Building a great user experience for your app

On December 9, 2010

Expectations for a good user experience in mobile apps is higher than ever. Apple has set the bar high with their built-in apps on the iPhone and iPad, and many independent developers have followed suit to deliver the best user experience possible. The astronomical download numbers of these apps are poof positive that good UX is a main ingredient in App Store success.

Great user experiences doesn’t just happen by opening up Xcode and dragging some design builder elements over. It takes a conscious effort throughout every stage of the design and development process to get it right.

Here’s a few tips you can try that will help you achieve a great user experience in your app:

Design your app’s flow BEFORE you open Photoshop, Xcode, or your text editor of choice

Sketch out how your app will flow from point A to point B, and include all the “what-if” scenarios.  Doing this up front will allow you to realize and fix your design mistakes by copying, pasting, and deleting. Having an “oh crap” moment too late in the game could cost you a lot of time re-coding, or a lot of downloads because you settled for less. Have those “oh crap” moments early.

Don’t be afraid to iterate. Ask yourself: “Is there another way this could be done?” Sketch them all out and choose the best.

Google Drawings is a great free tool for sketching out flows, and there’s even mobile wireframe stencils available to expedite the process.

To give you an idea, here’s an example of a flow for a simple movie ticket app that I made using Illustrator and an iPhone Fireworks stencil:

Having a good blueprint for your app will help make the design and development process flow efficiently, and your user experience will be better for it.

Minimize learning curve

Part of how I define a good user experience is having an app work just like I’d expect it to, even if it’s my first time using it. Expectations are set by all the other apps we’ve already used, and is the lens that we view all new apps through. The better that apps as a whole follow UI standards, the better the overall experience of the device.

Study and know the user interface guidelines for the platform you’re building for. Both iOS and Android have excellent guidelines. They are the holy grail of app user experience.

Every time you stray from these guidelines, you pile on additional learning curve (aka, frustration) to your app. Only stray from the guidelines if doing so pays off in exceptional gains of time or productivity. Just know that you’re selling a piece of your app’s soul for it.

Less learning curve = better user experience.
Better user experience = more word of mouth.
More word of mouth = more exposure and downloads.

Watch people use your app

Hand 8 people your app, watch them use it, and shut up. Keywords here are “watch” and “shut up”. You will be tempted to show them something, or interrupt them to point out what they’re doing wrong. When you do that, you learn nothing. By shutting up and watching, you see how your actual customers experience your app. Tell them that you wont help them up front, but have them explain what they’re thinking out loud as they go through it.

Watch them get frustrated, observe how they overcome problems. Are they getting stuck but quickly figuring it out, or do they just give up? Once you watch a few people use your app, you’ll see patterns and the solution will become clear.

Doing this exercise will humble you and prove your assumptions wrong. Once people can use your app to accomplish their goal quickly with minimal issues, you’re well on your way to a great user experience.

Keep your app simple, brah (KYASB)

Solve your customer’s problems in as few steps as possible, but that doesn’t mean cram everything on one screen. Think of your app as a set of tasks (dare i say wizard?) that leads up to the end result.

Each of those tasks should have its own screen in your app, and there should be as few tasks as absolutely necessary. Remove anything that doesn’t directly aid in completing the task at hand.People love being led down a simple path. Guide them like they are your children, and you’ll have yourself a great user experience.

Cory Shaw is the founder of User Kind, a Hawaii based user experience design company, and creator of AppifyWP, one of the most elegant themes for app developers.