rom finding a gourmet restaurant to entertaining yourself with fart sounds, “there’s an app for that” is more than an Apple slogan; it’s now a ubiquitous truth.
There are currently more than 200,000 apps registered with Apple, and more are being developed every day, leaving no doubt that they’ll be sticking around for awhile.
To stay on top of the trend, there’s a lot of pressure to get an app developed and out the door quickly. Still, the real challenge isn’t in doing it fast, it’s in doing it well. But what makes an app good?
Is it about fresh, bold design? Or is it about simple, smart usability? The key, it seems, is in creating an app that offers both of these things. And, believe me, that’s no easy task.
On June 24, iStockphoto unveiled an app that lets you search, save and share images and audio directly from your iPhone. You can view and edit your existing lightboxes or create new ones, and it integrates seamlessly with your iStockphoto account so it’s easy to organize images and audio to purchase next time you’re on the site. If you’re a contributor, you can also use the app to track sales and downloads on the move. (Download the iStockphoto app here.)
We’re proud of the end result, but it took several months to get there and it was no cakewalk.
The challenges presented in designing an iPhone app are a lot different than the ones you face when designing a website. You have to consider tighter real estate and bandwidth constraints, and although it can be tempting to go wild and push the envelope, you have to make sure that in doing so you’re not affecting usability.
No matter how pretty it looks on the surface, if the user is confused and frustrated the app isn’t good.
So, again, what does makes an app good? Here are some thoughts from a few designers and developers who have apps on the market right now.
Lucas Allen Buick
CEO of Synthetic, the company responsible for the Hipstamatic app. A favorite among creatives & photographers everywhere who still love analog photos with all its quirky little lenses, various film options and noisy flashes.
Director Mobile Practice Lead at Razorfish.
App: VICEtracker & more
Creative Director, iStockphoto
Chief Technology Officer at Gowalla. Created by Alamofire, Gowalla is a location-based check-in game that gained major popularity this year by opening up its API to developers and being heavily used by 2010 SXSW guests (including a lot of iStock staff).
Owner of Monster Costume Inc., former developer for Tapulous. Tap Tap Revenge, a mobile incarnation of Dance Dance Revolution, was the most downloaded free game app of 2008.
App: Tap Tap Revenge
How do you think your iPhone app balances usability needs with design, or is one more important to you than the other?
Design is very important to us. We obsess over it, rework it, and try to deliver products that we would think are beautifully simple. All of our apps have a pretty strong tie to real life objects or analogies, and we often use that in making design and usability decisions. Our greatest challenge is to blur the line between analog and digital. Hipstamatic could have ended up very different if we just wanted to make retro filters, but it was more about recreating the analog tactile experience of holding and shooting with a camera. We spend a great deal of time thinking about the user’s experience with our apps. Where will people use the app? How will they hold the device? The question we ask most often is, "if this were 'real' how would you interact with it?"
On mobile platforms, usability is key. Before we even began to think about design, we spent a lot of time creating user-flows, wireframes and identifying interactive behaviors. Visual design obviously plays a huge role in that also. I've seen some beautiful apps that just don't function very well. By doing so much work prior to design, we could then focus on what the user sees – knowing that the bones of the app were solid and functional.
One isn't more important than the other. Most agencies developing mobile applications and user experience (UX) are merging and they want to be more visually appealing, but when you're dealing with the time constraints of iPhone users, you have to be concise in every step. ViceTracker, for Bundle.com
, encourages people not to spend or cut back on vice spending. It combines two core sharing functions: that they either held back or gave into their vice. It's an interactive way to extend features beyond the site.
We focused on making sure the menu system and everything was as out of the way as possible so the user can get the experience they wanted. However, that didn't stop us from making sure that the discovery and fun interaction aspects that multi-touch can offer controls was still present.
Both are essential, of course, but usability is fundamental. At Gowalla, we have a rich background in design, and that shows in everything we do. Our vision is to combine smooth usability and refined design to create the best experience possible.
What challenges do you think are presented when designing an iPhone app compared to a website?
First of all, it's a smaller screen. I think it was Blaise Pascal who said, "I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time." It's a lot harder to design features and functionality with the time constraint. Overall, if you are designing an app and you want it to be successful, it needs to tap into the operating system and functionality of the phone. If you're not leveraging the social media sharing with your app, you're missing the point of having an app
Space is absolutely the number one issue. Layout gets affected, the number of taps to get to a feature can be affected, and the amount of information a user can consume at once gets bottlenecked. It's important to let primary interactions and information take center stage as much as possible. That being said, creating a user interface (UI) that makes use of transitions and animations for controls and views can help give the impression that there is more real estate estate to work with than there really is.
Two things come to mind. First is screen size. While incredibly rich, there is far less real estate on iPhone than a website, so it's critical to be thoughtful and selective when designing for the small screen. Second is deployment challenges. Apple's approval is required for every updates or bug-fix on iPhone; on the website we're able deploy changes immediately, so we can be far more iterative and experimental..
The biggest challenge is editing the functionality of the app down to something that will be easy for the first time users, yet rewarding to the advanced users. Creating something on a platform like iPhone is very different, we've designed and build interactive website in the past, but when we tackled the iPhone SDK last Fall it was a whole new set of considerations. User input is extremely limited on a website compared to what you can do on iPhone. We've moved from a keyboard and a mouse to your hands and gesturing. The experience of holding a device and manipulating the actions in the palm of your hand is so new, yet so familiar to us, and apps that take advantage of those technologies will ultimately be the ones that succeed.
