The way we all consume content has changed dramatically over the last few years. Desktop internet usage is falling, while mobile usage is rising sharply. The average U.S. user now spends more than five hours per day on a mobile device, and there are millions of applications in the app stores vying for people’s attention. So, to design for a small screen, stand out, draw in users and keep them engaged, designers need to consider many factors.  

In this article, we’ll discuss foundational app design guidelines, including basic do’s and don’ts, and go through the steps it takes to bring your app idea to life. It’s worth noting that app design is closely linked to UX and UI design and tends to focus on native mobile applications (for example, for iOS and Android), but also covers hybrid apps and mobile web apps. Hybrid apps use web technologies but are housed in a native shell and have access to a device’s built-in capabilities, while mobile web apps are basically websites optimized for mobile.

App design guidelines 

There are many do’s and don’ts when designing an app. Apple, for example, recommends creating a layout that fits the screen of an iOS device, so that users can see primary content without having to zoom or scroll horizontally.

It’s also a best practice to do away with unnecessary clutter, minimize cognitive load, and to simplify the functionality, as the app needs to be easy to handle. Prioritize your content and get rid of images, buttons, and text that you don’t really need on mobile. 

Other do’s include always designing with the user in mind, keeping content consistent, and making sure your app also works for basic users (with a low spec device/on a slow network). 

Don’ts, meanwhile, include not aligning with the design style from another operating system (as each has its own distinct style), making users wait for content (for example by displaying a pop-up while the app is loading), and using a complicated sign-up process. 

App design breakdown

So what steps do you need to go through to turn an idea into reality and create a successful app? Consider the following process, and you’re well on your way. 

Set a goal

Get out a pen and paper and write down what exactly you want your app to do, what problem it’s going to solve, how you are going to make it appeal to users, how it will set itself apart from the competition, if it actually fits your budget, and how you will market it. Keep the document to refer back to it throughout the process. 

Make a plan and write out a spec

Once you’re happy with your idea, you need to write down what your app will do and how you will accomplish it. It’ll help keep everybody on the same page, so have a good think about what you want to include. The spec can be very light or include a complete breakdown, listing functional and non-functional requirements, but you should keep it short and concise.

Dig deep into research

This part is absolutely essential. The app market is massive, and you need to extensively research your niche as well as your competitors. Analyze the apps that already exist in the space you’re targeting, read their reviews, and start looking around for design ideas. Also conduct user research to uncover what your audience will want and need from the app.

Create a wireframe

Next, you need to create a structure and visual representation of the user interface. You can wireframe with just a pen and paper to define the flow of the app (for example, the sign-up process or where a button will lead the user). But as your wireframes become more complex, it’s worth using a tool that enables you to test and navigate through the screens you’ve planned.  

Build a prototype

Now it’s time to create a stripped-down version of your app to test your hypotheses and get early feedback from stakeholders and users. Prototypes can vary in functionality, but will always save you time and money, as they help you iterate and tweak features and designs quickly. They also allow designers and developers to collaborate more closely. 

Visual and UI design 

The prototyping, design, and development steps often run alongside each other. When you design the app, you think about the actual look of it, while keeping the user in mind at all times. Decide on color schemes and typography, try out animations and make sure they’re functional, explore UI kits, and test different versions of your design. 

Development

When you’re ready to code the functional side of your app, designers and developers should work hand in hand to assess how to implement the design. The developers will recommend what kind of tools and libraries can be used to build the app, and this step also includes setting up the actual storage solutions, databases, APIs, and servers for the backend of your app.

Testing and iterating

Before you launch your app, rigorously test it and make adjustments based on the results. Go through your initial documents and test every feature. Ensure there aren’t any bugs and that the app works smoothly and as expected. Conduct all kinds of different tests, use online tools, and  also involve real users. This step should continue when your app is already out in the wild. 

The foundation of good app design

Apps continue to be a massive market. In 2018 app downloads reached almost 200 billion, and in the first quarter of 2019 there were around 2.6 million Android and 2.2 million iOS apps. And that doesn’t even account for the many hybrid and mobile web apps. 

So, it’s noisy and competitive but the good news is that there are a ton of app design guidelines, tools, and resources out there to help everyone build apps — whatever the budget. We’ve only scratched the surface in this article, but stick to the best practices and the key steps of the app design process and you’ll have a solid foundation for building beautiful user-friendly apps.