The 5 UX Constraints of Mobile Apps (& How You Can Work Around Them)


The chances that any new app will break into the top 1000 are effectively 0% says Alex Austin, the CEO of Branch.

While the top apps in the app store are basking in their top spots, most companies are struggling to engage and retain their users on mobile devices.

It’s not for a lack of trying. There are understandable concerns about the broken app discovery and distribution problem. That is, it’s incredibly hard to get users to download your app. 

But what often happens instead is that mobile products fail to compensate for the many constraints that come with the platforms. So this week on the Appcues blog, I’m going to dig into the 5 biggest user experience design constraints that every mobile product needs to overcome, starting with the most important:

1. Client-Side Storage

The average app loses 77% of its users within 3 days. Within 90 days, they’ve lost over 95% of those users. Startling, isn’t it?


This means that users are opening apps, trying them out for a short period of time, then subsequently deleting them. Why? Most users simply don’t have enough storage on their phones to download all the apps they want.


One of the major constraints of mobile apps is that the app data sits client side rather than server side like on web (think Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, etc.). That means that every time a user downloads an app, they lose ~23mb (on average) of storage.

22% users report running out of space on their smartphones at least once a month (Ondevice research).


Since most iPhone are of the cheapest 16GB variety and Apple seems unlikely to change, this is a big problem. Given the introduction of live photos, 4k video, high quality audio, and larger and larger apps, 16GB simply isn't enough storage.

When this happens, users often have to make a quick decision. They have to delete the question becomes, is your app more important to your users than a family video, favorite song, or selfie at the beach?


To combat this, product owners have to make their apps a habit: a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.

The key being “hard to give up.”

On mobile, frequency of use is far more important than perceived utility.

I might be alone on this, but I consider ride-hailing apps like Lyft and Uber of a very high utility. They help me get where I want to go, without the need to drive. However, I only find myself using these services about once every 2 months.

Furthermore, downloading the app only takes me 20-30 seconds. I just open up the app store, type in Lyft, and 10 seconds later, I can open the app. The infrequent use for me means they’re the first things to go when I’m running low on storage.

The key to building a mobile habit comes down to frequency. Do users engage with your app often enough to deserve a precious spot on their phones? New apps in the travel industry like HipmunkHitlist, or Hopper, have capitalized heavily on this, creating features that display future trips to re-engage users on a regular basis.


2. Small Screen Sizes and Clunky Controls

Even as screen sizes become larger and larger, the overall mobile experience is still not an optimal method for reading or accomplishing tasks. “Mobile screens are smaller: reading through a peephole increases cognitive load and makes it about twice as hard to understand.” - Jakob Nielsen, Web Utility Consultant. 

In addition, the controls and keyboards on smartphones can be particularly difficult to use. According to Foolproof UX, 56% of users said they had not signed up for an app or mobile service because the registration process was too time consuming. Though autocorrect can help...sometimes. Other times it ends up like this:


As a result, there’s often much more strain on the user, oftentimes enough for them to disengage. That’s not even mentioning the fact that their environments are far from ideal.

When it comes to mobile UX, focus on eliminating friction. This comes in many forms including re-structuring your information architecture, designing UIs around mobile thumb zonesdecreasing the amount of clicks checkouts, and making mobile logins less of a pain.


3 .Environments Full of Distractions

Mobile users are much more prone to dropping off than their web counterparts. Phones are often used in non-work settings, whereas personal computers are more commonly used in workspaces such as coffee shops, home offices, and at work. This means there are a host of possible distractions in a busy world, causing them to disengage.


Even if they intend to return later, users often forget and never come back, deleting the app after weeks without use. Once users drop off, you need to have a strategy for bringing them back into your app. That’s why creating both strong internal and supplemental external triggers are critical.

4. Making Any Update Is Incredibly Hard

“Shipping mobile software is inherently different than shipping web software--the stakes are higher.” - Christian Legnitto, Release Manager at Facebook

Making even the tiniest of changes in a mobile app is incredibly hard. Most teams already know that shipping even a small change takes an average of 7 days to be approved by Apple. Furthermore, because the data sits client side, users have to go in and download those updates manually.




Average app store review times

If changes don’t perform as expected (driving wrong user behaviors, introducing bugs, etc.), fixing the issue immediately is out of the question. Instead, you’ll have to wait for an additional review process and slow user adoption.

That’s why release management is so important. At Lyft, Twitter, VSCO, and Facebook, mobile teams are using continuous delivery models and feature flagging their changes to ensure that they can deploy on their terms, toggling features and changes on and off at will.

5. Broken Data Passing

You’d think something as simple as passing data would be a non-issue for most tech these days. It’s incredibly simple on desktop, but on mobile, it can become a complicated task.

Take Yelp for example. If I do a search on mobile web, I’m prompted to install the app. This sends me to the app store. Once I download the app, I’m taken back to the home screen where I have to redo the search all over again.









This is because no contextual data is passed through the app install process. Instead, whatever information you’ve learned about the user gets lost and you’ll have to capture it all over again. As a result, developers have been looking into different solutions like deep linking to overcome this hurdle.

Constraints Can Be Catalysts

On mobile, there are a lot of constraints to overcome, but as we’ve seen, constraints can actually make you more creative. While on mobile you’ll have to deal with small screen sizes, limited storage and connectivity, distractions, and app stores they’ll also force your team to create better products. 


Apptimize is a mobile optimization solution that allows mobile teams to iterate and innovate rapidly without having to wait for App or Play Store approvals.

Kendrick is a content writer at Apptimize writing about mobile product, growth, and UX. Ask him about his cow.

Kendrick is on the retention team at Dropbox. Kendrick was a content writer at Apptimize writing about mobile product, growth, and UX. Ask him about his cow.

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