It's all in the interactivity of touch. The fundamentals of usability apply across the board, but the iPhone brings a unique challenge in the way people interact with it. Fingers can be clumsy or they can be more refined than a mouse. The challenge when creating an app is how you take that into account. If it's not intuitive or reactive enough, fingers become clumsy tools for navigation. The flip side is when you see an app that has been designed taking the nuances of human contact into account. They become instantly more refined, reactive and usable than any mouse can ever be.
What are the top iPhone design faux pas and why?
The biggest temptation is to cram too much onto one screen. The designer's job is to be an editor, to only include what's most meaningful in each context. This will help people quickly identify what value the app provides and it will be a more seamless experience.
The biggest design mistake for multi-touch devices is treating it like a desktop app, or worse yet, putting the layout in a static format (ie. designed like a magazine). Buttons are used commonly when gestures would do better, and most of the time secondary actions for a given screen are hanging around when they should stay out of the way. Also, keep in mind you're working with multi*touch* apps. Touch being the operative word here. This implies that expectations for the user are that every tap, swipe and shake means something.
Feature bloat & lack of interaction hierarchy are the most common mistakes we see in the app store. If everything in your app is of equal importance and nothing can be hidden, not even a rockstar designer is going to save it.
There are a few. 1) Trying to jam too much onto a screen. Cluttering it with too much information. 2) If the app is "designed so well" that the user has trouble understanding what is a button they can touch and why. It's crucial to understand how to design intuitively throughout the app.
What have you learned from your app users about their design preferences regarding your app?
We’re only a few weeks in but we're listening carefully to all the feedback we've received so far, and we hope to include lots more functionality in future versions.
Multi-touch design requires more interactivity between the UI and the user. A well-designed multi-touch application needs to make the user feel that what they are doing to interact with it has a 1:1 correlation with what's happening on the screen as much as possible.
Many of our users are creative professionals and others aren't, but still have a very high design IQ. Certainly not everyone agrees with our design choices, and that's okay. In the end, we are ultimately designing for ourselves. Nearly everyone on our team has a professional design background, be it from advertising to editorial.
If you bring native iPhone app buttons into the centre it becomes confusing for the user, even if you feel like you're pushing the envelope.s.
What design advice would you have for new iPhone app designers?
New designers should study Apple’s HIG (Human Interface Guidelines)
closely. Eighty percent of the time, Apple has thought about a given problem and solved it in an elegant way.
I recently saw a post on Twitter along the lines of: Hipstamatic success = creating an app that makes the users look good. I think that creating a connection and giving people a way to tell a story is really important in digital media. For us, it was photography and art, but there are great apps for almost anything. Creating an app that generates conversation or lets users accomplish a task are some of my favorite apps. Even the 1,000 farting apps have a purpose even if it is pure entertainment, think about how many times you've seen a whoopee cushion in comedy gags. The challenge is to make yours do it better and the other 999.
Ignore trends and focus on what the application needs to convey. Save labels or descriptive text until the very end of the application development cycle. This will force you to design an application that is intuitive to the user and easier to consume. And keep in mind that we're in golden years of a relatively new form of user interaction. Don't limit your design because it might be too bold or hasn't been done before.
Start simple and build from there. Identify what your primary goal is and build on that. There's a tendency to throw too much into an app and the danger there is that you may end up with an unmanageable beast that doesn't meet anybody's needs. You can always add more functionality in subsequent versions once you have solid user feedback.
Look at what's out there right now and dissect them thoroughly. Find out what works with them and why it works well. Find out what doesn't work and figure out how you would make it better? Designing an app isn't something you can just jump into, you really need to understand the platform and how users will interact with your creation.
If you're going to have sharing components, make sure that it's clear that the content is clearly sharable. Make sure that your users are sure of where they are sending the content and then show them or confirm it for them. You're dealing with a much shorter time constraint in every respect so you have to look at every single way you can shorten the steps, even having Facebook connect can help you shorten the steps.
What do you think are the best-designed parts of your iPhone app and why?
My favorite part of our app is the flash button on the back of the camera. Specifically, the sound of it being charged. It brings people back instantly to their youth. For me, it’s a family vacation and summertime. That is, by far, my favorite part of the app, and the first thing I show to new people I meet.
My favorite part is in Tap Tap Revenge 2. We made the new music banner text pulse slightly when the main menu first loads. This was done to convey that we were pulling down information from the server that is fresh, and that the user should pay attention to it first. It was very slight, but it really helped add a sort of polish to the app. Small rational choices like that really help.
I really like the search results page. You can view all of your results in two ways; square thumbnails or a list view that gives a bit more detail on each image. The file close-ups are also great, with the images filling the screen so you can really look at the details.
What do you think are some really well-designed apps?
Paul: Gilt Groupe
(available in US only), State Farm’s Steer Clear®
, Victoria's Secret All Access
and Rugby Ralph Lauren Make Your Own
Most of my recent favorites are functional and minimalistic: Reeder
and Twitter for iPhone
I'm a big fan of the Epicurous' app
It's clean and to the point. Plus, it makes me hungry. Jamie Oliver
also has a great app (are we seeing a theme here?) with recipes and instructional videos. Again, they've kept that one very simple and easy to use. My current favorite though HAS to be Vuvuzela
, but that's just how I roll.
Phaidon Press has a great app for the iPad called Phaidon Design Classics
, which was a treat to read and use. I also like the new Pulse News Reader for the iPad
. Honestly though, the best designed apps are the ones that are so thought-out you never remember how much you use it. That's why my favorite is still the Mail app.
I really love the UI on iBooks - Apple Inc.
, Calendar Notes, by Apple, especially on the iPad. Their team does an incredible job of capturing a real life analogy and blending it into the new technology.
What do you think about Feast or designing iPhone apps?
Modern Phone Design - Applications for the new Media by pierredesvarre and You've got new mail by 4khz