Despite there now being over 4 million apps on the market worldwide, many app designs are severely lacking in the imagination department. It doesn’t help that both Apple and Google produce lengthy, prescriptive ‘guidelines’ on how app interfaces on their platforms should be produced.

While these are important in terms of explaining to designers how they can make their apps fit comfortably within certain smartphone operating systems, they don’t really get to the bottom of what makes an app interface good—not least what makes an app interface unique, innovative, or inspired.

So what does it actually take to make an app interface design, well, good?

Digital building blocks

Keep things self-explanatory

Many designers today misinterpret ‘simple’ design as ‘minimalist’ design. This can actually lead to designs which, while minimal, are not simple or self-explanatory by any means (even if they look it.) So what do we mean by keeping things simple?

Simple means a first-time user can open the app and start using it without having to read through directions or follow a guide. It means that they can complete simple tasks in very few steps, or in situations where more steps are required, it is still straightforward,” argues Callum Chapman in design shack.

This might mean going for obvious solutions in some cases (Callum gives the example of keeping delete buttons red), but in terms of usability, it’s often the obvious solutions that are the best. If you cut out unnecessary hurdles to usability and nail your obvious solutions to the mast, you’ve already overcome the main hurdle to good UI design. Look at the most popular apps on the market. Instagram’s interface is made up of five buttons and a few scroll menus—it’s simple, and that’s why it works. Nobody wants to read a manual, so don’t make them.

Standing out, not sticking out

One of the major challenges of good UI design is striking a fine balance between fitting in with the operating system at hand while still standing out. You might be wondering whether you should try and do something entirely new, or stick with the OS’ interface design guidelines.

Look, let’s be clear here. The people who will be downloading your app are used to using the same phone operating system, the same menus, and the same gestures day-in, day-out. As revolutionary as that new touch-free gesture might be, your app is not going to be a useful app if its interface is radically different from that which users are used to (with the exception of mobile games, for which custom menus and the like are often necessary).

Making your app stand out while abiding to the norms of smartphone interaction is one of the biggest challenges app designers face—so try approaching Apple and Google’s interface guidelines like a designer should. See what works for your specification, keep it, and disregard the stuff that doesn’t. These guidelines don’t have to be prescriptive, and can be the building blocks for your UI if approached in the right way.

Break down information into bite-sized chunks

Image of Transplant Hero app, designed to remind transplant patients to take their medication.

We’ve discussed infographics in the past, and I think they offer a great model for presenting and formatting information within an app’s interface. They capitalise on the human evolutionary tendency towards visual learning by breaking down complex information into small visual chunks. It’s a great way to flex your graphic design muscles and makes information-heavy apps a joy to use.

Just take a look at Transplant Hero, an alarm app created for transplant patients by doctors to help them remember to take their medication. It breaks up the day’s medication into different coloured bubbles, which display the time and dosages required. Users can simply scroll through the bubbles to see what dosages are required later in the day, and the app even gamifies this process by rewarding users with hearts and stars. It’s a really simple way of splitting up long, difficult to remember information. A lot of the best apps do this well: representing information and data in an attractive, memorable, and quickly comprehensible way.

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