Before I discovered technology, movies were my first love.
I remember sitting in a dark theatre, absorbed by the story on the screen, yet suddenly aware that the filmmaker was manipulating my feelings.
The audience would laugh, cry, scream or gasp, depending on which emotional triggers were pulled — and that’s exactly why we were there.
We wanted to be transported; to take an emotional journey through images and sound.
I chased this feeling into a four-year film career. I worked on movies like Transformers 3. I even got to meet some movie stars and film makers, which was honestly really cool. But that’s a story for another time. We’re here to talk about apps.
Digital products might not have the same drama as film, but they can deeply affect how you feel, and how you interact with the world. I believe in their potential.
As a designer, I’m passionate about creating the right user experience. A great product should take you on a journey. It should feel seamless, clear, and fun.
If you’re nodding your head in agreement, that’s great. Most entrepreneurs know that design is critical. Here’s what they don’t know:
How to get out of the way
Let me repeat. They don’t know how to step back and let the designers, User Experience (UX) and User Interface (UI) pros do their jobs, which is ultimately in a founder’s best interest.
Function over fashion
Most entrepreneurs are smart.
They’ve got great ideas and awesome instincts, but when it comes to mobile design, they get hung up on the beauty of an application, not the functionality.
They want to talk about their favorite colors and shapes and graphics.
Those elements matter, but not as much as you might think — and they shouldn’t come into play until the app is nearly complete.
User experience is so much more than design. In fact, UX is less about graphics and aesthetics and almost all about research.
It’s closely tied to business analytics and developing a journey that will delight the end user. After all, an idea is just an idea until it’s validated by real customers.
A brief history of UX
Before we talk strategies, let’s step back a few decades.
User Experience (or UX) stems from a ‘90s-era philosophy called Human Centred Design (HCD), which proposes that digital interfaces should allow anyone to operate or interact intuitively with a new technology.
The philosophy was developed in response to the rise of heavy machinery and early consumer technologies. Think about controlling a device with a lever, for example, or operating a microwave.
As technology evolved into laptops, tablets and sophisticated mobile devices, a new subset of HCD emerged, called User-Centred Design, which we know today as UX.
While HCD works for society as a whole, UX targets specific people or groups.
UX designers identify a niche audience and design specifically for that user. Snapchat was not created for my parents, but it does work brilliantly for the millennials who have adopted the app by the millions.
Niche design sounds like a simple premise, but it’s exactly where (and why) entrepreneurs get into trouble.
Designing an experience has absolutely nothing to do with your own preferences.
It doesn’t matter if you love the color red if users don’t respond to it — and that’s where the disconnect occurs.
It’s also why research is critical throughout the development process.
Unless you’re designing, developing and coding your own product, it’s important to equip your UX team for success.
I’ve collaborated with many different entrepreneurs through my role at Appster, and I’ve seen what works — and what can put your startup at risk. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way.
1. Clarify and communicate your top business goal
Yes, you want to succeed and make money. Many founders sincerely want to help people, too. In the near term, though, what are you trying to achieve? Do you want to:
- Retain every user who downloads and opens your app?
- Collect emails from all interested customers and users?
- Get a high percentage of users to reach a critical action point — such as registering for an account?
If you understand what’s most important for your business, we can help you get there. A true UX pro knows what works and has the research to prove it.
For example, if you want to boost downloads, don’t put up early gates. Let people jump in and play with your app. Allow them to explore.
Once they’re dependent on it, you’re in a good position to collect email addresses or pitch a premium-level service.
You’ve heard a lot about onboarding — and for good reason.
The onboarding experience can make or break your product. Asking people to create a login and password just to play a game, for example, would be a terrible idea.
If security is paramount to the app, though, it would be essential. A smooth onboarding process that aligns with your business goals AND the user’s needs will set you up for success.
2. Trust industry expertise and objective research
Imagine you’re creating a dating app. Taking on the big guns like Tinder and Bumble would not be an easy task.
Those are the household names of digital dating, but a quick search of the App Store shows that there are many, many other contenders.
In a crowded market, your brand would need to stand out. That means no muted colors or soft, subtle designs.
The UX would need to pull young daters (if that’s who you were targeting) away from all the proven apps. It would need to be different.
Despite the rise of Millennial Pink in everything from shoes to book covers to paint colors, I know that a new dating brand would demand bold aesthetics, because this is my profession.
