Want To Build A Popular App? Focus On The User Experience

Web (and mobile) development is often split into 2 parts: design and development. Design is about how the site or app looks, and development is how it works. But this common misconception has led to a dreadful pile of products that are business failures, and a pain to use.Why?

In this article I’d like to familiarize you with (if not introduce to you) the field of User Experience (UX) Design, which helps anyone looking to build a site or app exponentially improve their chances for success.

Think User, Not Product

The idea that the only two roles in app development are design and development is an extremely product-centered attitude, where the goal is to create a functional app that looks nice, while overlooking the fact that all apps should be built to serve their users.

We do not use apps because they happen to exist, or we’re eager to make Apple wealthier (unless you’re a hardcore Apple fanboy, in which case that’s probably the case). Think of every app you’ve installed on your smartphone of choice, and you will realize that there are specific problems each app solves, or needs it satisfies, or feelings it evokes. We’re after the feelings and solutions, not the app itself. We want to do things (communicate with family, share photos with friends, book cinema tickets, etc), and apps are a convenient tool to achieve these outcomes.

As the old marketing adage goes: people want to buy the hole in the wall, not the drill you’re selling.

User Centered DesignUser experience follows a user-centered approach that makes your target user the focus of your design, development, and decision-making, so that the product you’re building is designed with real-world problems to solve and needs to satisfy.

If the field of user experience design still seems vague to you, you’re not alone. So let’s have a look at some basic principles and practices of user experience design, which you can hopefully apply to a current or future project.

User Experience Basics

The first mental shift you need to make in order to build a user-friendly app is to focus on the user, not the app. Think of a specific kind of user, with specific needs. A student looking for a high school math tutor, or a father looking to book cinema tickets for his family. In UX design, the type of user is referred to as a User Persona that can represent many individuals with shared needs and interests. A “Student” persona doesn’t refer to any one student, but all students.

Your app may serve different kinds of users. In that case you have to identify all the personas you would like your app to serve. Once you identify who your users are, you can move on to consider their needs. Developers tend to think of these as features of the product, but UX designers like to think of them as Use Cases that not only identify what the user can do, but also the context in which the action is taken.

For example, “search for a movie” is a very likely action a user would want to take when booking cinema tickets. But you can also take into consideration the location of the user, and prioritize search results based on cinemas nearest to him, or even categorize the movies by genre (such as Action, Drama, Children’s, etc) if the user is looking for a type of movie, and not a particular movie by name. Use Cases are scenarios of what a user might like to do with your app, and they give much more clarity about how the app will be used than a basic list of features to develop.

With a list of User Personas and Use Cases, you can begin to sketch:

  • What each screen of the app will look like (this is called User Interface Design)
  • What sequence of steps the user will go through to perform the desired action (the Interaction Design)

Good interfaces are clean and simple. Good interactions are short and sweet.

You don’t want your user to stare at 10 buttons he can press on the screen (because that’s confusing and overwhelming), and neither do you want him to go through 10 different screens to perform a single action. Considering the design of apps you enjoy using is a great start, especially if you’re not too familiar with UX principles just yet.While business folk don’t like to admit this, but they often make loads of assumptions about what their users want, rather than go through the trouble of asking them. Since UX prioritizes user satisfaction over business assumptions, it stresses on the need to involve potential users in the development process. There are a variety of ways to do this, each with its own pros and cons. Surveys and discussion groups are common, and can be extremely helpful at the beginning of a project. User Testing – where you observe a user fiddling with a prototype of your app – offers invaluable insights into user expectations and assumptions, which can help refine the app’s design. Seeing a user roll his thumb in search of a button to press is enormously beneficial to realize what his need is in the screen he’s on.

There’s a whole lot more to UX design than what I’ve covered in this article. But by simply introducing User Personas, Use Cases and User Testing in your development workflow you will begin to experience a great deal of clarity, and can serve your users better, so that they’re more likely to continue to use your app and tell their friends about it.

For a more comprehensive primer on UX design that will offer dozens of practical tips you can apply to your own projects, register for Haider’s upcoming webinar: User Experience 101, which will be delivered on Sunday 25 August 2013.


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