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10 mobile behaviours and how to design for them

By Pamela Pavliscak


03. Icons are mostly confusing

Very few icons are crystal clear. There are simply too many for people to keep track of – and to make matters worse, they are not always used consistently from site to site, or app to app.

The clear: Among the best-understood icons are the triangle for play (92 per cent) and the X for close (90 per cent). Most people don’t have to think about these icons for two reasons: they see them on every site they use and they are used consistently to indicate only one thing. Even if placement or visual treatment varies slightly, people still understand it.

The unclear: Compare this with the search icon (80 per cent). Most people interpret the magnifying glass as search, but some are still not sure – depending on the context, it could also mean zoom. Other icons score even lower for clarity, however. Favourite (63 per cent) is indicated by a heart or star, but this could equally mean either Like or Save. Settings (57 per cent) and locate (35 per cent) are other icons that we’ve been tracking. These are not well understood because they don’t appear as frequently, are not used as often, and are not always used consistently across sites or apps.

The hamburger: The hamburger menu is still not well understood. When we tested sites or apps that used the hamburger a year ago, the reaction was something like: “I’ve been noticing that doodad on sites, but thought it might just be part of the design.” Over the past year we have seen hamburger awareness rising, but people may only stumble upon the menu accidentally or after using the site or app for a significant period of time.


Make sure you use icons in a way that’s consistent with other top sites and apps, especially ones familiar to your users. A/B test treatment, placement, and words that appear with icons. Track everything you test over time, because behaviours are bound to change.

The hamburger icon probably still needs a callout, as seen on the Home Depot app. It may not help though: people quickly tap out of animated tours

04. People have an aversion to bottom navigation

This finding, at first glance, seems to run counter to the current best practice of putting navigation at the bottom for one-handed use. Whether people have an easier time using it with one hand or not, they don’t think to look at the bottom or, more often, just choose to ignore it. “I know that there are options on the bottom, but if I have to look there it is too late.” It is the navigation of last resort.


For now, essential options should be either on the main screen or in the navigation at the top of the page.

05. Sound is the unsung hero

78 per cent of people who participate in our in-person studies leave their ringer on and their sound turned up. It may be surprising that sounds elicit a lot of positive comments.

Confirmation: People like the closure they get when they hear a message being sent, or an action is finalised, like moving a file to a directory or money from one account to another.

Delight: People give apps one try, so a clever message or a fun sound can tip conversion. Part of the reason people like to pull to refresh is the resulting sound.


Sounds cues are a missed opportunity. Few sites or apps are using them effectively.

Toca Boca apps for kids use sound to announce, to confirm, and to delight. These apps provide a good model for grownups’ ones too

06. We’re not very good at multitasking

Of course, research shows that we don’t really multitask at all. We switch from one thing to the next. On mobile, this is even more pronounced.

Time out: People get distracted very easily, with notifications taking priority over all else: “If I leave to look at a notification, odds are I will never make it back.” Remembering may be overrated. More often than not, people just move on and don’t pick up where they left off.


Focus on making each screen a self-contained unit. Timing out after two to five minutes is a good rule of thumb and certainly something to test.

07. The lack of back

On desktop, people rely heavily on the back button. This behaviour carries over to mobile, but is not supported nearly as well. So people try workarounds to back up.

Home button: 78 per cent use the home button to start over in an app or on a site. People do it despite its futility.

Arrows: Only 45 per cent use the arrow at the bottom in the mobile web browser. This may be part of bottom navigation aversion.


People love the convenience of going back, rather than having to learn how to navigate a site or app. At minimum there has to be a way to go home. For now, the hamburger menu may not suffice. An arrow that is always visible, or a button at the top, are viable options to test.

The icon for settings is conventional on the Pack mobile site, but the word beneath creates confusion. Consistency is the key for all icon use

08. Multi-screen is backwards

Mobile is still considered as the second screen, with bigger screens assumed to be people’s main focus. Our research shows that the opposite is true.

Mobile-first: In our research, attention is focused on the screen in the hand 60 per cent of the time and not the one further away, whether that’s desktop or TV. There are just a few exceptions to this; for instance, using mobile at work as a second, unrestricted screen.


Thinking of mobile as the foreground and not the background is a new way of seeing the experience. It makes a strong case for not stripping away content or features.

09. People appreciate a little magic

Clearly, people expect their phones to know everything about them – store all their personal information, know their location and recognise their voice. As a result of people focusing on the results, rather than the nuts and bolts of how their devices work, mobile can seem magical.

Camera: People are still surprised by things that seem impossible, like scanning a cheque using the phone’s camera. “How can this even work? I’ve got to tell my friends about this.”

Geolocation: Location awareness is another feature that often produces a feeling of wonder. It is a tricky balancing act to keep it from seeming a little too all-knowing though.

Accelerometer: Apps that track movement, or the lack of it, are losing their aura of magic. People are more focused on the data that results from use, and on comparing or sharing, than on how it was tracked.


That one unexpected surprise is what often converts. Apps can leverage more of a phone’s capabilities, but unexpected moments on a mobile site can convert, too.

The Corcoran mobile site keeps the three most important options at the top and near the search, which is where most people get started

10. People expect mobile to be better than desktop

“Mobile is better – less hype, less ads, less junk to get in the way.” Expectations for the mobile experience are high and defection is commonplace. Around 40 per cent of users will opt for a different website if the one they’re visiting is not mobile friendly, and 57 per cent won’t recommend a poorly designed mobile site.


Make the experience about that one special thing. This needn’t mean a pared-back experience, but a tightly focused one.


Mobile is not merely about more screens – mobile is a set of behaviours. And the patterns of those behaviours are constantly in motion.

The things people do today are not necessarily the same ones they will be doing next month or next year. The only way to really understand how people interact with mobile – and how they feel about it – is to continue to observe and track.

This article originally appeared in net magazine issue 255 (July 2014).

Pamela Pavliscak will discuss emotion-sensing technology and what it means for how we design at Generate New York next week. If you can’t make it to New York, there’s also a Generate in San Francisco on 9 June, featuring a talk by Huge’s Sophie Kleber, who will evaluate current examples of emotional computing, and introduce frameworks that can help us design for emotional intelligence.

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