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When apps first came on the market, it was common to see some poorly designed products. But once smartphones and tablets became commonplace, quality interaction design became the standard for the industry. Successful UI design has almost become a commodity.

People expect clean, efficient user interfaces. It’s becoming critical to develop them just to hold your position in the marketplace. You have to take user interface design seriously, because your competition certainly is.

Want to know what it takes to develop an app with top-quality UI design? Here are the top four must-haves for your next app.

1) Hire a usability specialist

Many smaller companies don’t have a dedicated UI design or human factors professional. In those cases, it falls upon the developer who is building the actual UI code to handle design. Developers are getting better at UI design, but they don’t have the expertise to go into the field and interview users. To understand how well your design actually works, or what users need to do a task really well, you need to go out and talk to the users, observe them using the system, and determine where improvements need to be made.

You need a specialist to conduct surveys, interview users, and perform task analysis to determine what kind of information users need to accomplish a task. All of that data is fed into the system design and requirements.

That’s a role for psychologists, not designers. Programmers need to be able to specialize in their own roles. Their brains need to be fully immersed in the demands of their own work so they can be rockstar programmers.

2) Maintain the right focus

Some UI specialists make the mistake of listening to a user’s explanation of how to improve a design problem. This is not productive. Sessions with a user should avoid any discussion of redesigning the product. You should focus on identifying where the problems are and understanding why they’re a problem.

These evaluation sessions aren’t for redesigning the UI. Design comes later, offline, based on what was discovered during the evaluation. Any improvements a user recommends will almost always not be helpful.

I used to work in rapid prototyping and evaluation of novel control and display systems with test pilots. These are brilliant engineers unto themselves, and some of the best pilots out there. When I interviewed them about a new design, they would sometimes say, “If you would just do X with this equipment, it would be perfect.” I heard it countless times, but experience had shown that this was rarely useful design insight.

However, every once in a while, I would build the change they asked for and show it to them. Every time, they would say, “You know what? Scratch that, I was wrong.” Don’t let the user—no matter who they are—design the solution.

Of course, you don’t want to shut them down. But remember that your purpose is to use their feedback to identify problem areas, reasons for the problems, and anything that might be missing. Redesigning the product is a job for post-analysis, once you’ve identified the issues.

3) Involve usability professionals from the start

To achieve successful UI design, you will want to involve usability professionals from the start. It’s incredibly hard to come into an engineering process late in the game and attempt to address usability issues when the ball is already rolling. You need to be in on the ground floor.

Someone from usability should help define system requirements and help write the proposal. That should be a common practice. When you’re designing a system, address the use cases  from the start: How are the users going to use this product, and to accomplish what tasks? What are the processes that the system needs to support in order to perform at that level? That helps you make sure you’re steering the project in the right direction from day one.

4) Get access to the users

Interviewing actual end users and observing them as they interact with your UI design is critical to ensuring that your app is designed well. But it’s often hard to get access to the people who will use your product. Our clients often aren’t the users—their customers are.

A lot of companies have a favorite customer, or their most helpful customer who is willing to work with them. If you can, get some time with them. But you also need to consider whether they are a representative sample. Also, getting access to their customers might mean you’re impinging on the time of their customers. So be sensitive to that balance.

You may not always get to interact with the specific users, but if you can find someone with a representative background, that can be very helpful as well. Create a user model to understand who the typical user is and what their challenges are, then identify people who fit that model and recruit them for user testing.

High-end UI design isn’t an option if you want to stay at the leading edge of your industry. But with these four steps in place, you’ll have the right ingredients to develop effective interfaces that your users will love.

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