Ten things to Consider when Designing Mobile Applications

Posted on February 20, 2012

Mobile applications are here in a big way, and since they exploded into popularity with Apple’s App Store, their design has become increasingly sophisticated.

Here are ten things that we always take into account when designing applications here at Digital Possibilities:


1. Audience
The most important consideration to bear is that of who the target audience is. Are you designing for children, can they read? Are you designing for a niche audience, say healthcare professionals, with their own language and own set of expectations? In the product management world, a persona is always created of the most typical users so that designs can be made to meet their needs.

In an upcoming application, one of the main attributes of our user persona was that they were short on time, so the whole design, and hence USP of the application was built around achieving their goals in the minimum time frame.


2. Conventions
Different platforms have different conventions, but none more than Apple’s iOS where certain human interface guidelines were put into place from the beginning. These really help the user, because certain key aspects of the user experience is consistent across every single app.

But don’t you want to be original? Yes of course, yet originality has its cost because originality has a price because it is a barrier to successful usage. In most cases it pays to follow the conventions carefully.

Clear is an example of a new application that doesn’t follow conventions and has been specifically built not to. That’s its USP. Yet, on start-up, they feel the need to educate users on how the application works. Apart from this specific case, educating a user on how to use the app would be a sign of a failing experience.

The Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic application is a great example of an app that used existing conventions, but just applied a layer of design to them. The app was more fun and original, but remained really easy to use.


3. Work Flow
What is the work-flow through the application? What is it trying to achieve? What are the different use cases that the application must support? It’s essential to have a clear answer for all of these questions so that the application can be designed to be as effective as possible in enabling the necessarily work flows in a way that’s really easy for the user to understand how to initiate them.
An application may support several different workflows, but it’s really important to understand which are the most important and make those most evident for the user; but provide a logical path into the others that can easily be found.

None of this is obvious, and requires quite some thought and consideration.


4. Graphic Design is a Selling Point
Have a look through the app store for a particular app, and there are probably two or three that could do the job. Which one is best? It’s hard to tell unless you can try them out; but you don’t want to drop $2.99 each time for an application you’ll never use again. That might be less than a Startbucks Latte, but at the end of the day you’d rather have a Latte than an app on your phone you’ll never use again.

So, apart from ratings and description (which takes WAY too much effort to read), how can a potential user decide to buy your application? Through beautiful screens. You can see them on the app store, and a beautiful app on the outside communicates that the app is beautiful on the inside too.

Make sure your graphic design is amazing.


5. White Space
In the West we often have fear of white space or see it as an opportunity to be filled, yet in Japanese Zen arts, white space is often seen as something to be valued. In mobile design white space is very important too. By white space, we mean space that has not been filled with something. It can be any colour or design you wish.

White space is great at putting emphasis on certain information, or a button or another aspect of your design. If everything is too squashed together, the eye cannot see it. Yes, we want everything “above the fold,” but design right and the fold will not matter because yes, people will scroll. Give them white space to understand how valuable your content or workflow is, and they will continue to engage. Confuse them with a marrass of items and they’ll press the home button and move on.


6. Physical Size
How big is your mobile device? It’s easy to think about the difference in size between, say an iPhone and iPad. They are very different form factors and the way in which one would interact with each device is thus very different. It makes sense therefore to design interactions with a smartphone very differently from those of an iPad.

An app may also have a different use case on the iPad than the iPhone. This is true of one of Digital Possibilities’ applications where we consider the tablet application as the “data entry” side and the smartphone as the “data consumption” side.

Also worth noting, when building for Android or Windows Phone, is that there is a vast array of different screen sizes that means that a design has to evolve to all of them. Generally speaking, a screen up to and including 7” would take a phone design, and above 7” would take a tablet design.


7. Number of Taps
Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, home. Tapping is work, and if there is no good need to have someone tap, then don’t. Generally, a user will be happy to tap through a screen structure if it makes sense to them (not to you dear designer). If there are too many useless taps, and it starts feeling like work, the user will stop using the app.

On the other side, don’t cram everything into one page to avoid taps (see the White Space item). It all comes down to balance.


8. Use of Space
How can you balance your apps’ items across the space available to them? Sometimes we want to have everything in one place, because that makes sense, but leaves empty space.

You often see this on the first page of a tablet application, where the designer was not too sure what to put there, and often what is there is lame. But the first page, THE HOME PAGE, is a huge opportunity to sell the benefits of the application and wider benefits of the service.

At Digital Possibilities, we can come with many ideas on how you can use and optimize this space for your users and your commercial objectives.


9. Integrations
How well is your application integrated? Integration can be within the application, sharing data well between different workflows and features of the application. This is oftentimes rather difficult to achieve and to understand how everything can tie together. Moreover, it’s often the hallmark of a well designed application that all the different parts of it just work well coherently together and the user experiences this in a smooth and serene way.

Integrations between different business systems can also be expected by your users and the absence of them can create a vastly reduced user experience. Note that not all of your business systems need to be linked together to your mobile application; that’s why it’s important to understand which of your workflows need to be tied to your mobile application.


10. Fun
Last, but certainly not least, your application should be fun to use. One of the key breakthroughs of the original iPhone was that; contrary to all other existing phones, it was actually fun to use! People came away and said “wow!” Part of that was all the cool animations, certainly, but a lot of that was just a solid consistent and smooth user experience.

So it makes sense to build that first and then think of other fun, but value-adding features that can be added into your application workflows to enhance the user experience.

What other concepts do you feel are important in application design?

Continue the conversation in the comments box below.