With mobile users spending more time in apps compared to browsers than ever before, mobile design is a rapidly expanding field. It’s safe to say that if you have any kind of digital product or service, an app may be super beneficial! A well-designed app helps increase user engagement, boosts customer satisfaction, and gives your product extra exposure.
All of these benefits sound amazing, but how do you go about developing your own app? What are the things you need to take into account? How do you create an app that looks and is truly trustworthy?
In this article, you’ll find answers to these and many other questions that will help you navigate the app design process and avoid a whole host of common pitfalls.
Let’s dive right in, shall we?
What Is Mobile Application Design?
“Good design, when it’s done well, becomes invisible. It’s only when it’s done poorly that we notice it.” – Jared Spool
The idea of ‘invisible design’ comes up a lot in discussions around design of all kinds. It means that a user’s experience when using a product should be frictionless—they can get their task done with minimal fuss, without any unexpected behavior or barriers to their progress.
A mobile app designer is responsible for the look and feel of an app. That includes the color scheme, fonts, buttons, layout – basically anything the user sees and interacts with. Applying the concept of invisible design here clearly doesn't mean making your app invisible. It means creating an intuitive experience that feels good and never confuses or frustrates the user.
1. User-Friendliness And Functionality
Effective functionality is the most critical thing in a product. If it doesn’t reliably do what it’s supposed to, you are bound to frustrate your users. And if it works in a way that isn’t intuitive or is difficult for users to understand, that’s not much use either.
A good app knows its purpose, doesn’t try to do too much, and functions exactly as the user expects. It's intuitive and easy for new users to pick up and start using. Simplicity is key—users don’t have time to dig through piles of documentation to figure out how a product works. They want straightforward apps that do their thing with a minimal learning curve.
Every choice that you make when designing an app should be geared towards improving functionality and user-friendliness. However, bear in mind that improving functionality doesn't mean adding more functions; instead, it’s all about making sure that your app does what it does perfectly. Consider doing extensive research before choosing to add more features to an app. Ask yourself if they are really necessary and how they will affect the overall user experience.
2. Appearance And Behavior
How an app looks has a massive impact on how users perceive it. A poorly designed app with an uninviting interface will usually be less popular than one with well-executed design, provided they have the exact same set of features. So, what makes an app pleasing to the eye? In general, a clean, simple layout with a harmonious color scheme.
In addition to looks, it’s critically important that your app’s overall flow is intuitive and seamless to users. Apps have been around long enough now that users have very clear expectations regarding how they should work—think intuitive navigation, gestures like swiping, and hamburger buttons for menus. If an app behaves differently from the user's expectations, it can make the wrong impression.
Another aspect of behavior to think about is feedback. When users take an action like tapping a button, they need to know immediately that the app has registered that action. Feedback can be anything from a sound, to a visual signal like the button briefly changing color, to haptic feedback from the device itself. The important thing is that users aren't left wondering whether the app registered their actions.
Finally, think about notifications. Users hate intrusive notifications, so the fewer your app sends, the better. Keep notifications relevant (ideally tailored to the individual user) and put them out at reasonable times—stick to mornings, afternoon, and early evening and avoid nighttime notifications.
3. Design An App That Can Be Trusted
Most mobile users are aware of data security issues and are keen to keep their information safe. That's why you need to make sure that your users' data is secure. It's vital to do your research—users will simply delete an app they don't trust.
Depending on the type of data your app will collect, there are different routes to take. App security is a pretty complex topic, but don’t let that put you off. There's a wealth of information online and if you break the process down into steps it becomes much easier to grasp.
The Importance of Emotional Connection
No matter how secure an app is, it needs to make people feel good if they are going to keep using it. It might sound far-fetched to talk about emotional bonds in this context, but the fact is we form bonds with pretty much every product that we use. For example, we form emotional bonds with our cars, so why wouldn't we with the apps we use every day? Positive emotional bonds increase feelings of trust in users and make them want to use the app.
Interactive Animations and Micro-interactions
If your app gives users a warm, fuzzy feeling inside or, even better, makes them smile, you have successfully formed a positive emotional bond. People like to have things around them that make them feel good—things that ‘spark joy,’ as Marie Kondo might say.
Interactive animations are a great way to spark joy in users—they literally provide a feel-good dopamine hit. Don't go overboard, though; keep interactions simple and relevant to the task at hand.
4. The Power Of Color Schemes
Color has a crucial role to play in app design. This is because colors affect emotions which, in turn, affect behavior. There has been a lot of research done over the years on the effects of color on human emotions and behavior, so use it to your advantage!
If you're designing an app for a company with an established color scheme, use that. However, if you have a free reign color-wise, think about what you're aiming to achieve with the app and what colors will inspire the emotions you're looking for in your users.
Color scheme trends change over time, so do some research on what trends are hot right now. There is plenty of information out there to help you, and color scheme generators make it simple to pick complementary combinations.
5. Font Selection aka Great Typography
Like color, effective fonts are integral to good app design. You should use fonts that are accessible for as many people as possible—that means simple, clear fonts that are easy on the eye and don’t have too many stylistic flourishes. If you remember the days when pretty much everyone in the world had a MySpace page, you’ll understand the horror of poor font choices. Too many different styles in one place will give your users a headache!
You could choose to have a bespoke font designed for your app, but that's not necessary—there are plenty of free options available. Choose one to three complementary styles and be consistent with how you use them. Bear in mind that not all characters are available in all fonts, so make sure to check that every character you need is included in each of your choices.
6. Button Types To Choose
In app design, we use buttons rather than embedded text links. Buttons are easy to spot and are familiar to users— think of the ‘hamburger’ button that opens a menu in many apps today. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel here—give users what they expect and they’ll thank you for it.
