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Informing Smartphone App Design

by Suzanne Ginsburg
7 min read
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An overview of three complementary user research techniques that are well suited to mobile design.

All smartphone app ideas start somewhere—an entrepreneur starts scribbling on some napkins at the local coffee shop, a visionary sketches on a whiteboard, a team has a brainstorm. Regardless of how your app begins, most app ideas are relatively vague at first, perhaps a basic drawing or a few bullet points of things you want the app to do.

With all the design templates available for Photoshop, Illustrator, and OmniGraffle, many designers may be quick to translate their app ideas into wireframes. While diving right into wireframing may work in some cases, most apps can benefit from some level of upfront user research. User research helps define the high-level product vision, and enables your team to make informed decisions throughout the product life cycle.

In this article, I’ll introduce three complementary user research techniques that are well suited to mobile design: shadowing, and field interviews combined with diary studies. I chose these techniques because they can help mobile app designers understand their app’s context of use. In contrast to the desktop context, which is relatively self-contained, the mobile context is influenced by many external factors, e.g., people, objects, the cellular network, etc. Understanding these external factors will help mobile designers create great user experiences.


In shadowing, the researcher follows participants over a period of time and records their observations. In contrast to user interviews, the data may be more reliable since user behaviors are observed in their natural context by a researcher. This is often referred to as a “sit back” technique; the researcher may probe with some questions but it’s generally undirected. In addition to shedding light on the participant’s environment, shadowing may help uncover less tangible influences such as social norms and user perceptions.

Shadowing sessions can take one hour or up to a full day—the context and duration will vary based on the app and the research goals. Imagine that you want to develop an app that enables parents to easily record and share their newborn’s special moments. Because the app may be used in a variety of contexts throughout the day, it may require a full day of observations to get an adequate understanding of the parents’ needs. In contrast, much less time would be needed for an app for museum visitors to learn about museum artwork since participants could be shadowed in the museum for only the duration of their visit.

Shadowing a research participant in a museum
Photo from shadowing session with an art dealer. She uses her iPhone to take photos for clients, convert art prices into foreign currencies, and to make sure artwork is level (using the iHandy app.)

Field Interviews

Field interviews, which are derived from anthropological research techniques, are one-on-one sessions with participants in their natural environments. The interviews are semi-structured, meaning the researcher will prepare questions in advance but will adjust the script based on the participant’s responses. They typically occur in one place for 1–2 hours, excluding travel. Given these time and context limitations it may be difficult to get a complete picture of the participants’ mobile usage. As a result, mobile researchers often supplement field interviews with a diary study. Diary studies, discussed in the next section, can provide more insight into the participant’s context over a much longer period of time.

Choosing one place for a mobile-oriented interview can be a challenge. Ideally, the interview should occur where the app will be used most often, providing researchers with a better understanding of the context of use. In the earlier example of the museum visitor app, holding the interview at the museum would enable participants to easily refer to exhibit information and explain what works or doesn’t work well for them. If the interviews were held at an offsite location, it would be harder for participants to reference such information and for the researcher to understand the influence of the museum context. Additionally, it would require the user to recall behaviors or memories about the app, which can be less reliable than studying their app usage in context.

Sample Excerpt From a Field Interview With a College Student

“I would have chemistry in the morning for five hours, Trig in afternoon, English at night. My chemistry teacher would lecture for two hours. I would have my periodic table open. I was in class one day and forgot my periodic table. I Googled it and found an iPhone periodic table app. I showed everyone in class and then they downloaded it too. It’s free and they have a light version. A lot of people in class have an iPhone—half the class. Everybody is on the iPhone, especially on the train.

“I’d also use my scientific calculator. If you turn the iPhone landscape, it expands. I removed the other calculator app I had installed before. I don’t like a ton of apps on my phone at once. So the iPhone replaced my TI89. The other app allowed more numbers than the built-in calculator app, and could do longer equations than the built-in iPhone app. I looked in the App Store under ‘scientific calculator,’ looking for graphing one. I got this one [shows me]. There was a pop quiz one day so I asked: can I use the phone? Professor said yes but some would say no.”

