How To Design an App: Your Step-by-Step Guide

App design is one of the most important things to invest in when a business decides to go mobile. We’ve become used to apps that are incredibly user friendly and intuitive, and researchers say that it takes as little as 500 milliseconds for someone to decide whether they want to stay on a screen. That means that your app design could be the difference between your business gaining a customer or losing one. 

With around 1,500 apps being added to the Google Play store every day, making an app that stands out from the rest is no simple feat. However, designing an intuitive app that has exceptional UX and UI is totally achievable with the right team and proper guidance. Here’s our step-by-step guide to designing a successful app, from the first etchings of your idea to the big launch.

Step 1: Spark the Idea

The first step in creating a successful app is identifying a tangible problem your app will solve. Maybe you’re a retail business with customers that want to shop online while they’re on the go, or a restaurant that takes a lot of online orders and wants to streamline its processes. In both cases, an app would help to solve a real life problem that customers have. To put it simply, an app will only have value if it’s something your customers need

With this, it's important to have a clear idea of who your target audience are. Who wants the solution that you’re presenting? Once you have identified these two things, you can move on to competitive analysis and market research. 

Take a deep dive into your competitors' successes and failures, and make detailed notes on what worked and what didn’t. This will help you to decipher which functions will be crucial for your app, and what should be avoided. 

Next, it’s time to properly carve out your concept and vision. It’s important to have a clear definition of what your app’s core value and unique features will be. What are the underlying goals of your app and how will your app add value to its users' lives? Your market research can help with this, as you can assess what will differentiate your app from the rest.

When we worked with the recruitment firm Gigl, we had a clear idea of what the app was trying to achieve and the problems they were trying to solve. Thanks to this, we had a clear target audience of Gen Z job candidates which informed our design process.

Step 2: Craft the User Experience

1 in 2 apps are uninstalled within the first month of being downloaded. Nobody wants to use an app that’s impossible to navigate and an eye-sore to boot. If you don’t invest in crafting your user experience, chances are your app will become part of the unlucky 50%. 

The first step to crafting a great user experience is information architecture. You’ll need to plan the app’s structure, navigation and information flow in a way that will make life as simple as possible for your users. Map out your app’s platform compatibility, data storage capabilities and security protocols. Once you’ve got a clear idea of these functions, you can move on to the fun stuff — creating your Minimum Viable Product (MVP). 

Creating a UX wireframe will give you a rough layout of your app. Whether it's a render from a digital wireframing tool or a rough sketch on a scrap of paper, this initial wireframe will give you a visual understanding of your app’s features. With wireframe sketches, you can create an interactive prototype to test user flow. This will give you a better idea of how users interact with your app, and is also important to give clients and stakeholders an idea of the look and feel of the app. 

Having established the UX functions of your app, you can move on to user interface design. This is our favourite part. At this stage, you’ll define the key visual elements of your app, from buttons and images to animation and branding, and ensure that user interaction is as intuitive as possible. Successful UI should offer intuitive navigation options and aesthetically pleasing visuals for its users. 

User interface is the front end of your app and will form a foundation for usability and functionality to be built, so take your time to make sure that you’re thoroughly testing your processes and design.

When we were sketching out the user flow for Flown, our approach saw us comparing the features on offer from other community web apps to highlight user pinch points. We used this as a springboard to plan an intuitive, inclusive UI that would avoid the obstacles that caused friction when navigating other platforms.

Step 3: Building the Foundation

With your UX and UI idealised, you can begin building the technical foundations of your app. 

Begin by choosing the development path your app needs. Consider what will suit your app's functions best – there’s native app development, hybrid apps or low-code solutions. Each method has its own pros and cons so it's worth consulting an app design agency to help you decide what's best for your business. We have years of experience in consulting with our clients on these decisions, and know first-hand that there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to app development. 

Now you’re ready to bring in the software engineers: front-end developers for UX and UI, and back-end developers for behind-the-scenes functionality. UX and UI specialists can be fully integrated into your development team to take care of the front-end usability and graphic design. Back-end software developers can help you flesh out technical features like your app’s necessary functionalities, integrations and performance needs. 

Don’t forget data security and privacy at this stage either. For your app to have any credibility you’ll need to implement robust measures to protect user information. Your users will have sensitive information on their phones and to prevent any data leak scandals, make your app’s security protocols as advanced as possible. 

When we worked with the tax refund company WeVAT, we embedded one of our best product designers into their existing framework to work alongside their development team. Targeting the Chinese market added a twist. We needed the design to be multilingual and the UI flawless. Speed, ease, and efficiency were paramount. Our goal: transforming a cumbersome, traditional form process into a streamlined, automated experience.

Step 4: Refining & Polishing

You’re nearly there. This stage is all about ironing out any small problems that might have been missed in the previous stages. 

Take your app to some guinea pigs for usability testing. This is the best way to gather feedback from real users to refine the design and user experience. Quality assurance is a crucial part of developing a successful app and rigorous testing is the best way to spot glitches you’ve previously missed. 

Put their feedback into practice with iterative development. You should be continuously improving the app based on user feedback and data analysis, and make it the best it can be before launch. Consider the testing results for device compatibility, app integration, installation and storage. 

Pre-launch you’ll need to be preparing your app for Apple’s App Store and Google Play submission. You should also have a firm marketing strategy in place for maximising exposure on launch date.

Once you have completed all of these steps, you should be ready for launch. Double check the regulations that your app might need to follow before being uploaded (different app stores have different requirements), and go ahead and launch.

Explicit, in-depth user testing is paramount when dealing with new products and markets that aren’t yet completely understood by the public. So, when we partnered with crypto wallet brand Zeal to streamline their feature set, we conducted plenty of iterative usability testing.

Other Considerations

Common mistakes

Designing an app is not a straightforward process. One of the biggest mistakes you can make during development is not having a clear idea of the problem your app is solving. In other words, not identifying the need for it. This is why thorough market research is so important throughout the app design process – to identify whether users actually need your app. 

Another crucial mistake is not having the right team. App development is the wild west, and there are a fair amount of product design cowboys out there who will charge you a premium and fail to do your idea justice. That’s why we pride ourselves on our digital product design team who help businesses across the globe bring their apps to life. 

Cost Considerations 

Again, there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to app design. The cost of your app will depend on a variety of factors including the size of your team, the resources used, out-sourcing development and other overhead costs. While it can be pricey, you will reap the rewards of investing in an experienced team that will take the time to understand your vision.

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