Why is it so %$&# Hard to Make an App Easy?!?

The other night my wife and I were cooking dinner. We decided to try using a new app in order to find a new recipe. Unfortunately, this app was so poorly designed that it was practically impossible to use. Anyone could have designed that app better, right? Wrong. It’s hard to design something to be easy to use. And there is a science behind why it's so hard.

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People often imagine that good design is just a matter of common sense. But it's actually incredibly hard to design usable apps. The reason for this is called “The Curse of Knowledge.”¹

When a person creates something, the decisions they make always seem like common sense to themselves. This is because the designer already knows where everything is and how it works. Thus, the app will automatically seem easy to use to the person who made it. Unfortunately, we see The Curse of Knowledge a lot in app design.

Have you ever found functions buried under headings that probably only make sense to the designer? Or have you used apps where frequently needed items are hidden behind several layers of menus? Maybe you've discovered that an app you use has a bunch of other functions that you didn't know about, because it didn't occur to you to try swiping or swirling gestures? Most designers don't have the training required to step out of their personal view and into the users’ shoes, which is where UX comes in.

Making something easy to use is a science and industry called User Experience (UX). It's a discipline backed by millions of dollars of research each year, which is applied to user behavior, tasks, and psychology.


To Design a Killer App, a Company Needs to Invest in User Experience Work

Doing good UX work requires an array of user research techniques, along with a targeted strategy. A common type of user research, for example, is a Usability Test. In a Usability Test, the researcher watches a user try to use the design. The company that made my cooking app would have observed that providing instructions in an inconsistent way leads to frustration when preparing tools and ingredients. There are many other types of user research, and companies need to understand the right use for each approach.

For instance, a Card Sort has users organize the various things that can be found on an app, so you know how people naturally categorize the app’s offerings. Persuasion Research involves deep introspective discussions with users in order to understand the deep emotional needs that drive app usage. Ecosystem Research is where we observe users in their real situations to understand all the people, physical objects, and environments a user is involved in when they're using an app. Ecosystem Research helps to make sure you don’t ask me to tap on a how-to video at the point when my hands are covered with raw chicken.

Companies should use the right User Experience techniques to address the needs they have. So why do companies say "that's just common sense" and fail to invest in User Experience work?

Have you ever seen a young person after they've just watched The Matrix? The movie will often cause them to suddenly flail around like they think they're a Kung Fu master! When it comes to things we don’t understand we’re all a little like that young person.

Scientifically, this is called the Dunning Kruger Effect². When you know nothing about a subject, you feel like you know everything about it. So when a corporate decision-maker looks at the problem of User Experience, they tend to say, "hell, my teenager could design that better." In that moment, the decision-maker is like the Matrix kid trying the moves he saw on a much older and larger person who has experience fighting. The vast majority of the time, for both the Matrix kid and the decision-maker, they're attacking a problem that's bigger than they realize, unaware that the problem they face has them outgunned. UX is even more subject to the Dunning Kruger effect than Kung Fu, because when you look at the finished product it's SUPPOSED to look intuitive.

The company I work for, Human Factors International, focuses exclusively on the User Experience work, and a funny thing often happens when we've just finished a successful UX research and design project. People will look at what we did and say, "Of course that's how it should be! You mean it took money and resources to make it that way?" When you do it right, people tend to assume you didn't do anything at all. It's the intersection of the Curse of Knowledge and the Dunning Kruger Effect.

If you use apps, hopefully this article will give you some pity for the creators of the many apps that didn't invest in UX. If you're part of a design or development shop, I recommend that you do everything you can to promote UX in-house. It needs to be taken seriously as a distinct discipline, and integrated into development, marketing, and graphic design processes. It’s hard to be easy, but it's worth it.


1:Heath, Chip; Dan Heath (2007). Made to Stick. Random House.

2: Kruger, Justin; David Dunning (1999). "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77 (6): 1121–34. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.77.6.1121. PMID 10626367.

Image: flickr, HerryLawford

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Noah Schaffer earned a doctorate on User Experience (UX) in digital games at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He is now an Executive UX Strategist for <a href="http://www.humanfactors.com/home/usability.asp">Human Factors International</a>. Noah has done consulting for Citibank, Standard Bank of South Africa, Research In Motion, REI, Best Buy, Cabela’s, World Bank, and others. He teaches three of HFI’s courses on UX. He also co-edited, <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Game-Usability-Advancing-Player-Experience/dp/0123... Usability: Advancing the Player Experience</a>.