October 7, 2014

Are your users S.M.A.R.T enough for your app?

You certainly heard about so-called ‘street smarts’, that component of intelligence that determines our ability to respond effectively and efficiently to practical situations that we encounter in everyday life, like dealing with other people and making sure we’re treated fairly.

Another tidbit that we’ll refer to in this article is the fact that intelligence is a fluid thing and, unlike the impression given by IQ scores that it’s some fixed, monolithic quantity, the amount we have available ebbs and flows in response to factors like low energy or unfamiliarity with a given situation.

I believe there is such a thing as ‘digital smarts’, the ability of users to make the most of their apps and that this type of intelligence is deeply affected by the app’s design, but also by the users’ current status: their physiology and psychology.

In this article we’ll look at what makes your users look ‘S.T.U.P.I.D’ when using an app, and how in turn we can help them be ‘S.M.A.R.T’ instead.

How does user status affect their experience?

Overall user experience doesn’t dependent only on external factors like design, responsiveness and functionality, although these are the things developers can control.

Another important set of contributors to user experience are internal qualities pertaining to your users physiology and psychology: whether they are stressed out or tired, inadequately trained or engaged only at a very superficial level with your app.

Taken together, these factors are very likely to affect your users’ ability to use your app at a satisfactory level negatively, therefore we’ll examine each one more closely in turn. As you can see, the first letter of each factor spells out the acronym S.T.U.P.I.D.

1. Stressed-out

Your users won’t use your app under laboratory-like conditions. When they sit in front of their desktops or pick up their smartphones, they carry with them personal and work-related stresses, as well as time restrictions, which means they are operating under some form duress and accordingly they could easily mess up even the simplest functions, leading to frustration and dissatisfaction with your product.

2. Tired

Multitasking takes its toll on body and mind, so you cannot expect your users to be at their 100% when using your app. This means they are more likely to miss out on details, make mistakes and obtain a result that obviously falls short of their expectations. Whilst this is not the developers’ fault, they have to take their users’ lack of self-awareness into account by preempting possible mistakes and having the product make up for any obvious gaps, e.g. having the alarm clock override the phone’s silent mode if the user forgets to switch the latter off.

3. Untrained

Most apps are designed in such a way that they can be learnt intuitively and with the least possible delay. The more frequently a user interacts with the app the more time they will have to learn about all its functions, and the converse is true as well: a feature that is used rarely will not be mastered at a complex level of use. Design is driven by frequency of use: the less frequently your user is expected to interact with your product, the simpler and more uniform its design must be.

4. Passive

Conservation energy applies for every kind of system, including mental ones. Users often lapse into an ‘autopilot mode’ when using software to carry out boring and routine tasks. Unfortunately, this passivity blunts their ‘digital smarts’ making them more susceptible to unwittingly press the wrong button or accidently miss or delete chunks of important data.

5. Ineffective

Sometimes, apps simply don’t offer users the full range of functionality they’d expect. In these cases users look for complementary solutions to extend their app experience, the most common one being to import data to Excel and then carrying out specialised operations on that program. Developers must look beyond the confines of their apps and allow them to integrate easily with other services that could supplement their functionality.

6. Distracted

It’s difficult to expect your users to concentrate on one task at a time. Certainly not when their smart devices are constantly alerting them to their latest Facebook updates, tweets, emails and a dozen other notifications. You cannot rely on your users’ overly taxed working memory to remember details across multiple screens. Accordingly, instructions should be re-stated every so often to remind the users what they need to do. Frequent, automatic saving of data inputted by the users is vital, especially since connections can time out.

Good design can make users more effective

Naturally, we cannot predict what state our users will be in when they run our apps, however there are certain strategies we can implement — design strategies — that mitigate or reverse S.T.U.P.I.D problems.

BP_114 - Are your users S.M.A.R.T enough for your app

Most developers have the middle-of-the-road user, your average Joe, in their mind when designing their products. Basically, you target the most common type of users. An alternative, and in my opinion superior, take is to consider your extreme type users, the ones that fall on either end of the distribution curve and design with them in mind.

 BONUS – Check out usability expert Ricky Uvin’s blog post about why User Centered Development is a smart tactic

It is in the very nature of averages to be flexible enough to scale up or down their efforts to adapt to a given situation, but extremes generally have a harder time doing so. The S.M.A.R.T design principles are useful rules of thumb to provide the minimum support necessary to cater for S.T.U.P.I.D situations.

1. Simple

In the great scheme of things, usability trumps an extensive features list every time. With the glut of apps available on the market, what distinguishes your offering from the next is its ability to give exactly what the user wants in as few steps as possible. Simplicity of design and a focus on a handful of features are very often all the user needs, and no amount of bells and whistles will lure them away from their main desire to get things done.

2. Memorable

As an app becomes increasingly complex, user focus will do a nosedive and they will lose confidence in their abilities to see the tasks through. Even if your app carries out a relatively simple function, remind users what they are doing by delivering clear and consistent instructions and side notes that nudge them towards completing their task.

3. Automated

If an app requires the same kind of data to be inputted over and over, this will inevitably pull the user into autopilot mode and blunt their awareness of the interface which could someday result in an error being committing. Try to spot in advance these ‘autopilot’ traps and circumvent them by having the app remember user data (safely) and speed through the process using a simple one-click operation.

4. Recoverable

To continue with the previous point, if users do commit an accidental mistake whilst they were zooming from one screen to the next, such as removing all their contacts or deleting important messages, it is crucial that you provide remedial options that allow at least a limited amount of data recovery to be possible in the aftermath of an accidental, self-inflicted data loss.

5. Tested in real-life

There’s no way that your users will be using their apps in a situation that even remotely resembles a developer’s office or user testing scenarios. Most transactions are carried out when life is in full swing around the users, with pots and pans to be looked after in the kitchen, screaming children to look after, hungry stomachs to be filled, and bodies being squashed on the bus or train. Testing should take into account all these common sources of physical and mental discomfort in order to create apps that are truly life-proof.


Digital has taken over most aspects of our lives, but in the final analysis it is human users, with human frailties, that run the show.

While it is interesting to think that at some point in the future all our devices will be biometrically-enabled, and will automatically adapt to correct and compensate for any kind of physiological and psychological deficiencies (no more drunk texting your boss or ex-girlfriend!), the cheaper alternative at present is to implement timeless design principles that can elevate even the most utilitarian piece of software to a clever and functional app.

What are thoughts about the relationship between design and user experience? What else can we do to create products that maximise the users’ effectiveness and efficiency even in the most extreme conditions? Let us know in the comments section below.

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