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Lessons Learned from the Field: Planning Mobile App Design

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My role as Director of Professional Services for Appcelerator is, hands-down, one of the coolest jobs in the Valley.  In this role, I have the privilege to assist a huge number of companies at various stages of maturity, from start-ups to Fortune 100 corporations, plan and develop their mobile apps.  For some customers, we are helping to guide them through their very first foray into the mobile world.  With others, we are working with them on their 50th mobile app. 

At both ends of the spectrum, I see teams making the same mistakes as they approach the task of producing a mobile app.  So I’m taking some lessons learned from the hundreds of apps we’ve built, to help those and other development teams build amazing, compelling, user and device centric mobile apps. The following are four items that a development team must keep in mind as they design the mobile app.

Know Where You Are Going

Remember: If you don’t know where you are going, how will you know when you get there?

One of the most important ingredients for any successful app is an idea of the logical layout and navigation of the app. To use a cooking analogy, if you don’t have a recipe, it doesn’t matter how great the ingredients are, the dish won’t work. I see many customers beginning their app design by immediately jumping in with a detailed screen/wireframe layout – this is a mistake, even for simple apps.

The best place to start is with a well-reasoned app flow diagram, or some call it a flow map. Without first having this map, you run the risk of two things:

  1. Your app becoming a never-ending maze of gesture swipes and button pushes.  This is sure to frustrate your users and earn your app embarrassingly low reviews.
  2. Your app containing a lot more screen than necessary. This will cause user fatigue and artificially inflate your development costs.

In the end, skipping this step and going straight for screen design is the fast-path to publishing an app that has a will leave your users dazed and confused. Remember the 3 clicks rule, with every three clicks you lose 50% of your audience’s attention.

“Simple” Costs Less To Develop

Warning: Over designed screens may torpedo your development budget! 

As you begin to layout the detailed design of your screens, stay aware of the complexity of the screen, both visually and functionally.  In other words, the designer should not be the sole decision-maker for functionality. Small elements of functionality, can have surprisingly large development implications.  This could result in the difference of taking a few hours to build, or a few days to build. 

To mitigate this risk, be sure your lead developer/architect is involved very early in the design process.  She will be able to give your design team visibility into areas of the design that can either become costly to implement, or present performance challenges for the app. 

Enumerating these challenges, and potentially eliminating them, early in the process will prevent development surprises and cost overruns in during the project.

Minimize The Learning Curve

Plainly stated: The steeper the learning curve, the worse the user experience

The following graph is one that I love because it’s simple, and gets to the point – much like your app should be.  I often send this chart to customers so they can keep it in front of them as they think about their app design.

Your users will define a good user experience as, “it works just as I would expect it to”.  Those expectations are framed by all of the other apps they have already encountered.

Similarly, your users will experience a very high learning curve for your app if it significantly strays from the user interface guidelines for the platform.  You should make sure that your entire team is intimately familiar with the following guidelines and only deviate from them if it is to make a bold, calculated, statement. 

The more you stray from these guides, the higher the learning curve for your app.

Remember, that the bar that has been set for any app; IPhones, nor an iPads ship with instruction manuals

DO Sweat The Little Things

Think: Nothing does matter!

Don’t forget to account for all the little details that make an app feel polished and responsive.  Things like detailed error messages, a clear strategy for pop-up notifications, when to send the user to the web, back buttons, and my personal favorite – not accounting for landscape versus portrait.   

You can get an app into production without each of these items being clearly defined, however these little things can be the difference between your app receiving 2 star or 5 star reviews. One more thing to remember, for every bad review, there are 100 people who simply delete the app, and that opportunity is gone.

Sum It Up

Remember: Great app idea + Poor Execution = Low rating, loss of user and lost opportunity

Like any software engineering effort, producing a good app requires a lot of careful thought, detailed planning, and the involvement of the right people at the right time.  This can be distilled down to the following four points:

  • Take time to plan
  • Keep your technical team (architect/lead developer) in the loop
  • Get the small details right
  • Adhere to the UI guidelines

The average app costs over 1 million dollars to build and maintain (for a year); you will spend significant additional dollars to help users discover your app. With all of that, you get one shot at getting it right… is your app ready?

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1 Comment

  1. tyler

    So true.. the little details are what will make yours seem totally polished and professional.

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