User Interface Design in Mobile Apps

Instructor: David Delony

David is a freelance writer specializing in technology. He holds a BA in communication.

In this lesson, you'll learn about some of the issues in mobile interface design. You'll learn about some of the differences between desktop and mobile interfaces, particularly in regard to screen space, responsiveness and the need for user interface testing.

Why care about mobile UI?

Smartphones and tablets have become an integral part of people's lives. User interface designers have been trying to catch up by creating pleasant interfaces. Because a new app is only a few touches of a finger away, app makers have an interest in making their apps as easy to use as possible. Unfortunately, because the capabilities of mobile devices evolve constantly, mobile device usability is a moving target. There are still some current best practices that will serve people designing smartphone and tablet apps.

Small Screens

The biggest difference between mobile and desktop is the size of the screen. The smallest laptop computers have screen sizes of 11 inches, with external monitors available in much larger sizes. Smartphones have screen sizes of around three to five inches.

Since mobile screens are so small, designers will have to design their apps carefully. This means using fewer elements than a typical website or application. They also need to make targets easier to hit on the screen or users will get frustrated.

The need to use screen space sparingly also affects the graphic design of the apps themselves. If you've looked at a mobile app recently, you'll notice that it doesn't have a lot of 'chrome' (not to be confused with the web browser), or decorative elements. Most are very minimalistic.

It's also best to keep apps on one screen if possible. Users are often doing other things when using mobile devices, so switching screens might throw them off. A restaurant finding app might annoy users if they have to move to a different screen to make a reservation.


Mobile users are busy, often using their devices while they are doing other things. They might be using a tablet while watching TV or using their smartphone while out in the city looking for a place to eat. While desktop users might be happy to just browse around for hours on a PC, mobile users want to get things done and they want to get them done now. Mobile apps should be as responsive as possible, meaning they should take as little time to complete a task as possible.

The key to responsiveness is that an app should display immediate feedback when a user does something. If a user presses a button, it should switch to the next task. If it doesn't, the user might think that something has gone wrong. That's why if an operation is going to take a long time, it's best to show some kind of spinner icon or progress bar, such as a social networking app loading new posts.


Because mobile users are always on the go, mobile apps need to be able to cope with the fact that users are distracted. Users can wander around an e-commerce site for hours, comparison shopping until they find something they like, but mobile users have a 'get in-get out' mentality. This means that apps should be as simple to use as possible.

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