Mobile Web Apps with Native App UX – Take Care with Navigation

December 8th, 2010 by

I’ve noticed a common usability problem appearing on a number of mobile web apps. These mobile optimized sites often utilize advanced technologies such as JavaScript and HTML5 to simulate  a rich, “near native” application experience, but often overlook the simplest usability matters, making the user experience very poor. The problem I am referring to is the insufficient accommodation of standard browser navigation methods.

With mobile web apps, the UI presents a browser frame overlay, generating a different set of expectations from a user compared to a native app. This is true even if the web app closely resembles a native app. The main difference is that the user intuitively expects to be able to use the browser’s embedded navigational controls rather than only the integrated navigational elements of the mobile web app. This is particularly true for the ‘back’ operation. I’ve seen a number of mobile web applications where a‘back’ operation took  the user outside of the web app to the previously visited site, even though the user was multiple clicks into the web app. In essence, such design provides a forced abandonment sequence, which is certainly not desirable for any brand. And it is an unexpected and annoying result for the user.

As such, any mobile web application must accommodate browser navigation controls to provide a good user experience. If the mobile web application uses a native code wrapper to hide the browser’s frame, then obviously this no longer applies. However, a native wrapper is often not the entry point to a mobile web application.  So unless the sole distribution is the app store with the native wrapper, this will be a problem for your mobile web app (though beware – many Android handsets permanently embed the ‘Back’ operation into the handset, so you will still need to accommodate for that).

The bottom line is, if you are building a site that heavily utilizes JavaScript/HTML5 to create an experience similar to a native application, make sure you are not requiring your users to change their mobile browser navigation behavior. If you do, you may find that users abandon your site rather than change their behavior to adopt your ‘cutting edge’ mobile web experience.

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