Designing apps for micro-interactions

An image of a man using a Nexus smartphone, with another man creating an ice sculpture behind him for some reason, out of focus.

Despite their perceived popularity and ubiquity, the reality is that many mobile apps aren’t used as often as many brands would like—if at all. According to Think with Google, most mobile users only ever download around 36 apps in total—and of those, only about 12 apps actually become an integral part of their daily lives. Once you control for ubiquitous apps like Facebook and Uber, the opportunity space for new third-party apps can seem distressingly slim.

But the opportunity on mobile is still massive, and apps that are optimized for users’ behavioral patterns still have ample room to make an impact. The key is to recognize the limits of users’ attentions, and to design experience that maximize the short attention span of today’s mobile user. While on desktop experiences users expect to spend 2–3 minutes to finish engaging with an experience—from first loading the website through completing a task—the expectation for a similar task on mobile is less than 50 seconds.

Mobile experiences, therefore, need to be designed for the type of lightweight interactions that users prefer—a trend that has come to be known as “mobile micro moments.” The more information and utility an app can pack into a short, lightweight interaction, the more likely it is to be adopted and adored by users.

The more functionality an app can back into a few seconds of interactions, the more likely it is to become part of users’ daily routines.

Considering how—and when—information is presented to users is paramount to delivering an efficient and quick-to-use experience. Apps should identify what their core use case is—a task most easily solved with user testing—and make that central task the first and easiest thing users can do within the app. For banking apps, this might be something as basic as checking balances. For shopping apps, it could take the form of a one-step “re-order” button. Whatever it is, if that core use case happens to align with the brand’s business drivers and KPIs, even better.

Beyond optimizing the interactions within the app is only one tactic, because both the iOS and Android platforms offer mobile app developers a myriad of options to extend their utility outside the constraints of the app itself. With extensions across the operating systems, developers can introduce widgets and secondary views that allow users to engage with their content in quicker or more accessible ways.

Among these are notifications, one of the most common communication tools that developers and brands use to reach their apps’ audiences. Notifications on both iOS and Android can be interactive, offering a level of interaction from the phone’s lock screen or from within another app. Users can perform quick actions or receive updates about in-app content from wherever they are, and all they need to do is toggle notifications on.

Finally, the landscape for micro moment mobile experiences is evolving beyond the narrow context of mobile devices themselves, as wearable platforms from all the major mobile players begin to make their mark. watchOS on Apple Watch and Android Wear on a myriad of devices make it possible to extend the brand app experience to a new, more accessible, and more personal screen than ever—one constantly attached to users’ wrists. These platforms are designed with micro-moment–style interactions in mind, and can be used to great effect to maximize the subtlest of glances users make toward their wrists.