I study the research, market analysis, and for a recent project, I participated in focus group sessions with target users who told me exactly what they wanted.
Trust the professionals, not your own preferences.
3. Let architecture lead the way
I know I’ve repeatedly referenced color and form, but application architecture does the heavy lifting in design.
Functional details like buttons, screens, and menus are critical. Users will delete the app in an instant if they can’t figure out where to search or how to log out.
Architecture provides the structure that contains your great idea, so it’s essential to get it right.
Once again, here’s where research comes in. Listen to the best practices. If a designer suggests a specific button placement, know that he or she has a very good reason for it.
Putting the right framing in place will make your entire app flow better, look sharper, and work in a way that keeps users happy (and coming back for more).
4. Engage people’s emotions
Just like film, every app needs to be emotionally engaging. Period.
Even if your product has a functional (versus emotional) purpose, then the design needs to work double duty. The UX must create an emotional connection.
It should leave people feeling happy, organized, grateful, or whatever desire brought them to the product in the first place.
I recently worked on a dating app that incorporated questions, snap-style videos and personality ratings to help users find potential matches.
Dating is already an emotionally-loaded activity, but the act of using a dating app isn’t necessarily engaging. So, we needed to find a way to help people get to know each other before they even started chatting. We gamified the user experience to enhance the emotional pull.
Another recent product was fronted by a health and fitness celebrity. The app content doesn’t inherently provoke strong feelings; it’s a curated collection of exercise, nutrition and wellness content.
We needed to find that human connection. In this case, the celebrity herself was the draw. Users already had a relationship with this person and by working her image and personality into every part of the app, people felt deeply engaged with her.
In essence, she became the application, and it created a close, trusting relationship in what could have been an impersonal digital platform.
I keep referencing millennials, because, statistically speaking, they are often the target market for new digital products — and research shows that they prefer to engage with brands that are socially-minded, sustainable, ethical, and responsible.
Bottom line? They make decisions with their hearts and emotions, as much as they choose based on price, convenience or other “typical” consumer factors.
If you can’t reach this influential age group at an emotional level, you’ve lost them. Just like Pokémon Go, you might ride a trend wave, but you won’t stick around for the long haul.
5. Never make assumptions
I recently worked on a project where we thought the target user was a 25–35-year-old woman. We created the user persona and started designing for “Kate.”
When we dug deeper into the research, it turned out that many users were actually age 16 and up. The market started much younger than we expected, which affected how we framed the architecture and built out the interface.
Even though design can be highly creative (it’s an art and a science), every decision should flow through data. Assumptions need to be validated.
Allow your UX and UI teams to lead with research and establish constraints, then creativity can flourish within those boundaries.
6. Avoid glossy marketing comparisons
Advertising and marketing have become incredibly sophisticated. From the early Mad Men days of blending copy and illustrations through to gallery-worthy photo essays and tightly integrated mobile campaigns, it’s easy to look at advertising for visual inspiration.
But, advertising is not a parallel for digital product development.
In short, your product is not an advertisement. Don’t try to sell it with design.
If you push too heavily at any level, people will immediately back off. The Don Drapers of the world had to work hard to make pantyhose or milk seem exciting because they were functional, everyday products.
That process has now been reversed. A digital product should take a complicated need or want and distill it down to a simple application.
Clarity and ease of use is your selling feature. People will love your app because it works, not because you dress it up in a pretty package. Digital beauty is simplicity.
7. Empathize with your users
Digital applications can be highly location- and culture-specific. Your UX team needs to understand the nuances of your customers’ lives and experiences.
For example, I recently worked on a sports stadium app. Just like every other major facility, it hosts athletes and spectators, but a small venue in India is completely unlike Madison Square Gardens.
As designers, we can explore different worlds through art: cinema, books, music. We can hustle enough to make people believe that we understand, but there’s nothing quite like being there and having a first-person experience.
Only few rare founders (let’s say Richard Branson) has the resources to immerse a full UX design team and give them experience first hand. For everyone else, that’s where your own expertise comes in.
I know design, but I don’t know your world.
Show me the empathy you have for your users — the understanding and awareness that led you into business in the first place.
Share your perspective.
Show me what you know and together, we can build something that’s both beautiful and valuable.