Designing Intuitiveness: A Conversation with a Usability Engineer

Designing Intuitiveness: A Conversation with a Usability Engineer

Using apps has become so intuitive to most of us that swiping and tapping are as instinctive as nodding or shaking hands. But this is no accident. A group of people called usability engineers put hours of thought into the way we interact with apps so that we don’t have to. But who are these app tooth fairies and what is their magic based on? We spoke to one of them, Stefan Greiner, to try to get some answers. Greiner is a usability engineer for an app called m-sense that aims to track and predict migraines. 

Let’s start with the basics, what is a usability engineer?

Usability engineers conceptualise the interactions between the user and the interface. We think about the fundamental design of the app. Or, to put it another way, we make sure that all the user’s interactions with the app are easy to understand.

When you are designing an app from scratch where do you start?

At the very beginning there are of course all sorts of different considerations. From the usability side of things we started by sending out an online questionnaire to people who suffer from migraines. We asked them about their problems. And then we asked them what kind of solutions they would want. That first questionnaire went out to 100 migraine patients. Then we evaluated the results and planned our first steps and decided which features we were going to have in the first version.

Secondly we found out that a lot of people were unsatisfied with their interactions with their doctors. So we set up a questionnaire with doctors to get their perspective on the treatment of migraines. That meant we had both the patients’ perspectives and the doctor’s perspective. Based on that we built the first version.

What does “good usability” look like in an app?

We use a whole range of algorithms and statistical models to find that out. A lot of hardware is involved. But in short I would say good usability is user-centric not technology-centric. If the user is the most important part of our thought processes then chances are we will have an app with good usability. The app will be easy to use and is designed in such a way that misunderstandings are prevented. This is particularly important with medical apps, where we need to make sure that there are no false interpretations of our results. We also include evaluations by doctors in the process, which adds to the usability experience.

What separates app design from other kinds of design?

In apps you have a very limited surface area to work with, the size of a smartphone’s screen is actually really small when you’re trying to convey complex information. Apps also have many different feedback modalities, that’s why we include tangible elements to our design; things like sounds and vibrations, which go beyond just the visual side of things.

And then of course there’s the fact that an app is a mobile service. An exhibition designer might make something for one specific place and time. I get to incorporate the mobility aspect in interesting ways. For example our app automatically takes to the user’s specific weather conditions into consideration based on the user’s shared GPS location.

What kinds of trends have you observed in app design in the past few years?

I have found, from a developer’s perspective, reducing the amount of text in an app in favour of icons, really helps if you want to internationalize the app. Using symbols reduces the possible number of misunderstandings that would otherwise come in the form of translation errors.

There is definitely a trend towards using more gestures; there is more swiping as opposed to just tapping. And then of course a lot is happening right now when it comes to animation. You can convey a lot more through animation than you can through text. Things are moving away from static models towards more dynamic ones.

What kind of testing do you do once the app is ready?

We started conducting focus groups with four or five participants. We asked them how they perceived the first prototype.Then, after making some changes we started with the first field tests. We gave the app to 15 migraine sufferers who used it for two weeks. After that test we conducted a workshop to get their feedback. We used a feedback tool integrated into the app to get those responses. After that came the field study and now we are going into a beta phase. At this stage the app will be tested on a group of about a hundred people for the next two months. Once that is done we hope to have the first public version available by July.


T L Andrews


TL Andrews is a multi-media journalist based in Berlin. He produces features for radio, television and print outlets with a focus on German and European issues.

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