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Mobile app developers get a lot of guidance from Apple on how to create applications that will adhere to their best practices, get the most out of Apple technology, and get the highest ratings (and therefore placement) in Apple’s app store. The instructions, known as the Human Interface Guidelines, or HIG for short, are a constant source of planning, inspiration and limitation for developers. Ryan Bell, of UX Magazine, recently wrote an insightful article describing the love-hate relationship between developers and Apple’s HIG, while offering four great guidelines for new mobile app development.

Bell describes the issues between developers and Apple’s HIG, “Bringing up the HIG in a group of app designers tends to invite strong reactions. Some treat it as gospel, while others think it’s inflexible and outdated in light of UX developments on other mobile platforms. Some apps have largely abandoned the standard widgets and conventions defined in the HIG in favor of more unique, cutting-edge designs (something games have done almost from day one). Philosophical debates aside, when it’s time to design and build an iPhone or iPod Touch app, it’s important to understand the practical options that are available.” To understand the options, Bell created the following four guidelines:

1. Follow the mental model

“Rather than letting HIG patterns (especially whichever ones you’re most familiar with) dictate the organization of your app,” writes Bell, “do some work upfront to identify the concepts you’ll be presenting and think about how they can be structured logically. Having a strong conceptual model will allow you to figure out where various HIG patterns make sense. Use those patterns to weave an experience that reinforces the development of a clear mental model in the minds your users.”

To best understand your conceptual model, Bell suggests asking what sort of items, or objects, your app users will deal with, how those objects relate to one another, and what actions are possible with each object through the app. Once these questions are answered, putting them in a diagram will help you see clearly and form the basis for your UX design.

“This process is important to any design effort,” says Bell, “but the presence of the HIG and its pre-made navigation components can sometimes deceive people into thinking they can skip this kind of problem solving. Without going through this exercise, you’re unlikely to succeed in crafting a great user experience.”

2. Remember that chains don’t push well

A familiar problem with Apple app development is relying too much on the push transition (sliding between screens with a left-to-right motion.) Bell cites psychological studies that show people’s working memories can only account for four to seven items. If you’re relying on more screens than that, you’re probably creating an app that will create a bad user experience.

3. Dig deep in the context toolbox

Bell explains, “One of the criticisms leveled against the iPhone HIG is that it doesn’t provide much in the way of contextual shortcuts for acting on the current screen or content. While it’s true that iOS standards lack the “context menu” and “action bar menu” concepts that Android has, there are actually a number of components available out-of-the-box that can help you provide quick, contextual shortcuts for your users to blaze their own navigation path through your app.” For good design and increased context, Bell suggests considering:

  • Detail disclosure or info buttons

  • Toolbars

  • Action sheets

  • Activity views, or an

  • Edit menu

4. Watch for the INCOMING!

Good user experience design anticipates every possible start point for the user experience. Bell writes, “A good test of whether or not your UX design is sufficiently flexible is to evaluate possible external events that could affect the state of your app’s interface. It may be tempting to stop at a design for the obvious path, where someone launches your app from the home screen and initiates everything that happens from there, but in reality, things don’t always work this way.” Keeping this flexibility in mind is a great way to get the most out of Apple’s HIG.

“Only you can prevent inflexible UX,” warns Bell. The key to maintaining a vibrant digital strategy and building apps that work great on Apple devices comes from innovation mixed with a healthy respect for Apple’s detailed HIG.

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