Designing for The Great Outdoors: Solving The UX Challenges of Outdoor App Use

by Patrick Faller

posted on 06-09-2017

As June hits, more of us around the world are getting outside and getting active, and you know we’ll be bringing our favorite devices and apps with us. But what does it actually take to design an app successfully for use outdoors? All of a sudden weather, movement, and completely different use patterns take hold.

Those UX considerations are all of top of mind for Ashley Agellon. She’s the UX designer for RunGo, a mobile voice navigation app designed to take runners and hikers on guided runs and walks. We asked her about some of the unique challenges she faces designing for outdoor use, and asked her to share some of her solutions.

What’s the best way to design an app for outdoor use?

Listen to your users and test with users when they are on the go, outside. Understand and resolve the areas where they struggle and make what they’re ecstatic about gets even better. Simplicity is the key. Get rid of the clutter and display only what is needed when they are performing the activity.

At RunGo, we ran with people who never used the app before, and we watched what they did on short runs and long runs. Use cases were key in identifying outdoor issues and figuring out solutions, as people used the app differently and had different challenges depending on how long they spent outdoors.

What are some of the major UX challenges when users are taking the app outside, and being active?

One of the biggest challenges was wet weather and touch screens, especially with our Apple Watch app.

On the Watch app, everything was tappable. You had to tap whether you want to pause or stop your run navigation. We’re based in Vancouver, Canada, and it rains a lot. The screen often wouldn’t work when you tapped, so the challenge was how can the user continue using the app in these real-world conditions.

We redesigned the UI so you could use the digital crown, the dial on the side of the watch, to stop, pause, or restart your race navigation. Sometimes our users were running for long periods and they’d just want stop for a bit, and pause their time tracking. With Apple Watch, you weren’t able to do that, but we were able to overcome it by rethinking the actual physical interaction and using the digital crown, instead of a touchscreen.

What about more complicated interactions, like interacting with big route maps on a mobile device?

Creating a big route on the fly on a mobile device becomes complicated as we have the ability to add custom voice messages, points of interests, along with the potential large number of turns or the route may include trails a user might make for a given route. We’ve augmented the experience to leverage the web based app for complex mapping as it is hard to create the entire route on your phone.

We knew we needed to make this web app to make it easy to accomplish what you can’t when you’re outside and actually ready to run.

We then made it easy to load these long races on your phone or Apple Watch with one touch. This way, you don’t have to worry about doing it when you just want to get running and conditions make it difficult to plan a route on your touch screen. No one goes outside to just stare at a screen.

What’s your biggest piece of advice for UX designers building an app for the great outdoors?

Keep it simple. We make it very easy to access your routes on the fly. Also, with geolocation, the app just tells you the top three routes in your area so all you have to do is click on the route you want and you’re ready to go.

We also have a simple ‘start run’ button, which is really key. If you just launch the app and press it, you can start running and charting your own course instantly. You won’t have any audio navigation, obviously, but it will tell you the information you’ll likely want to know. You’ll hear the elevation you’re running at, the calories burned, your pace, distance, etc.

This also extends into our social sharing. Designers should make it really easy to interact with social media accounts (in our case, your distance, pace, and elevation can be overlayed when you share the route you ran or a picture). You are be able upload and share on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram with just one click.

All of this came out of our use cases, from looking at our users’ journeys–how they’ll be starting the app and how they’ll be using the app on short or long distance runs, to understanding the features they’ll likely use for each run.

What’s to gain from adjusting to outdoor circumstances and creating a solid user experience?

Well for us, our primary goal is to stop people from getting lost. Audio navigation on their runs is really crucial because if you’re trying to run a certain pace or you don’t want to get lost, our app helps guide you to the next turn. Various maps apps are not accurate with their voice direction, or they lead you to unsafe roads or crossings, so achieving our primary goal by using perfectly timed audio is key.

Beyond that, the end result of our app and other outdoor apps is that the user should enjoy their activity and the scenery when they are on the go. What we develop must be seamless with their activity, with the aim to enhancing their experience outside and complementing their natural surroundings.

You can learn more about RunGo on its website.

Topics: Creative Inspiration & Trends, Design

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