Master the Art of App Design

Have you ever used an application that was so intuitive, you hardly had to think? You instinctively knew what to do, without training or ever using the application in the past. What you experienced was the work of a talented user interface (UI) and/or user experience (UX) professional at their best. Looking at these easy-to-use apps you would think that they would be equally as easy to create, but they're not. Contrary to popular belief, creating mobile applications that are built for simplicity is anything but easy.

To be effective, you need to have the right tools to accomplish the task. Everyone has their own creative process that works for them. I won't claim that my way is the best way to create mobile applications, but here are the tools and techniques that work for me.

Keep it simple

In mobile applications, it comes down to how easy a task can be performed and how quickly that task can be completed. Mobile users tend to use apps in short bursts with a defined goal in mind. So, start simple and ask real users what they want in the app.

Speed sketch your ideas

In the initial stages of application design, work as quickly as you can by using the right tools. I use a pencil and paper because it helps me avoid being distracted by details. Don't get me wrong, details can make the difference between a successful and unsuccessful app. But too many details lead to delays. Don't waste your time this early in the process on things that will probably change.

Just say no!

Once you have your basic ideas down, your default answer to any suggested new feature should be, "No!" I'm not saying you need to shout people down. Be honest and explain why you're saying no. People tend to be more understanding when you take the time to explain your reasoning. Bottom line: You should make it hard to add new features.

Open up to others

Early and often, show your work to developers, team members, friends, and end users. The feedback you get will minimize time spent heading down the wrong path. In addition, the insights you collect will help make the next iteration of your app better. Remember: Keep it lean, keep deliverables light, and eliminate waste.

Embrace change

Changes to your original ideas are bound to happen, and some ideas may be scrapped entirely. This is why I prefer the "speed sketch" technique. With a minimal investment in sketching, there is no significant cost to completely rethinking the direction of the application. My advice: Be ready to pivot the design of your application when new information presents itself.

Create a screen tree

As soon as I have a screen sketched, I attach it to the wall to create a screen tree. With the sketch on the wall, I can now tie multiple screens together into flows by stretching yarn between each of the screens to show what happens with each interaction. This makes it easier for others to see how the application works and in turn, encourages feedback from others.

Document less

When communicating with the development team, my goal is to produce as little documentation as possible. Instead, I encourage the team to visit the screen tree on a regular basis and take part in the discussions and demonstrations that take place around them. Everything that the development team needs to know about the application exists on the wall. As for those documents that are absolutely required, they are placed in a folder attached to the wall next to the screen tree.

Mastering the art of application design

To be successful, focus on the experiences that you're creating and approach the design in a way that acknowledges the strengths and unique advantages of the device and platform you're targeting. We are in a unique and exciting time, and quite possibly the beginnings of the next major shift in application design. Get in on the ground floor, and get to work on that next killer app.

7 Steps to a better and more successful app
July-August 2011
Creating Apps
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