Researching What Users Want from Help and Alerts on a Mobile Device

Rhonda Nelson, Senior Usability Engineer, Applications User Experience
Ultan Ó Broin, Director, User Experience

Rhonda Nelson

Ultan Ó Broin

The Oracle Applications User Experience (Apps-UX) team recently facilitated a focus group of mobile device users to understand how messages1, alerts2, and help3 (user assistance) for business applications on smartphones should be designed. An initial survey about user assistance on mobile devices helped frame the makeup of the focus group and assumptions to be explored. The event itself was held in Oracle's Redwood Shores headquarters. There were 10 participants, all smartphone users with more than one year's experience of using downloaded business applications on their phones (BlackBerry, Palm, and HTC corporation devices) for work.

The event included a guided discussion on mobile user assistance experience, followed by a session where groups of participants were required to think about and suggest mobile user assistance solutions for work scenarios (for example, setting up a new mobile application, handling data entry validation errors, or handling server synchronization error messages while working remotely.)

The focus group revealed that for such assistance, users wanted to leverage the features offered by the phone itself (for example, short message service [SMS,] vibration, hands-free mode, and so on) and to personalize their user experience to a way of working defined by opportunistic task completion because of changing plans, varied locations, and unforeseen interruptions. The following features were important to users:

For messages and alerts:

  • Use the phone vibration option for alerts (for example, to communicate a new sales opportunity or service request) as users might be otherwise engaged away from the device or on the move.

  • Allow audio capability to announce alerts or errors when users are in transit and enable them to respond to an alert or message vocally (speaking into a hands-free phone device if driving.)

  • Ensure error messages inform users not only of the cause of an error, but the best resolution and way to avoid it in future. A basic "Unrecoverable application error. Restarting now." message or automatic restart of the application after a crash is not acceptable.

  • Provide a means for users to save messages for response later (they might not have time to respond immediately), have an option to dismiss messages if not critical, and forward messages automatically to a support representative through SMS or e-mail if users cannot resolve an issue themselves.

  • Let each user personalize the types of messages they see and when, and include a "Don't Show This Message Again." type of feature for noncritical messages. This option would be used after the user had learned what the initial occurrence of the message meant..

  • Return users automatically to their last place in the transaction when the message occurred, seamlessly enabling them to complete the task once they resolve the error.

  • Integrate messages across multiple applications, and show a list of messages, rather than single messages, for ease of access and faster response.

For help:

  • Users felt they did not need any device-level help or training, preferring to learn their application by using it. They disliked how help might clutter the small user interface on a mobile device.

  • Users did not want any help that prompts assistance when not needed, as it disrupts the mobile task.

  • If there is any help supplied, then it must allow for personalization options of turning it off either immediately or after first use.

  • Users did not want to read Portable Document Format (PDF) documents on their phone for help, except possibly for graphical information such as organization charts.

Such insights are in line with research about mobile devices that emphasizes the need to take into account the design challenges of the smaller device, personalize the user experience, and leverage the native features of the device. The findings also support Apps-UX research on the critical importance of designing an application that fits with how users actually behave. In this case, that means working quickly and flexibly, while being subject to interruption and being on the move--the "three minutes to get it done" work style. The focus group findings also reinforce the grounding principle that user assistance must be designed as part of the overall user experience. We will continue research with more mobile application users and more devices (including iPhone and Android-based devices), but we would love to hear your thoughts on mobile application user assistance through the comment form provided below.

1. Messages: Appear to the user in response to errors such as data inaccuracies, incorrect actions, or application or system failure. Messages may also warn the user about a problem, require the user to interrupt his or her task and take actions to remedy the problem, or confirm an action is in progress or complete.

2. Alerts: Inform the user that there has been a change or update in important business object information.

3. Help: Assistance in the user interface that explains how to use the application correctly and how to complete user tasks.


I think you explained the topic pretty well here

Posted by Eric on October 27, 2010 at 10:07 AM PDT #

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