Top 5 Tips for Great App Design from Kumulos (Backend as a Service)

Here at Kumulos (Backend as a Service), we regularly see all kinds of apps in various states of design. Some are from our ownMobile App Backend customers, some are ones we see during research or just happen to come across on our own devices. However we find them, there’s often discussion about x or y design element and whether it works or not. More often it’s appreciation for an app well made, but every so often we’ll come across something that just doesn’t quite make the cut.

So we decided to give app developers who are having difficulty with design a helping hand and have put together this short list of hints and pointers.

The 5 top tips for app design

1. Plan everything

There you were, sitting in the bath, lying in bed, or getting a drink from the fridge; just minding your own business when suddenly inspiration hits. You see it clearly, an App that could change the world, and it’s all yours.

What you want to do in this situation is immediately start knocking together some preliminary code and start working out how you’re going to iterate all those awesome features you’ve thought of.

What you should be doing is not even going near a piece of code and instead clearly planning out every single piece of your app.

First, work out exactly what your app will do and then try to plan, as simply as possible, how it will do it. Get a clear idea of how to make your app work with the minimum of features and then try to stick to that as much as you can. This will make the initial project less complex, make the rest of the design easier and help to prevent feature creep as you begin building the app.

Remember that there are thousands of mobile devices out there, and most of them are using a different resolution or screen size. Make sure to plan for that and compensate accordingly.

Work out how exactly the user will move through the app. If it helps, make a flowchart to map out visually the paths that users have to take to get to the features and whenever you can, try to take out unneeded steps.  Ideally it should take the user no more than 3 steps to do whatever they want, and if you can make it 2, even better.

Also have a think about what the app is about and how the overall design will reflect that. If it’s an app for, say, taking notes, why not give the whole app the feel of using a Moleskine by using yellowed pages and a leather textured border?

Immersion is part of the charm of an app, bringing the real world into the digital, or making something that looks like it could jump out the phone and exist in the real world and can help people perceive it as being more “valuable”.

2.   Your icon can make or break you

It’s said that most people decide whether they’re going to buy a product within the first 2 seconds of seeing it, and in the app world, your icon is likely their first contact with your app. If your icon is boring or off putting by being too cluttered, you’re going to be losing potential customers before they even know what your app does. It’s also a well known fact by now that Apple have pretty strict rules on what icons they’ll accept on the App Store, so if you’re developing for iOS, you have to bear that in mind.

To key to a good icon is to make it simple, eye catching and in some way tell a customer what the app does. Try to use colours that your app uses and if you can create a unique and interesting symbol for the app, all the better. The idea behind the icons is aside from being the “front” of apps, they are meant to be symbols that stick in people’s minds so that even if they forget the name of your app, they can recognise you again if they go looking or describe it to a friend.

In fact, a good test of an icon is to see if you can describe it clearly to someone who’s not seen it in only a couple of sentences.

3.   Aim for simplicity

Think of the most famous apps out there. Angry Birds, Instagram; what do they have in common? Well, aside from having memorable and instantly recognisable icons (see above), they’re simple. Anyone can pick them up and use them within only a few moments of getting the app, which is part of the reason why they’re so successful.

Their customer base is only limited by how many people own mobile devices, there’s no barrier of entry or need to be technically proficient in anything other than using a touch screen to use these apps.

Now, we’re not saying that you need to “dumb down” your app. You don’t need to cut out functionality or what’s being presented, just keep in mind that the simpler your app is to use and navigate, the wider your customer base will be.

4.     The user is number one

A key thing that many app developers don’t seem to do is work out exactly who their target audience is, and when their app hits it’s a flop because no one really feels like it’s “for them”.

The first thing to bear in mind is who you’re aiming at due to your app’s function. What it does is already tailoring it towards a certain customer base, then you have to take it further.

If you’re making an app that finds good restaurants for instance, you’re probably not aiming at getting teenagers to use it. That’s not to say they won’t, but it’s much more likely that adults are the ones who will want to use it. By recognizing this and tailoring the app to those sensibilities, your core customer base will be more inclined to use your app over someone else who has tried to aim for “everyone”.

Keeping the user in mind also is important when thinking of the functionality of the app. Make sure that it works like the thing it’s meant to be. For example, if you’re making a radio app that has knobs to adjust the volume and tuning, make sure that these knobs use turning gestures and that if you have swipe gestures to move between pages, make sure that they swipe the right way. It’s little things like unintuitive gestures that can put users off of your app.

Overall, you should always try to keep the design as harmonious as possible. Use a consistent colour palette throughout and try to make sure that you only use a couple of easy to read fonts.

Remember you’re designing this app for a mobile device, most likely a smartphone. As we mentioned earlier, you are limited by screen size and resolution. Keep in mind that what looks uncluttered and spacey on a desktop will likely look like a jumbled mess on a phone screen and that buttons that seem like they are well spaced may well be an exercise in frustration if you’ve not made the touch-targets for them big enough. Apple themselves recommend a minimum of 44×44 points on screen for a target.

5.   Test until you drop

This final tip is one of the most crucial. Once you have a working prototype of your app, test it until you hate the sight of it. Go through every possible interaction you can think a user can have with it to find bugs, and when you’re satisfied with that, try to get a small beta testing group together to use the app. It’s likely they’ll find new and more deeply hidden bugs.

If you’re having trouble finding people to test the app on, try not to use your friends and family as they are likely to either be overly critical or overly supportive. University students, especially those in doing computing or technology degrees, are likely to be willing and able testers and they’ll likely do it for a cup of coffee and some pizza.

We also guarantee they will break your app in ways you had never even imagined possible.
It’s recommended that you give the app to a couple of experienced designers if you can, they will be able to give you professional and constructive criticism on your design choices, an extremely valuable thing to have during testing.
After you release your app, always try to reiterate it as user feedback comes in with new bugs and problems that only long term and frequent use can bring up. A realistic goal is to have new versions every few months, and at least every 6 at the very least. No customer will stay long with a product they feel has been abandoned by its creator.

Well, those are our top 5 tips. As you can see, it’s not rocket science, but it does take a certain amount of organization and the ability to clearly plan your project. You can crack on with your front end – let us help you with your backend.

We hope they help you, and if you’ve got any thoughts or design tips of your own, please let us know in the comments below.