Everything You Need to Know about Mobile App Design

In this brief guide, we cover the main aspects of UX/UI design in the process of designing a mobile app for your startup.

Product design
February 3, 2021

Table of Contents

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Learn how mobile app design works with this simple guide covering UI/UX design as well as choosing the best app design tools.

Mobile Internet traffic skyrocketed in recent years, going from just 16.2% in 2013 to 52.2% in 2019! And the trend continues. Last year, there were 1.56 million apps available on the iOS App Store, and a whopping 2.56 million available to Android users from the Google Play Store.

So, if you’re considering whether you need to create a mobile app for your startup, the short answer is: definitely. Of course, don’t assume that a mobile application means an additional source of revenue. In fact, less than  4% of apps aren’t free on Google Play Store, and less than 8% on Apple App Store.

Deciding to go into the app development process should be in line with your overall business strategy. Do diligent market research and plan your budget in advance to make sure that mobile app development is something you’re ready to take on at this point.

If you’ve completed the research and planning phase, it’s time to start on the material design of your app. Let’s dive right into it!  


What is app design?

App designers are in charge of the way the app looks. There are two key elements to this: user interface (UI) and user experience (UX).

User interface refers to means in which the user interacts with the software. In practical terms, UI design is the way an app looks (color scheme, layout, etc).

User experience refers to the emotional response of using software (joy, frustration, etc.).

Note that it’s not the actual functioning of the app is not the job of the app designer. Development teams are the ones responsible for getting the software to work.

What program to use for mobile app design?

Now that we know what app design actually entails, it’s time to consider what design tool you can use to create your mobile application. There are many different app design tools to choose from, so we’re going to give you a quick rundown on some of the top picks.

Here’s a quick rundown on the pros and cons of the most popular software: Sketch, Adobe Experience Design XD, Figma,  Invision and Uxpin.

app design tools.png
  • Sketch: available only for Mac OS; it’s long been considered the ultimate app design tool; some reviews say it’s not the most user-friendly software, but there are plenty of tutorials online.
  • Figma: it’s a web app, meaning you can use it on pretty much all OS; there are three pricing plans, but with the professional (medium) plan young et unlimited projects and up to 2 editors (the highest plan is for bigger teams with 9+ editors); it’s not ideal for very complex projects, as the app is known to freeze.
  • Adobe XD: now considered the industry standard, this drag and drop prototyping software is both powerful and easy to use and can make sharing with collaborators or clients difficult. If you have some knowledge of Adobe Photoshop, you’ll get the ins and outs of Adobe XD in no time.  
  • Invision: this workflow platform offers great options for collaboration since you can share mockups and presentations easily; it’s a drag and drop, but might require a learning curve; it’s good for prototyping, but not wireframing.
  • UXpin: if you want a prototyping, wireframing and testing tool all in one, UXpin could be a good choice for larger professional teams; it’s not the easiest software to use, so not recommended for total beginners; it’s a pricey option, but good for larger teams.

UI Design

Finally, you’re ready to design your app or send the specs over to the app designer of your choice. As we’ve already mentioned, the process of mobile app design involves two key components: UI and UX design.

Although the processes of the two are interlinked, we’ve split them up into key stages for easier understanding.

1. Defining the app strategy

In this part of the design process, you should answer the following question: “What can customers achieve with your app.”

Before you can answer this question adequately, you should of course have a brand and business strategy in place, and from there create the user personas for your app. This is also a moment to consider which common OS your target users most likely have. If your budget doesn’t allow you to develop separate Android and IOS apps, you should probably try to survey any existing or potential customers to figure out which one of these will be a better investment.

Finally, create specific use cases for your app. This means 1 or 2 people who are most obvious/likely to use their app and outlining how they will use it.

2. Roadmap

Before you get new users to engage with your mobile app, you need to be clear on what you want them to achieve by using it.

Creating a roadmap (or UI/UX workflow) simply means outlining the possible steps people might take in using your app to achieve the desired outcome (NB: there doesn’t have to be just one).

3. Wireframes

App design starts with wireframing. In simple terms, this means creating a draft layout for your app UI: how the onboarding steps will be organized (roughly) and which sections in the app you want to have.

It’s not dissimilar to web design, where you think about the pages you want to have and how you want them to be organized.

You can use wireframing software or even create a sketch on paper! Remember that a rule of thumb is that the simpler the app is, the better.

wireframing app design.png
By Rosa Michal via Behance

4. Onboarding

Onboarding is a process of getting new users to understand and use your app long enough so that they don’t stop using it after the first time. This includes understanding the UI elements which aren’t just the basic interface, but using dedicated flows (the whole “process” of using your app, so to speak). The point of a great onboarding process is for users to understand 4 key things: why they need the app; what they can achieve; what are the key features and how to use them.

These are the key elements of the onboarding process.

  • App tutorial: it’s always handy to present users with the possibility to learn how to use the app, although make sure to add the option to skip the tutorial; a mandatory basic tutorial might frustrate more advanced users.
  • Welcome message: this is optional, of course, but it’s a nice way to create a more personalized experience.
  • Customization: people are more likely to use the app if it’s perfectly suited to their needs;
  • Progress bar: a sense of accomplishment is a basic human desire, so a checklist with completed tasks is a good way to ensure users have a positive experience.
  • Instructions: some people might skip the tutorial (whether it’s in the form of a video or another), so you should make sure that information is accessible every step of the way. Provide simple and clear instructions leading users to the next step.
app design onboardin.png

5. Prototyping

When it comes to app design, or indeed any type of creative work, it’s always possible to be better. But in this lengthy and expensive process, getting to the point of minimum viable product (MVP) is critical.

