What Great App Design Looks Like

Rob Soulé

Last updated Jul 23, 2019

Design thinking has come of age. People are now more aware of look and feel than ever. Great design is becoming an expectation, and those who provide that in their products and services have a competitive advantage. The same is true with apps specifically.

Today's designers focus on more than just aesthetics and function. They are now considering the emotions people feel when interacting with their product, and how those emotions drive them to take one action over another. The value we see in design is now placed on tackling more complex problems, like the promise of a certain feeling rather than only utility.

This new way of looking at design is a perspective Savvy Apps has believed in for years. It mirrors the changes we've seen and experienced as a forward-thinking creative app agency. App design, in particular, has transformed immensely since Savvy Apps started building apps in 2009. Here's how we see this new way of design thinking impacting app design and the app industry as a whole.

The Establishment of Apps in our Daily Life

Apps are helping change the way the general public thinks of design as a whole. Whether it's Google Maps, Instagram, Uber, Snapchat, or any number of comparable apps, these companies or services are experienced almost entirely through their apps. There's an expectation that they “just work” when someone pulls out their device. People have come to expect, if not demand, that their apps be simple to use, always work, beautiful, and entertaining.

Design for apps also involves more than smartphones and tablets. Apps are in cars, watches, TVs, just about everywhere. And apps are for everyone. The demographics of app users are widening to include more of the public. Teenagers, especially, rely heavily on apps for their daily lives. A Business Insider study revealed that today's teens are getting smartphones at around 11 years of age and are spending about six hours a day on their phones with much of that time spent in apps. Teenagers are turning to apps with simple, focused UI like ooVoo, Snapchat, and WhatsApp to connect with others.

Apps are About Personalization and Human Emotion

Apps are personal. They go beyond function. It's more than just “there's an app for that” and the overwhelming number of alternatives in the app stores. Users personalize their devices, deciding what to download onto them, and even how to arrange the order of the apps on their home screens. They talk to Alexa, ask questions of Siri, and get highly personalized information from Google Now. So it should come as little surprise that app design, like the maturation of design in general, is about appealing to user emotions.

It's the difference between buying a Lexus to get “safe and comfortable transportation in a well-designed high-performance vehicle” to buying the same car to “feel pampered, luxurious, and affluent.”

- Design Thinking Comes of Age

The apps users turn to are an extension of who they are. Those apps represent their idea of their own digital extension or lifestyle. Take Uber's rebranding as an example. We took Uber's change from a “U” to colorful geometry (the shape of which depends on whether the user is a rider or driver) personally because we consider these brands and products our own. They're part of our identity. The apps we choose are used to make a statement about who we are and what we value.

We also see this in the types of digital personas and communities users choose to portray and interact with based on the types of apps they download and use. More people are looking to apps as a way to connect with others. The younger generation is especially attuned to an app's presentation, look, feel, and most importantly, its ability to connect them with others. These separate needs, the ability to form an identity and connect with others, might be why the average teen doesn't use Facebook because they don't feel at home in the community — “I can't be myself on it because my parents and my friends' parents are my Facebook friends” (as one 16-year-old said) — but the average teen does use Facebook Messenger.

Businesses See Apps Increasing Engagement

As great app design helps further humanize design, businesses are increasingly relying on apps to create more emotional connection and engagement with their consumers. They are beginning to use well-designed apps to bridge the gap between utility and human connection.

The Starbucks app is a good example of how businesses are marrying company strategy with the emotion and connection aspects that make up app design. This app reflects the Starbucks brand that consumers are attached to and use in part to define their lifestyle. Users are attracted to Starbucks' presentation, quality, and the branding of Starbucks as a community hub and social spot. Their app encourages users to purchase more through drink customization, simple purchase processing, and gifting options.

Their approach is working. Starbucks makes the case for its app with its own statistics. The company's “mobile payments account for 20% of all in-store transactions in the U.S., more than double the figure Starbucks reported two years ago,” according to a Fortune article.

To achieve great design, you need great business thinking/doing — to *effectively invest* in design — and you need great engineering — to achieve unflagging performance.

- Design in Tech Report 2015

More companies are taking their business strategy to apps. App design to businesses today is about how to communicate their brands and keep their brands consistent across new platforms. It's about taking advantage of different screen sizes, users, contexts, and delights to translate those concerns into one emotional message that ties in with the experience a user gets when they visit a store. It's also about providing a genuine feeling of human connection if there's no store to visit.

Context is Key for a Winning App Experience

Now there is more opportunity to provide valuable connection at critical moments of product and service experiences. New mediums like wearables are more accessible. App experiences continue to expand from smartphones and tablets to watches, TVs, and cars. For example, Starwood Preferred Guests use the hotel's Apple Watch app to unlock their hotel room doors. Stores like Macy's are testing location-based sales using beacon technology. Not only are consumers more open to these sorts of experiences, but there are more opportunities for apps to reach consumers in ways that are more relevant to them.

Our customer FamilySignal even allows families to establish their own contextual alerts. With FamilySignal, for example, parents can create customized geofences that send notifications when children enter or leave school, home, or other locations. This app allows family members to keep track of each other. Children can tap a button to immediately send their location to a parent or an alert to authorities, if need be. This location-based beacon service allows families to determine what is important to them and use the app accordingly.

App Design is Becoming Highly Specialized

With all of this backdrop—and it wasn't always the case—app design has become much more complex and involved. We even consider app design its own discipline. These days we have an enormous number of considerations to think about when designing even a very basic app. We have to contend with all of the different platforms, mediums, and experiences, Human Interface Guidelines from Apple, Material Design from Google, special concerns for wearables, voice capabilities, not to mention all the different guidelines for screen size densities and icon sizes. App design is no longer something anyone can just jump into even if you design for another medium or industry.

Thankfully with the increasing complexity of app design we've seen new tools emerge that tackle the specific needs of app designers. Companies are building entire businesses around better app design as well as enabling designers and product people to create better products. Tools like Sketch, a design program created to address the specific needs of UI designers, are changing the way app designers approach the design process. Prototyping tools like Flinto and Principle, as well as Marvel and InVision are removing the technical barriers of entry for animations and interactions and empowering designers to create connecting experiences in new ways. Another tool changing the way app designers approach their work, Zeplin, simplifies the handover to developers, making sure the vision and life of a design is translated correctly into code.

In a way these new tools are helping give as-of-yet under-recognized concerns in app design a foothold with designers. Accessibility, in particular, has moved beyond the buzzword it was over the past couple of years with new color and contrast tests like Color Safe. These tools are helping app designers realize that accessibility, especially for users with sight disabilities, is no longer an afterthought.

Concluding Note

In general, the gap between poorly designed products and well-designed products is shrinking. There will always be a large gap between great design and “good” design, but in general the bucket of “good” products is getting bigger. In the age when there's almost always more than one way of creating an app, how your app looks, feels, how you speak and appeal to your audience is one of the key factors that sets you apart. App design is now more important than ever to make an app great.

Written By:

Rob Soulé

Rob is Savvy's Creative Director. He loves all things design while trying to not take himself too seriously. When not designing, he can be found banging on some drums or enjoying time with his kids.