Best practices: What our experience has taught us about mobile app design

Frank Zinghini

Founder & CEO
Internet of things (IOT) mobile app in smart phone for modern ca

A successful mobile app is on the agenda for many companies, as mobile usage continues to rise. While it is true that Americans are spending more time online in general, mobile usage in particular is seeing exponential gains.

US adults were expected to spend an average of 3.3 hours on mobile devices in 2018, representing an increase of more than 11 minutes per day. More than 90 percent of internet time on a smartphone is spent in apps. While most of this time is devoted to the owner’s most-used app, it clearly demonstrates the increasing role mobile apps play in our daily lives.

If you’re building an application, mobile is a top priority. Success begins with well-planned (and properly executed) mobile application design. We could write a whole book on this topic, but let’s focus on the most important elements to consider—the ideas and best practices you simply cannot do without.

Mobile app design: Focus on the process

There is a definite process to good mobile app design. The process can be broken down into two main areas—User Experience (UX) and User Interface (UI) design. While these two terms are often used interchangeably or referred to as the same thing, there are distinctions that should be made.

Mobile application UX design is the magic behind the interface. It happens before work begins on the UI. There are three goals of UX design:

  • To meet the needs and expectations of the end user. These are typically identified through a number of methods, such as user interviews and personas.
  • To create an app that is easy to use. Comfortability improves adoption and user retention rates.
  • To provide a service or fill a need for the user. In other words, why would someone want to use the app? A refined design process creates a better experience for the end user, possibly filling a need the user did not even know they had.

Once the UX has been mapped out, attention can be devoted to the mobile application UI design. UI refers to the aesthetic of the interface.

The goal of UI design is to create an attractive product that supports the brand and will capture the attention of the user. Similar to UX design, an effective UI is user-centric, creating a design that is appropriate for the business and the product.

For example, if you are designing an app for a healthcare company, you wouldn’t choose an elegant-looking design with black and gold lettering. It simply does not match the user expectations for this type of app. A lighter, more inviting feel is more appropriate and in line with what is to be expected.

The UI must also match the intended functionality mapped out in the UX. The goal is to create a timeless look and feel, keeping in mind it should be future-ready, and able to evolve as user needs or expectations change.

One of the great advantages of mobile application UI design is that it can make complex ideas more palatable. You may have a great idea for a product or service, but it needs work before it is intuitive and attractive to end-users. An expert UI design team can bring that idea to life. It can encourage users to actually look favorably on your app when they first see it, and more likely to buy it and use it upon further examination. 

UX design focuses on creating a product that will work well, while the UI design is all about the front-facing element of the app. They do go hand in hand, which is why they are often grouped together.

We have written in greater detail about how to improve your UX and UI design in the past, so let’s move on to some practical takeaways to improve the mobile app design of your next project.

Minimize cognitive load

If you take nothing else away from this article, remember to minimize the cognitive load. We often tend to overload users with information upfront. 

But if an app presents a user with an abundance of information right away, the user will not know where to look first. The average human attention span has decreased to just eight seconds, so you need to capture the user’s attention right away.

Be concise. Present the most important information in one sentence or less, possibly with a banner or some other eye-catching visual.

Do not provide in-depth information on a product or service you might be selling until the person has a chance to decide if they want more details. It is more effective to supply information in bursts, with opportunities for the user to learn more by clicking on a Call To Action (CTA) button.

Capture their attention first. Give them a reason to look more deeply. Be careful how you present information when a user does request more details.

Some apps such as Facebook have even introduced a new mechanism for displaying social content. If the user clicks on an item, a new window does not open. It just gives you a view into the other page, making it easy to leave. The user does not need to worry about losing their place. This is an example of a sound UX decision.

This technique can be applied across other types of app content as well to keep the user comfortable.

Make a good first impression

The first time a user accesses your app is the most important. What they see and feel during their test drive informs their decision around future use.

Avoid mandatory sign-in requirements unless absolutely necessary for security or privacy reasons. The same goes for requiring account setup information. Pestering a user for this right off the bat is a turn-off.

Make navigation simple

If users cannot easily navigate around your app, they will leave. It should not take a user more than a few seconds to figure out how to move around.

Don’t get fancy—stick with basic and commonly used navigation components.

Focus on the user

You cannot put your needs first. Even if you’re building an app for internal use, the user’s needs come first.

Spend time upfront on user research and competitive analysis. Interview potential users and develop a persona. Use this information to create a mobile app design strategy that is dedicated to meeting the user’s needs.

Create an experience

As you consider the user’s needs, it is important to remember their emotions and their motivations. A customer journey map puts the customer first, creating a mobile app interface design that will draw the user in and retain their attention.

Minimize user tasks

Reduce or eliminate tasks that require user effort. If you can pre-populate fields with previously gathered information, do it. The less work the user has to do, the better.

If tasks have multiple steps (entering a good deal of personal information or completing the checkout process), employ staging. Break the process up into smaller tasks rather than asking the user to complete everything on one screen.

Use fonts and colors to your advantage

Bold contrasts in colors make information stand out more prominently and increase readability. The most important information should be displayed in the largest and boldest font.

Use visuals

The illustrative route of designing is becoming more popular. Use images to display and present information rather than text or an overload of content.

Be Agile

We recommend the Agile approach to mobile app design. This allows you to complete work in short sprints, so you can constantly refine the product, improving the design as you go.

Take a holistic, long-term view

Do not just focus on the present issue that needs to be solved. What is the long-term goal of the application?

Why will a user want to use it six months from now? Six years from now? If you cannot answer these questions, it is time to go back to the design board.

A proper and refined mobile app design process requires skilled designers with experience designing mobile applications for various use cases and industries. We have worked with clients across many verticals, designing applications for both internal and external use. The best practices we have gathered over the years can help you get started down the right path toward successful mobile app design on your next project. Design is the first step towards a successful app, we have yet to see a poorly designed app achieve any kind of success in the market.