an application when you are sitting at an office desk with dual monitors and a high-speed connection is one thing. But if you are using an application on a mobile device, it matters where you are: do you care about the same things if you are using them at an airport versus a soccer field versus a La-Z-Boy by the TV? And how does today’s software designer know which of those situations our users are in?

Unfortunately, we can’t define an After-Hours Persona that matches a profession. One sys-admin may check his notifications in a loud bar while his colleague is checking his notifications while quietly rocking his baby to sleep. In the end, we have to rely on our basic knowledge of life and being human to piece that part of the puzzle together. So, what to do?

  • Don’t make the same assumptions for your mobile app that you do for your web/desktop app. This is particularly true for navigation and workflow, which have to be refined to singular tasks on a mobile device. While users may love configurable interfaces and multiple pathways around a product on their computers, those same concepts are often intolerable on a phone or tablet.
  • Watch the people around you. We’re surrounded by people interacting with their mobile devices everywhere we go – restaurants, movie theaters, football games, parties. Your “Follow Me Home” moment is all around you. As a software professional, you are in a unique position these days to view your whole personal life as a usability study. What are these folks doing and how happy are they doing it?
  • Download, download, download. I download all kinds of apps all the time, even when they have no real direct use for me. I like to see how other apps have solved hard problems. Or, even better, how they haven’t solved them. It’s all learning. And I mess around with those apps in all kinds of situations – when I’m traveling, when I’m relaxing, when I’m working.
  • Understand that traditional personas are only one part of the spectrum. Every one of your users really has a 360-degree persona that you have to be aware of. You may not be able to define them as easily as you could the traditional persona, but acknowledging that there is more to worry about than there used to be is half the battle.

If I could give a word of advice to the users, too, it would be this: be patient and provide feedback. It’s a brave new world for us software geeks, and sometimes we can’t run fast enough to keep up with it. But if we don’t hear from you about what works and what doesn’t, we can only build apps that fit our own personas rather than yours.

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About Lorinda Brandon, Director of Solutions Strategy at SmartBear

For more than 25 years, Lorinda Brandon has worked in various management roles in the high-tech industry, including customer service, quality assurance and engineering. She is currently Director of Solutions Strategy at SmartBear Software, a leading supplier of software quality tools. She has built and led numerous successful technical teams at various companies, including RR Donnelley, EMC, Kayak Software, Exit41 and Intuit, among others. She specializes in rejuvenating product management, quality assurance and engineering teams by re-organizing and expanding staff and refining processes used within organizations. She has a bachelor’s degree in art history from Arizona State University. Follow her on Twitter @lindybrandon.

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