Offline App Usability Checklist

I started paying attention to offline usability because I was fed up with apps that have really bad offline usability issues.

Living in Toronto, whenever I wanted to use my tablet/cellphone to read something, I am often at a location with no connectivity. For example, I commute daily on TTC Subway and there is no connectivity underground. All food courts I go for lunch have no cell service, either. I get to experience all kinds of good and bad offline support in apps as a result.

When I say 'offline usability', it does not have to be about an app that supports offline mode. Apps with intrinsic online requirements can also have bad offline usability issues (look at the section "Bad Refresh Behaviour"). I would be happy if people read this post and think a bit more about this problem.

Determine the Requirement

You need to determine what needs to work offline versus what does not. There is no point supporting offline mode for something that intrinsically requires connectivity. The requirement highly depends on the kind of application you are building. Here are a few examples:

Email App

Email apps are perhaps the oldest and most mature of all offline capable apps. It has been there since the dial-up days, when always-on connectivity wasn't a common thing.

What data is available offline

Recent emails in Inbox and other specified folders.

What can User do when offline
  • User can view offline emails, and attachments depending on the settings.
  • User can send an email. The email will be saved in Outbox, and the email will be sent when it is online.
  • User can view/delete items in synchronized folders. User can edit items in Drafts and Outbox folder. The action will be propagated to server when it's online.
What settings can User change
  • How much to synchronize: 3 days, 5 days, 2 weeks, a month, and all
  • How often to synchronize: push, every 5 min, ..., once a day, and never
  • What folders to synchronize: Inbox, Outbox, Sent, and other folders

News Reader

What data is available offline

Recent news (e.g., news in the last 24 hours) which is synchronized at some interval.

What can User do when offline
  • User can read recent news. Users can look at images attached to news articles.
  • User can share the link to social networks, which will be sent when online.
What settings can User change
How often to synchronize: every hour, 3 hours, 6 hours, every day, or never.

What not to do

Here is a list of common offline usability issues. This list is not inclusive.

Incomplete Data

The data available offline must be as a whole and useful form regardless of its internal data structure.

For example, consider a Contact app that only caches list of contact names and not their phone numbers because they are in different database table (or whatever reasons). Not only the contact names are useless to the user, it is frustrating to the user because the app gave a false impression that contacts are available offline. Most importantly, the app probably ruined the user's business for the day.

In this case, it would have been better to cache all of user's contacts and its related information. It is very unlikely that the data won't fit on a modern smartphone. In the unlikely case of too many contacts, we could consider a concept of 'favourites' to synchronize.

Unpredictable Caching

Algorithms like MRU (Most Recently Used) may work for many things but it is largely inappropriate for caching offline user data (unless your user research tells you so). People just don't remember a list of things recently accessed. There are simply too many factors in play to guess what the user needs offline.

It is best to have caching rules that are reliable and that humans can easily understand (e.g., none, last n days, all). Obviously, the content should be complete (see the section "Incomplete Data" above).

Bad Refresh Behaviour

This one applies to always-online application as well. Refresh should not invalidate the cache until a successful response has come back.

Here is an example of a bad refresh behaviour on Facebook for Android: One morning, I opened up a friend's long status that I wanted to read but I had to leave for work. So I just turned off the screen of my tablet and got on the subway. The moment I turn on the screen, Facebook's refresh on unlock logic kicks in, and blew up the status I wanted to read.

Another bad example is the Korean news portal Naver (news.naver.com). It does a periodic page refresh through location.reload(). If you lose internet connection for 30 minutes, you will find that all Naver news tabs turn into error pages.

Defying Users' Expectation on Online Requirement

Apps should respect User expectations and mental model on whether particular function should be available offline.

For example, Users will not accept an email app that requires connectivity for writing a new email. Users of an email app expects the app to save the new email and send it whenever the connectivity is restored.

Shazam is a good example of an app that respects this principle. Shazam listens to a song and finds out what the song is for the user. When there is no connectivity, Shazam listens to a song and saves the recorded sound locally. When the connectivity is restored, Shazam sends and tags the saved sound.

Data Loss from Conflict Handling

Losing or overwriting data without user's consent is probably one of the worst things you can do in information systems.

Suppose two users edited a contact, offline. When they come back online, the second save will cause a conflict. It is best if there is a contact merge tool. If there is not one, or if it is too hard to write one, the server could save the second saved contact as a new contact and let the user merge it manually. Just never overwrite the first edit, or lose the second edit.

Conclusion

Designing usable apps for offline use is not easy. You have to decide what needs to be available offline, and how & when to synchronize them. Offline requirements often have huge architectural implications, as well. Therefore, it is important to keep these items in mind at all stages of software development, from design to implementation and maintenance.

Catergorized under: programming

Published: 2013-09-22T19:20:00.000
Last modified: 2015-09-04T01:58:49.045232
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