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UI/UX best practices: How to make an app people want to use

You can spend all day explaining an app design feature to someone. Or you can just show it to them, and either they’ll get what you’ve tried to do or they won’t. 

That’s how you judge if a user interface (UI) or user experience (UX) design works well or not, says Vog App Developers’ Lead Designer, Ethan Livingstone. “If the user experience isn’t clear enough, people start getting lost immediately.” 

And he knows what he’s talking about — Ethan was the first person hired at our digital product development company and has seen it all, through hundreds of custom software and app projects.

As part of our digital product development series where we interview and talk to business, design, and technology leaders, I reached out to Ethan to get his thoughts on trends in app design for this article. 

As he explained, there are some key principles you just can’t budge on, and there are some secrets to how the best-in-class apps function. 

By the way, if you’re wondering how important UI/UX is to the success or failure of a digital product, just take a look at the stats:

  • Upside: Forrester Research found that frictionless UX design can increase customer conversion rates by up to 400%.
  • Downside: 62% of people who have a negative mobile experience are unlikely to make a purchase from that brand in the future, according to Google.

What’s new in app design?

Minimalism and white space are back in, Ethan says. 

“A lot of new apps that I’m seeing, especially coin trading apps or investment banking, tend to give out a lot of whitespace.” 

He describes more subtlety now too, in the contrast between foreground and background elements.

What’s missing? Drop shadows. They are in a digital grave somewhere along with the font Comic Sans.

Colour plays a big role in mobile apps, and designers will use colour contrast to help prevent eye strain, and put focus on specific elements of the user interface.

Colour is one of Ethan’s favourite UI/UX discussions.

“Maybe the foreground is white and the background is a little bit greyish,” Ethan says, describing a common look in apps on the market right now. “There’s no shadow to differentiate those two. Or you just outline what the foreground object should be.”

Dark mode on mobile devices can also change what you need to do for design.

“We usually take one page like the homepage that has the most stuff going on, and we transition it to a dark mode. That’s when we decide what the light colours and dark colours are going to be,” Ethan says. “Usually it includes taking the main brand colour and changing it up a bit — usually lightening it up — because a blue colour will look completely different on a white background versus a dark background. You do have to lighten it up a touch so it looks normal. It may not be the exact same hex code or value of that colour, but it looks similar because that’s what my eyes are telling me.”

One of the biggest influencers in mobile design trends are Google and Apple themselves. Their app store requirements can drive design preference — or mandate it — and the mobile apps each company makes for their own products and services tend to set some of the standards in what all apps ultimately look and feel like.

“You want people’s devices to have a certain kind of consistency,” he says. “If something looks drastically different. It can confuse people a lot.”

Hardware also has an influence, as manufacturers have released products of all different sizes that can play a role in how an app looks and feels.

For Ethan, the practical and logical question is of paramount importance: “How are we going to interpret what we need to communicate on a different sized screen?” 

That screen could be a mobile phone, a tablet, a smartwatch or another kind of wearable. All present a unique user experience and user interface.

What’s classic and shouldn’t be messed with?

First up, communication is key, says Ethan. But he’s not referring to communication in the form of text. 

Much of what he’s talking about is visualization and layout. There’s a visual hierarchy that should always be adhered to, from the effective use of buttons — that are almost always the brand colour — to titles that are properly sized in comparison with supporting context elements, to colour contrasts that are complementary. 

“I will not budge on contrast,” he says. Even if a client wants two colours to overlap, if they just don’t work together, it’s a no-go. 

Colours choice in UI/UX is incredibly important and when you get it right, you can increase brand recognition by up to 80%.

There are also just human interface guidelines required by Apple and Google that have to be followed, and there are now familiar app interfaces that people have become accustomed to.

Ethan points to the fact that titles on screens need to be bigger, and the supporting context needs to be smaller “because that’s how humans read things.”

Designers are required to understand, to a degree, the subconscious of how people think and interact with the world around them, he continues. They have to draw on experience and testing to figure out what captures a user’s attention and encourages them to interact with app features.

Ethan shares an example: “If I want to delete an object, the delete button isn’t in my face — it’s a little bit more subtle, and I have to take a second to look for it. But if I’m confirming an action, like a payment, the payment button is going to be big — it’s going to be right in my view.” 

Those design choices are intentional.

When it comes to actually communicating text, he has a basic rule of thumb: less is more. “If you need to explain something in text, it needs to be short and concise. A sentence or even a couple of well-placed words work better than a paragraph.”

The secret to the best-designed apps

One of the most important elements of UI/UX is the need to design for physical interaction with a digital device, Ethan says. He’s always asking himself questions like:

  • How is a user going to interact with this? 
  • How does this feature need to move? 
  • How can someone get from point A to point B in the fewest amount of interactions possible? 
  • But how do I also give them all the information that they need? 

“The best designed apps are very clear on what they’re getting the user to do. And I don’t feel like I have to sit there and spend five minutes learning how to use a new piece of technology,” he says.

So the best approach to building a good app is to make it dead simple to use. Don’t try and do everything, or be all things to all people. He likens a phone to a tool belt, and each app is a single tool that’s used for a very specific purpose. 

“I don’t think ‘man, I love this app. It’s really great’,” he says. “People only tend to think about an app when they hate it. But when people really like something, they just use it.”

For more insight on digital product development, dive into Vog App Developers’ content series.


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