Mobile Navigation: Industry & User Perspectives

by on Dec 03, 2014

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 Issue of Consulting Insights.


Apps across the financial services industry continue to grow more powerful. In just the last year, we’ve witnessed the introduction of new research tools and transaction capabilities, from P2P payments to multi-leg options trading. As firms add new capabilities, effective navigation and information architecture become that much more important.

This summer, Corporate Insight turned our attention to this crucial topic, publishing a Mobile Monitor Report on Menu Design & Navigation. We took an in-depth look at 23 leading financial services firms to see how users move through their apps. Rather than simply rely on comparative expert analysis, though, we also performed a usability test to see how successful actual users were when interacting with different menu types and navigational schemes. While it would be impractical to test all 23 firms, we chose several firms that represented different implementations of the major menu and navigation strategies.

When considering how to design an app’s main menu, developers today have two main choices: a slide-out menu or on-screen tabs. There prove to be many ways of implementing these broad types of menu structures, though, and the feedback we collected from actual users revealed design principles to keep in mind for either case.

Competitive Analysis

At the time of our report, 17 firms used slide-out menus for all or some of their apps, and over half had adopted this navigational technique in the last year. Design of these menus varies in many important functional and aesthetic ways, including use of color, iconography, length and organization. In addition to the on-screen button, some app menus can be launched by horizontal swipe, or tapping an Android’s built-in menu button. Such controls are a best practice, making sure clients can access the main menu through multiple commands.

The slide-out menu structure has its advantages, particularly for more complex, feature-rich brokerage apps. Users can load the menu to view a list of app sections or features without navigating away from the current screen. Menus are often scrollable and thus not limited to four or five options the way stationary tab bar menus are. Unlike always-visible menus and links, the only screen real estate they occupy is generally a small menu button in the page header. They are also familiar to users of popular apps outside of the financial services industry like Facebook.

Most of the firms that have switched to slide-out menus have done so from stationary tab bar menus, but about half of the firms Mobile Monitor tracks still rely on tabs for all or some of their apps. Indeed, this menu design is sufficient for many mobile finance apps, particularly in banking and credit cards where there is no need for extensive market research sections. Apps with just four or five main sections can use this design so clients can move easily between areas via ubiquitous links without the extra taps to launch a menu.

Popular tab menu options include accounts, transactions, research and trading, depending on the type of firm. While these are typically the key areas of the app, they do not encompass every-thing a modern mobile finance app offers. In most cases, firms leave their last menu slot for a “More” option, which loads a list of other capabilities requiring just one more navigational step.

Main menus vary widely in design, but fall into two main categories:
slide-outs (e.g., Fidelity at left) and tabs (e.g., Merrill Lynch at right)


Usability Testing Insights

To enrich our analysis of these navigation systems, we designed a comparative usability study pitting two pairs of firms with similar navigation systems against one another. Our goal was not to criticize these individual firms, but rather to highlight user preferences and common usability issues.

For instance, our users overwhelmingly preferred a longer slide-out menu with a larger number of specific options over one with fewer, broader categories. In their experience, the more detailed menu featuring very specific labels made it easier to predict where each link would take them. We asked subjects to rate the overall ease of use and overall intuitiveness of each app they tested, and those numbers supported this feedback as well.

Unlike their traditional desktop website counterparts, mobile applications offer a scaled-down collection of resources that makes bucketing content less necessary. And although some users did point out that a longer menu seemed a bit too extensive, they also stated that the number of options did not have a negative impact on their ability to navigate the app.

When it came to tab menus, redundancy emerged as a positive theme. When asked to find a particular piece of information or tool, some users preferred the tabbed menu, some preferred to return to the “More” menu at the start of each task, and some varied between the two navigation styles based on such factors as their location within the app when they started a task. Regardless, the study participants commented that applications with significant redundancies were intuitive and very easy to use, with one particular subject stating that he felt an app was “dummy proof.”


When deciding between different menu types, considering labels and organization, or making other critical choices, it’s ultimately important to understand the needs and expectations of the end user. Our tests across a variety of firms revealed a clear desire for main menus that were comprehensive, plainly labeled and visually engaging. These principles should guide menu design regardless of the type of app, or its breadth of capabilities.