Mobile First: Lessons Learned

at October 8th, 2013

mobile chart

Mobile is becoming the primary way consumers connect to the internet and consume services, but why are so many web companies struggling to adapt to mobile technology?

Treating mobile devices as a channel by just optimizing the web experience for the small screen doesn’t cut it. The smaller screens in a mobile environment require changes in user experience – as well as shifts in distribution, monetization and development models. A truly mobile experience taps into a smartphone’s unique capabilities and recognizes that users want different experiences on these devices.

At Groupon, we have made great progress in our move to a mobile-first world – nearly 50% of U.S. transactions came over mobile devices in our most recent quarter – but the path has not been simple.

If you are “mobilizing” your business, here are five lessons to learn from our experience:

1. Get Users Addicted to Your App!

Smartphones are always with us. Because they’re always with us, being able to reach and entertain consumers in their moments of downtime is a huge opportunity to get them addicted to your app.

Great addictive experiences have distinctive characteristics and usually get this combination of discovery, action and gratification right. We’ll call it the ‘addiction mechanism’.

The ‘addiction mechanism’ plays out well with Instagram, Flipboard, Facebook and Pinterest. For example, Instagram’s photo feed is a great discovery tool as it constantly brings fresh content, and the action of sharing photos provides gratification in the form of social connection and acceptance through likes, comments and shares of followers.

Groupon makes discovery exciting through more than 54,000 active deals in its local ecommerce marketplace. Mobile plays an instrumental role in enabling consumers to navigate these offers to find anything, anywhere, anytime.

Getting this anything, anywhere, anytime ‘addiction mechanism’ right in mobile requires product optimization. The experience should be effortless, preferably aided by gestures; the content should be optimized for a snacking consumption; the actions should be streamlined and the gratification could trigger notifications to bring you back into the virtual cycle of discovery-action-gratification.

2. Context, Context, Context

The smartphone offers a wealth of contextual information that can be tapped to enhance the discovery experience. At Groupon, while location is used by the apps to locate deals nearby, other context including the time of the day in combination with user preferences is used to determine which deals to show. The end result is that two different users opening the app on the same block at lunch and at dinner will most likely see two completely different lists of relevant deals they can choose from.

Combining context with push notifications allows developers to engage consumers anytime and anywhere it is most likely for them to act. Developers that leverage geofencing, users’ current location, their travel patterns and preferences can provide users with the choice to be notified about highly relevant things to do within walking distance. Bandsintown, for example, is an app that uses your current location and music library to alert you when your favorite artists are playing in your area and when tickets go on sale.

Context also helps streamlining actions for users. For example, auto-complete suggestions in our Groupon search experience take into account contextual information such as location and time. The Google Now app on Android goes even further by presenting, without any user input, relevant information such as directions and time to destinations based on the device’s location, time and user’s calendar.

It is also key to consider when your customers open the app where they are in the lifecycle. You might want to design a complete different experience if it is a first time user, a heavy user or a user-at-retention risk.

3. Design Your Mobile User Experience First

When you are developing a new feature or product, start by designing the mobile experience. The inherent limitations of the mobile environment will force you to make the hard choices up front. It will require your team to create the simplest user experience possible – and to avoid the addition of unnecessary features.

The restraints on the mobile device – processing power, memory, battery life, connectivity – will also push your team to focus right from the start on performance and efficiency issues, which will be easier to consider at the beginning than to fix at a later stage of development.

Also, designing on mobile first will focus your team on designing for “tapability” rather than “clickability,” which requires different ways of thinking about the user interface. We learned this the hard way when we had to redesign web features with user interface elements that didn’t work on touch screens.

4. Be Bold on Your Design Tests

The design process is never truly complete. On every app release we typically launch over ten simultaneous tests in native code on different features. With millions of users using the products and going through the tests every day we quickly learn what design works and we are able to iterate in the next app release.

A common pitfall among app developers is to test only small incremental changes for a specific product or feature in order to avoid confusing users. But you need to think bigger. Periodically, you need to consider – and test – adjusting the design, or possibly overhauling your interface completely – rather than evolving series of tiny tweaks. The more aggressive approach is the way to get real performance improvement.

For the second version of Groupon iPhone and Android, for example, among several radical changes throughout the app, we tested two different navigation paradigms, tabs versus carousel, before deciding on the winning carousel design. While tabs offered PC-style navigation, the bolder visual carousel approach fostered a more frictionless discovery experience and significantly increased consumer engagement.

5. Scale Mobile Development Across Your Organization

Most companies start developing mobile experiences with a small, dedicated developer team. This approach ensures a cohesive mobile experience, faster decision making, code ownership and continuity. After reaching a certain scale, however, every company crosses the line where it gets untenable to have a single team making every change to the app.

To scale mobile development, a company could adopt a complete decentralized model with mobile developers embedded in any product teams. While this model increases scale of development, it could become very hard to execute if no one is accountable for the quality and cohesiveness of the mobile experience and in absence of shared mobile development tools and best practices across teams.

A more practical model we currently use at Groupon retains core mobile development teams responsible for the overall design, architecture, scalability and key product elements. These teams actively work across the org to build mobile experiences – pulling in developers from other teams and growing pods of mobile expertise across the organization. This creates opportunities for other engineers to build mobile experiences, but keeps a strong central group that maintains continuity. Employing an open source model where changes can be proposed and accepted can work very well when managed and coordinated by these core mobile teams.

At Groupon, we are still working towards mobile nirvana and these are just a few first important lessons to keep in mind when crafting mobile experiences with the ultimate objective of engaging your consumers in new ways.

What other lessons have you learned on your road to mobile-first?

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