Prototyping is a process where you create your app with the most basic functionalities so that you can understand what the finished product will look and feel like. A prototype won’t tell you what needs to be improved since it’s a very rough draft. Prototyping as early as possible is necessary so that you can find out if your basic app strategy works and make major changes early on.

6. UI Design

Finally, it’s time for the fun part! Just like with any other type of graphic design, key UI elements include color, typography, balance, contrast, etc.

If you've followed the previous steps then giving your UI designer a detailed brief shouldn’t be too hard. Going back to your research and app strategy will also help you decide what works and what doesn’t.

Although the aesthetic appeal is important, it’s definitely not the key feature of good app design. Whether a button is blue or red won’t matter all that much if people are unable to locate it, can’t read the instruction text, or don’t know what the next step will be after clicking the button.

7. App Development

Once you’re happy with the visualization of it all, it’s time to let the mobile app developers take over. You will need to create the so-called UI kit, a file that contains all the components like layered design files, fonts, and, later on, CSS/HTML files.

8. Testing

The final step in application design and development is testing. It’s very rare (and more likely impossible) to get everything perfect in the first try. You need to keep testing your app’s different features and watch out for bugs and glitches that can be fixed sometime down the road.

UX Design

While UI design is a little easier to understand and break down into steps and design guidelines, when it comes to user experience design, things aren’t necessarily as straightforward. After all, no matter how well designed your app experience might be, it’s always possible that an individual user might have a negative emotional response to it.

And yet, to ensure that the odds are in your favor, there are a few key user experience elements that you should consider.

1. Information architecture (IA)

Whereas wireframing gives you the first taste of what you want your interface to look like, information architecture provides a plan on how information should be grouped and presented in the easiest way possible.

The goal is usually to add as much information as possible, so long as it’s relevant to the app strategy. Are the people using your app really interested in the CEO’s personal story? Probably not.

The two basic rules for creating successful information are the following:

  • make it as clear as possible: can someone with no previous knowledge understand it?
  • make it scalable: it’s likely you’ll need to add further info as you go, so make sure that this is possible and easy to do.

2. Interaction design

The saying goes: “Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand.” Well, as cheesy as it sounds, nothing is truer in app design.

Remember that your goal isn’t for people to just download the app on their phone: you want them to use it. An interactive interface design means that from the get-go, they will be asked and encouraged to try out and use the features.

Of course, remember that people won’t interact with it if they can’t predict the outcome. A giant flashing button that says “Pay Now”, before a user has had time to even consider what they’re purchasing would make for terrible UX.

Let users personalize, customize and give feedback.

3. Usability

Usability is probably the most integral part of a great user experience. If your app lets users do what they need to, then you’re doing your job right.

A very important pitfall to avoid here is to rely on what users say they want. There are numerous examples from the SaaS industry and beyond, where customer feedback has led to some tragically unsuccessful products.

Instead, gather data on their actions: how they interact with your website and your mobile application. Then you can figure out which features they’re actually using, or trying to use and make sure that this process is as simple and straightforward as possible.

Additional consideration under the usability umbrella is accessibility. This means making your app accessible to users with disabilities, such as hearing or visual impairments. Don’t let this be a footnote in the app development process, but rather make sure it’s something you take into account from the start.

4. Visual appeal

As opposed to art, design always serves a certain purpose. However, this doesn’t mean it doesn’t or shouldn’t possess an aesthetic value.

If you download an app on your iPhone and see that the app interface looks outdated and glitchy, you’d probably install it right away, thinking it might be a scam of some kind. Adhering to relevant design trends means that you keep your design on par with your competitors, which will in turn make your app seem trustworthy.

That said, it’s never good to be the same as everyone else. This is where you really need to rely on your own branding and make sure that it’s also an integral part of your app design. Use your color scheme, logo and other branding assets across the board to ensure that using your app enforces brand recognition.

Portfolio platforms like Dribbble and Behance are great places to look at work from other UI/UX designers and get inspiration for the look of your own app. Sometimes you might even find free templates of interface designs that you can download for free, such as the bookstore app below.

Closing remarks: should you design for Apple or Android?

We mentioned this briefly at the beginning as a point of common sense, that you ought to decide on whether to create your mobile app for IOS or Android based on which your customers use. If you are able to conduct a survey on this, great, however, this may not always be possible or viable.

So here are a few mobile device stats that might help you make the decision:

So, if your app is focused on ecommerce, definitely start with development for iOS. It’s cheaper, quicker and is likely to be a better investment.

If you’re trying to reach emerging markets (in places like South America and Asia) or want to focus on increasing app downloads, then the extra cost and time of developing an Android app might be worth your while.

We hope you’ve found our guide helpful, in case you’re getting ready to take on mobile application design yourself! However, don’t forget that we have several talented UI/UX designers on our team who can help you with your project! Schedule a demo to find out how it works.

Having lived and studied in London and Berlin, I'm back in native Serbia, working remotely and writing short stories and plays in my free time. With previous experience in the nonprofit sector, I'm currently writing about the universal language of good graphic design. I make mix CDs and my playlists are almost exclusively 1960s.

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