Diary Studies

Diary studies shift the burden of data collection onto the participant. Instead of the researcher shadowing participants for an entire day, participants record their activities over the course of one or more days. When combined with field interviews, diary studies can approximate the depth and richness of data gathered during shadowing sessions. Consider using a diary study under the following circumstances:

  • Participants can easily capture the kind of data you are seeking
  • You need to collect data over a long period of time, such as in cases where the app is used only intermittently
  • You need a non-intrusive way to gather information

Although this approach can lead to valuable insights, there are some limitations. First, participants may not record activities that seem trivial to them but would be of interest to researchers. Second, since participants are mobile, stopping to document their activities could be disruptive or impractical (e.g., when the participant is driving.) Third, diary studies are less effective at ascertaining the how and why behind behaviors. Because of these limitations and others associated with self-reporting research techniques, researchers often combine diary studies with other methods such as field interviews.

Sample Diary Study Entries and Field Interview Clarifications
Activity recorded in notepad
Field interview clarification
7am checked weather n emls
Sarah checks her email and weather while getting her kids ready in the morning. She wishes that the weather app let her enter her zip code since San Francisco has microclimates. She tried AccuWeather but it was too difficult so she deleted it.
Setup should be easy or else user may abandon app.
740 fb and calendar realck
“fb” is Facebook. She likes to check Facebook during her downtime. She loves the app but gets frustrated since many features don’t work on her phone.
Users may expect apps to have most features found in their Web counterparts, so features should be prioritized accordingly.
835 ck time driving
Sarah doesn’t use a watch anymore. She relies on her iPhone for the time.
919 Katy call gym
Her friend Katy called while at the gym.

Choosing a Research Approach

Most smartphone apps will benefit from a combination of user research methods. The optimal mix will depend on the app, your research goals, and the design phase. Very early stage apps will benefit from observational methods, whereas mid-stage apps should benefit most from observational methods as well as prototypes. These app stages are discussed in more detail below.

Early Stage Apps

Companies without a clear concept may conduct user research to help uncover app opportunities. Even though the company has not formulated an app concept, they should have a well-defined audience or problem space in mind. For example, young children often use their parents’ iPhones. Shadowing these parents is one way a researcher could uncover app opportunities for this demographic. Similarly, a company may be interested in offering an Android solution for small business owners, thus they may want to interview these types of users to better understand their needs.

Mid-Stage Apps

Companies with a rough app concept can utilize a variety of user research methods. In addition to shadowing and field studies, they may find it beneficial to introduce early app sketches to prospective users. These sketches can be presented in a demo format—meaning the researcher will walk through the sketches and elicit feedback on the ideas—or through a paper prototype study. If the concept is not fleshed out at the user interface level, another option is to create a concept video that will give prospective users a feel for the idea. You can find an example here: https://vimeo.com/2420799

Existing Apps

Apps already in the marketplace may conduct upfront research before designing a significant feature or embarking on a redesign. Regardless of the project scope, the research typically incorporates the existing app. For example, it would be valuable to shadow existing customers as they use your app, or have them diary their app usage over a specified period of time. Alternatively, the app creator may consider running a usability study to establish a benchmark for the app. Lastly, a user feedback survey at this stage can be beneficial for getting a broad reading on features that you may then want to delve deeper into with qualitative research.


Upfront user research can benefit both new and existing smartphone apps, shedding light on prospective users’ context of use, perceptions, pain points, language, and customs. Understanding context of use is critical for smartphone app design since context can be a driving force in your app’s user experience. With a solid user research foundation, app creators can make informed decisions throughout the product development process. Moreover, user research can reveal new app opportunities and inspire innovative solutions.

post authorSuzanne Ginsburg

Suzanne Ginsburg,

Suzanne Ginsburg is a user experience consultant based in San Francisco, California, and the author of Designing the iPhone User Experience. She works with many different kinds of organizations, from established technology companies to small iPhone start-ups. Suzanne also maintains a UX blog, Touchy Talk, where she provides advice on touchscreen app design. If you’d like to stay in touch with Suzanne, follow her on Twitter @suzanneginsburg.


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