App Designer14 Jun 2014
##TL;DR Mobile apps are fun. I got to design my first one. Prototyping is essential. Mr. Developer is your friend. Go download it.
##Full Story So if you want to read the whole story, this may take a while. Lets start with the wide view. The mobile movement is no longer new. I’ve been a smartphone user since the original iPhone and remember things before the AppStore. Fast forward six years and smart devices are essential part of our lives. We check our notifications before getting out of bed. We track calories, photoblog our lunch, and book vacations with our thumbs. We replace any idle moments with brain challenging puzzlers and streaming cat cuteness.
Mobile apps are big business and I have been waiting to get in the game for some time. In the meantime I pushed my web projects toward mobile using responsive sites and web apps. This got me in the mobile realm and confirmed I liked the benefits and quirks of the small screen. I even went to meetings about projects I wasn’t on, just to soak in more mobile. So yea, I may have been a little too excited when I was drafted to lead design on a brand new app earlier this year.
I got to start fresh and design a brand new app from the ground up. The subject matter, home finance, had several strong entries from our competitors, so we weren’t going to innovate on the core functions, like payment calculators. Testing their examples gave us a clear starting point. It was easy to see what we liked and what was lacking. Our strategy was feature parity, plus some extra value sprinkled in. After matching our competitors with affordability and monthly payment calculators and rate search, we discovered an opportunity to guide our users beyond calculating numbers and into discovery mode through connections to our existing powerhouse home search apps. It’s the perfect transition for the user who is looking to see what they can afford. Why stop at the generic calculator results when we can help them take the next logical step and apply their freshly calculated budget to a real home search in their location.
Prototypes for the win
I wrote about some new tools that really made a difference in the concept phase. Getting my early sketches into an interactive on-device prototype proved to be monumentally beneficial. I started with stripped down greyscale wireframes of a few screens, to compare two different navigation approaches. The prototype expressed the flow in a way that would never be as clear on static art board, plus its interactions mimicked the interactions the final app would have. It seems like a no-brainer to design in a medium that best matches reality, but there has been a gap that has opened recently between what UX designers create with mockups, and whats actually possible in the final experience. More prototyping tools than I can list have been created to fill this critical gap. The gap is compounded in mobile design, but even desktop web design shouldn’t stop at a pixel perfect mockup. There is so much expressed in the subtle interactions, quick transitions, and device context that is beyond the canvas of design software. These elements have been called micro interactions and they are now a big part of how an experience is designed on the web and in apps. That’s a whole topic I may expand upon later but for now my point is prototyping is an essential part of my design process.
Knowing your platform is critical. As a daily user of iOS, I had that in the bag, but I also had to dive into Android culture and begin to understand the differences that were appropriate for each specific platform. Potential mistakes were avoided by seeking advice from Android specialists on the team as well as getting personal with it myself.
Unless they’re a so-called unicorn, who can design AND develop, a designer will have to communicate their vision to developer(s). Designers and developers are separate for a reason, their jobs take different skill sets. One person rarely contains both. So an open and clear route of communication between the two parties is very important. The sooner they start talking and the better they collaborate, the smoother the process and the better the end product will be. Prototypes are a great help since they are mimicking the end product, a developer can clearly see how the design should look and behave. As we moved through development I learned to frequently check-in so I could provide clarity when needed. Developers provided frequent code builds for me to test on real smartphones and tablets, again benefiting from using the app realistically to find flaws or preemptively clarify aspects of the design. In the heat of the effort, daily stand-ups encouraged the team to remain in sync and raise concerns before they became larger issues. Several sessions of sitting side-by-side provided the shortest loop between code changes and design adjustments when it came down to fine details.
At this point you may expect a tale about scope creep or a technology hurdle, but fortunately neither surprised us this time. A few adjustments were made on the fly without spoiling anyone’s fun. I was grateful to avoid common project pitfalls.
Soon the fateful day came and our baby entered the reality of the app stores. I was excited, yet nervous. Soon validation came in a wave of downloads and 5 star reviews. We’re not resting on laurels, work has started on the next iteration. Why stop? I’m ready for more.
Try it now
Then send me your feedback.
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