Bad design is frustrating. Bad app design is infuriating (if you see as many apps each day as I do, anyway – send help).
Designing the aesthetic presentation and user experience of an app is no small task. Seemingly simple design choices have enormous impact on what ends up in the hands of your users.
Will the hamburger menu drop down from the top or should it be swipable from the left? What kind of transitions should you use between sections? What icon is best for the Settings tab? What precise color palette communicates the right message for your unique snowflake of an app? And so one and so forth.
Pro UI/UX designer Liam Spradlin deals with these kind of critical decisions constantly, resulting in some of the most popular and intuitively designed apps on the market today (Focus, Nova Launcher, Allcast, Today Calendar, and more). We scored an interview with him, picking his brains on gathering and acting on user feedback, redesigning apps that are already popular, and designing mobile tools that feature a persistent sense of “fun.”
Last week’s interview: Yarden Tadmor, Founder Of Switch: The Tinder For Jobs
Appszoom: I see you consistently describing Focus’ usability as “fun” for the user. How do you establish this sense of playful lightness in an app?
Liam Spradlin: I would say a big key to Focus‘ overall experience is just the simplicity of the layout and features. We intentionally keep every experience minimal but well-rounded, which may sound cliché – but it’s really a core principle of the app.
When you focus on keeping things simple and light, every opportunity you take for fun interactions (like transitioning tag icons to checkmarks in the selector or showing colorful tag chips in the nav drawer) can stand out and make a bigger impression.
AZ: What do you see devs consistently missing when it comes to fresh, usable app design?
LS: I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of developers that also have pretty good design sense and are in tune with their users, but I would say in general an issue that design faces in the ecosystem is that it’s not always easy to show the concrete value of good design and what actually contributes to a good design.
That said, I think that – particularly on Android – design is becoming a selling point. You can see a real change in downloads or revenue when you release a thoughtful new design, and I think a lot of developers (and product managers, etc) are understanding the importance of design which is great news.
AZ: What popular app grinds your gears in terms of design?
LS: I don’t really want to single out any particular app for its design shortcomings, but what does grind my gears is that too many large companies or social networks don’t take advantage of the platform-specific opportunities Android design offers. Not to say that every app should take advantage of every feature – it depends on the product and the context, but it would be great to see these products take a more platform-aware approach.
Part of this probably has to do with Android update adoption, since a lot of the design tricks that are possible in Lollipop+ weren’t readily available for older versions of the platform until the design support library was announced, but I get the feeling that another part of it is just – as I said before – the hard sell of good, platform-aware design. But I’m optimistic that the tide is turning.
AZ: With a many-featured app like Nova Launcher, how do you keep the UI simple?
LS: One of the most important things to consider when designing for an info-heavy or feature-heavy experience like Nova is the audience, because what feels “simple” depends on the context. Consider both the new user who’s never tried the app and the existing users (or – if it’s a new app – users of similar apps). Find out and try to understand their expectations, what they want the product to do, etc.
With Nova in particular, Kevin Barry (the developer) knows both of these audiences really well, and a huge community of testers helps make the best decisions for the product. Tweaks may debut in alpha or beta, and depending on the feedback, we can fine-tune the experience. So I guess the app as a whole is a kind of a collection of all this knowledge, along with our collective thoughts about the best directions to explore next.
Practical tips on how to read your users’ minds: How To Get Feedback On Your App, Quick And Dirty
AZ: I see a couple “explorations” of various design options in your write-up of Feed Me. Do you do some form of user testing to determine which to use in the end product?
LS: In general yes, I would say user testing and research are extremely important. But with early design explorations there’s tons of material that is cut before it ever gets to users. So the exploration phase (which can happen pretty much any time in the addition of a new feature or new design) happens fairly often and produces a lot of ideas that might be instantly recognizable as not fitting for the product or the experience, or that might make it to a test build, or to a beta release.
Obviously, the further the idea goes toward stable release, the more confidence we have in it, but it’s important not to get too invested in one idea – because even better ideas can come out of feedback and collaboration later.
AZ: When you work on revamping the design of popular apps like Nova Launcher and Today Calendar, how do you balance the updates with the comfort of the pre-established loyal user base?
LS: Design backlash is something I’ve observed and written about before – essentially disturbing or dramatically changing the design and/or experience of a product with an existing userbase is risky. Not everyone will like every change, but change is inevitable and necessary to keep moving forward.
When I wrote about the subject for my personal blog, I researched some popular and highly visible instances of design backlash – specifically YouTube and Facebook, two products that have made major design changes that not everyone was happy with. What I found is that in most cases while the initial introduction went poorly (because it radically changed what users knew and understood), eventually the reaction leveled off as users became accustomed to the new experience and as each product integrated – or not – user feedback into later tweaks.
So I think it’s important to know how and when to introduce changes. Having clear messaging about what’s changing and why, what things are improved, and how things work is critical along with user feedback, but I put a lot of faith in users too. For products like Today and Nova, I get the feeling that users recognize and appreciate thoughtful design decisions, even if they aren’t immediately apparent.
AZ: What apps have you been digging on lately?
LS: My app collection is pretty minimal, but here are a few I’ve been enjoying lately.
Rippple is a Dribbble client that’s currently in beta. Someone invited me to the community on G+ I guess because I use Dribbble, and it’s been fun to keep up with the progress on the app since I haven’t come across a really great Dribbble client for Android before.
Robinhood is a self-guided investment app where you basically transfer money in and then use it to invest in stocks. I like this one not only because it’s fun, but also because they did a really excellent job bringing the experience to Android from iOS. The design is platform-aware, thoughtful, and really polished.
Weather Timeline is a staple on all my Android devices – it’s a really beautiful and simple weather/forecast app. I never expected to actually recommend a weather app to anyone, but this one is really enjoyable to use.
I’ve also been playing with Pixate a lot lately. It’s an app that – in conjunction with its desktop counterpart – helps you prototype designs and interactions. Prototyping tools aren’t quite where I ideally want them to be yet, but it’s great to see so much forward motion on prototyping, because it is definitely a great thing to have in your workflow.
Liam Spradlin is a freelance mobile UI/UX designer, as well as lead designer at touchlab and editor for Android Police. Find out more about his recent projects on his website, give him a poke on Twitter (@liamspradlin) or Google Plus (+LiamSpradlin), check out his design blog (dadapixel.com), and give a listen to his popular podcast (Design Notes).