Navigation design: No longer business as usual

Pressure’s on to create a unique experience, but mobile app navigation is one of those strange areas where it’s better to be a sheep. Developers often run into trouble when they attempt to reinvent the wheel. On the other hand, apps using older “tried-and-true” navigational elements take a beating in app store ratings.

Microsoft learned this lesson the hard way when it released its app on Android. Everything about it was based on the company’s wildly popular, highly rated Hotmail app. Nothing changed but an icon. Users hated it. Why? It was built on Android 2.3. It looked old. It felt old.

All things being equal, apps employing the latest navigational design patterns typically get more downloads and better reviews. The challenge is in staying current. Right now, that means following the latest guidelines in Apple’s iOS 7 Design Resources or Android Developer Library and putting your own spin on the basics.

Users want right-now navigation

Release a new app and users expect it to function like one. Old navigation styles feel unwieldy and make your dev team seem out of touch.

Tricky thing is, users have no interest in learning a new way of doing things. Try to redefine a standard gesture and you’re likely to confuse people. Custom gestures have their place in mobile games, for example, helping to immerse users in the action and make gameplay more fun. But getting back to the main menu shouldn’t be a mystery. If users have to think about how to interact, you haven’t made the interface simple enough.

Choose a direction

Paying attention to users is the best way to know if your custom multifinger gestures or navigation design is right for your app. Read your reviews. Look at your analytics, especially drop-off points. Even set up a simple A/B test if you’re unsure which direction to go.

The one thing to always keep in mind: Dated navigation is toxic to your success. It should never be business as usual.

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