Built.io Blog

STOP, in the name of love, before your app design breaks my heart


Think it over

There’s a saying—popular especially in the tech industry—that encourages new ideas to ‘fail early and fail often.’ It’s good advice, when applied correctly.

Learning lessons quickly and applying them to iterative design and development cycles is a great thing, and I encourage this. In fact, those who are willing to let go of their personal convictions in favor of letting their customers be their teachers, often end up building the most successful products.

The problem with this saying, however, is that if not applied wisely, it can have the unfortunate effect of running your product or company into the ground very quickly. And this trap is equally dangerous for startups as it is for enterprise developers.

So, how does one fail incorrectly?

Well, it all starts with an idea; your amazing idea. It’s great, it really is. You’ve thought long and hard about how much your users will benefit from your offering, how they will become hyper engaged with your brand or community, and then happily generate revenue for you. You’re motivated, excited, and anxious to begin. So, with this great idea and business plan in tow, you head out to enlist the services of a development company to build your app.

But, of course, you don’t want just a proof-of-concept. You’re not looking for a simple MVP release. And why would you waste your limited budget on months of design just to get to an interactive wireframe demo you can’t immediately monetize? After all, you’ve been thinking about this for months. You know what you want; it’s robust, it’s complex, and it’s perfect only in its full-featured glory. You’re going to launch your vision no matter what, and if it’s got some bugs, well, “fail early, fail often,” they say.  You’ll iterate later.

Wrong. By then you’ve failed too late.

Iterate first. Iterate before development. Iterate before design! Doubt your idea. Trust me, your app will thank you.

Too often we see brilliant people with revolutionary ideas (and I’m not being sarcastic here) trying to dive into full-on product development too fast and too soon, only to discover a range of unexpected challenges and hidden costs. Some believe it’s possible to skip the design phase entirely in favor of coding up building blocks. If you’re inventing technology no one has ever seen before, go for it. Make sure the stuff works before you try packaging it up and selling it. But most people aren’t inventing the Tardis. On the whole, these building blocks already exist.  What makes your product special is how you put those elements together, how those elements solve the most important problems for your customers, and how joyful and natural your app is to use. Those are the elements that will make your product successful.  And that is design.  

Design is a lot more than just the colors you choose and where a button is placed on a page. Design starts with understanding your market, your customers, your area of expertise, and your secret sauce. All of that comes before you even begin the wireframing process.

Iterative design, before you design

Before you try sketching out what your app will look like, stop. Step back and ask yourself these crucial questions:

What does it do?

Make a list of everything your app should accomplish. Write down every single bit of functionality, no matter how big or how small. Will it require a login? Write it down. Will it deliver kittens and cupcakes mid-workday to cuddle-deprived hipster techies? On the list!

How? Again?

Got your list? Ok, good. Now revisit every (yes I mean every) item on your list and ask “how?”  Then ask “how” again. For example:

  • A user will login. Ok, how? Registration through your server? Ok, how does that work?  Does it exist? Should you integrate with Facebook or Google instead? In addition?
  • Kittens & cupcakes ordered how? Via what mode of transportation?

Does it really need this?

Now that you understand not only what you intend to accomplish but how it can be done, revisit your beautifully detailed list and cut it in half. Yes, in half. It’s pretty likely that after your two rounds of ‘how’ questions, you’ve now realized that your app is actually about 3 times more complex than you originally thought.

Do they really need this?

How do you know that your idea is so great? Have your customers (or potential customers) told you? If not, go ask them. Take that nice lean list of features and find out if anyone other than you really wants them. You may discover that you’re right on the money. But 95% of the time you’ll discover that your market actually wants something a bit different than you thought. That’s ok.  Fail early, fail often, remember?Now is the time to do that. Fix your answers. Repeat.

Which way do we go, George?

Success! You’ve arrived at a concept that is lean, well researched and that directly addresses your market demand. Now you’re ready to dive into the more tangible stage of application design. The first step is to create a flowchart that maps out each screen of your application, including where the user-triggered or data-triggered decision points happen. If you did a good job asking the what and how questions, this should flow fairly naturally. If you run into a lot of stumbling blocks here, it’s ok. Go back to your lists and figure out what you missed or misunderstood. This is another safe place to fail and iterate. You’ll save yourself a lot of time and money down the road if you get this step right. This is your roadmap for UX and engineering; survey the terrain so you don’t drive your baby off a cliff.

Is this thing on?  

With your roadmap in place you can now, finally, begin the wireframing process. This is a very important step. This is where you bring in the joy factor and get your customers hooked. Ease of use means it’s easy for your users to do what you want them to do. If the user intuitively knows how to command your app and the design is so fluid that people enjoy using it, then you’ve won. But getting there takes time and testing. Nobody - not even the world’s leading designers - get it right on the first shot. Anyone who claims otherwise is lying to you.  Don’t lie to yourself.

Remember the part about learning from your customers? By this stage of the process you know your product so intimately that you won’t be able to reliably evaluate its usability. It’s crucial to put your wireframes in front of your users. Ideally you will create an interactive mockup using tools like Invision or Marvel.  Go ahead, push buttons, see if you can get your app all worked up. Did you find any opportunities to fail here? Did it break? Did you forget about some screens? Are your users lost, confused or annoyed? Great!  Fix it here, before they can give you a 1-star rating in the app store.

You purty, huh?

Now that you’re ready to add some style to your step, be sure to keep a mirror handy. What’s your brand identity? Should your product match your company brand or have a look entirely it’s own? Do your personal or corporate aesthetic preferences truly match with the preferences of your target market? You’d be amazed at the drastic market performance difference that color and style can make upon two otherwise functionally identical applications.

The Pay Off

It most probably took a few months to get from ideation to the end of the wireframing phase. When you finally get to develop and launch your app, you’ll appreciate the value of all the preliminary design work that you put into it. You’ll see much higher adoption, approval and retention ratings. KPIs and revenue streams will have stronger performance opportunities. And your likelihood of having to re-scope or rebuild functionality due to poor planning should be nearly non-existent. First impressions are everything. Don’t break our hearts, or your own, by rushing out the door. Take the time to explore, learn and iterate before and during the design phase, and you’ll be poised for a winning first launch.

Enlisting the experts

Let’s face it, designing a quality application isn’t easy. Thankfully, you don’t have to go it alone. It’s very common, in fact encouraged, to enlist the help of application design experts to help guide you through this process. In fact you’ll probably need multiple experts before your app is launched: information architects, user research specialists, UI/UX designers, graphic artists, engineers, quality assurance specialists, project managers, marketing gurus, and more.

It’s OK if you’re not a jack-of-all-trades. We’re not, and we don’t pretend to be. At raw engineering, we leverage our internal application design and development experience while partnering with experts in UI/UX and graphic design whose wide range of talents complement our own. This is how we deliver best-in-class application development solutions every step of the way.

Contact us today, and tell us about your application design challenge.  Our experts are ready to partner for your success.

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