As well as the ubiquitous hamburger button, some commonly used buttons include:
- CTA button: Aims to catch the users' attention get them to take a particular action.
- Text button: An interactive piece of text that adds functionality without distracting from the main elements. For example, tooltips.
- Dropdown button: Opens a menu with several options.
There are many other types of buttons out there, but don't feel like you have to use them all. Like an app, a button has to have a purpose. Users don't like clutter and will be put off by too many buttons. One or two well-placed, sensibly-sized buttons are better than a bewildering screenful, so if in doubt, leave it out.
7. What Widgets To Use
Widgets allow users to access certain functions of an app from their home screen. They make it easy for users to stay engaged with the app and improve the user experience by making it simpler to harness the app's functionality.
As with other aspects of app design, it’s best to keep things simple when using widgets. For apps with one or two functions, it’ll be simple to choose what to include in your widget. If your app does more than a couple of things, you could make a widget for each function so that the user can choose the one with the function they use the most.
There are four main types of widgets:
- Information widgets: Track and provide information about something. Examples include simple clock and weather widgets.
- Control widgets: Allow the user to control the functions of a particular app. For example, to adjust the heating in their home.
- Collection widgets: Display multiple examples of a particular media type and allow users to interact with them. Examples include photo galleries and news site widgets.
- Hybrid widgets: Combine two or more of the other widget types. Many widgets fit into this category; a typical example is music player widgets that allow users to view information about the music and control elements like volume.
8. Know The Platform You’re Designing
You probably know that there are two big players in the mobile OS world – Google with Android and Apple with IOS. If you’re new to app design, you might think that designing for either is pretty much the same. While that would undoubtedly make the job easier, unfortunately, it's not the case. It's vital that you understand the platform you're designing for before working on your app.
Although having your app available on both platforms is ideal, it’s a big ask for new designers. It’s best to choose just one to begin with, and it makes sense to choose the platform your users will most likely use. So, if they're a dedicated Android user, design your app for Android, and if they're more familiar with IOS, design for IOS.
As a user of either OS, they'll understand the conventions users are familiar with. Your app should behave in a way that is consistent with these conventions – an IOS app that acts like an Android app will confuse and irritate users, and vice versa. Thankfully, both Android and IOS have established guidelines to help designers give users what they are looking for.
If you're familiar with both platforms, there are a few other factors that might help you decide which to choose. For example, research suggests that:
- More men than women use Android, and more women than men use IOS.
- Android has more users worldwide.
- Android users tend to work in tech-focused sectors.
- IOS users are more likely to work in the creative, business, and media sectors.
- IOS users tend to make more money.
9. Provide The Best User Experience
Your users’ experience makes the difference between them continuing to use your app or deleting it from their device. Unless your app does something unique that users can’t find elsewhere, you’ll always have competition. Therefore, it's essential to provide the best possible user experience or users will find another app to do the job.
If you consider the factors we've covered in this article, you'll be well on your way to providing a great user experience. The best way to make sure you've got it right, though, is to conduct user testing at each stage of the design and development process. That doesn't have to mean costly testing with hundreds of users. By regularly gathering feedback on design decisions from just a few people (who are not otherwise involved in the project), you'll get plenty of helpful feedback.
Should You Use Templates?
Some designers don’t like to use templates, seeing them as a kind of ‘cheating.’ Other designers love them as they make the process much faster and help produce a product that looks and functions in a similar way to other apps. While you do want your app to stand out, it still has to conform to the conventions that mobile users have come to expect.
Whether you use templates is a personal choice, but here are a few pros and cons to help you decide:
Pros of using templates
- Significantly reduces development time
- Reduces development costs (less time = less money)
- Makes it easier to conform to platform conventions
- Likely to be fully equipped with the functionality you need
Cons of using templates
- Less control over design choices
- Code could have quality issues that aren’t immediately visible
- Can become obsolete if not updated regularly
If you do decide to use templates, avoid the possible pitfalls by getting them from a reputable source.
What To Avoid In Designing A Mobile App
We’ll discuss things to avoid in more detail in another article, but for now, here are a few things to avoid:
Following Web Experiences On Your Mobile App
Apps behave differently from websites and users have different expectations when they use them. What looks great in a browser can look cluttered and anxiety-inducing in an app, so don't try to recreate the web experience. Instead, understand the platform's conventions and give your users what they expect.
Having Intrusive Ads
Users don’t like ads. And yet, many apps rely on ads for revenue. It’s challenging to strike a balance between intrusive ads and those that get ignored, but it's crucial that you do − intrusive ads are a significant reason for users deleting apps. What counts as intrusive? Everyone has their own threshold, but ads that pop up too often, are hard to close, or prevent the app from functioning correctly are guaranteed to turn users off.
Flooding Users With Information
There is always a learning curve involved when users try a new app. But learning shouldn’t be painful, so don’t bombard users with all the information, all at once. Instead, introduce each feature as the user opens it for the first time. Don’t repeat it (no one wants to see the same instructions again and again), but do provide a help section should users need it. Ideally, your app should be so intuitive that only minimal instruction is necessary.
Turn Your Mobile App Design Into Reality
So, now you have an outline of what mobile app design involves, you’re one step closer to designing your dream app. It’s never been easier to get involved in the exciting world of mobile app design, whether you want to take the DIY approach and develop your app yourself or take your design to a professional UI/UX agency.
Abdul has helped over 40 Fortune 500 companies make informed user-centered design decisions through evidence-based user research and UX best practices. As an Adjunct Professor, Abdul has taught in DePaul University’s graduate UX programs and for nine other universities.