Creating a mobile app from scratch may seem daunting, with millions of technical responsibilities, iterations, and twists. And it can be, but it doesn’t have to be. A consistent app design process will spare your nerves and put the app development pipeline on the right track.
A thought-out mobile app design process also dramatically affects your app's user experience. According to Toptal, 90% of app users have stopped using an app due to poor performance. Therefore, a user-friendly and sleek mobile design is paramount for a positive ROI.
But what does it take to craft a winning design? And what are the main application design steps? Let’s find out.
A short primer on the mobile app design process
Mobile application design commonly refers to the external interface of the mobile solution that users interact with. However, app design isn’t just a mere line-up of pretty visuals, buttons, and other elements.
Here designing means making the product both easy to use and appealing. A designer’s role is to advocate for the end-users to humanize software and create the app’s flow and structure.
All application design has two facets – UX and UI. Both contribute to the same product but encompass different design aspects.
What is UX design?
UX (user experience) is a design strategy that focuses on satisfying the user's needs in the best way possible. The main goal of UX specialists is to ensure that the app meets user expectations and provides users with value. The main pillars of a successful UX design are good usability, accessibility, reliability, and usefulness.
The primary responsibilities of UX professionals may include but are not limited to:
- Performing user research;
- Creating user personas;
- Identifying the information architecture of an application;
- Designing user flows and wireframes;
- Creating prototypes;
- Performing user testing.
What is UI design?
UI (user interface) is about how an application looks and feels to the user. UI design includes color schemes, buttons, labels, animations, transitions, etc. Essentially, UI is the process of building graphical interfaces with a focus on looks or style.
A typical set of tasks for UI designers can include:
- Transforming requirements into style guides and attractive interfaces;
- Identifying design problems and finding effective solutions;
- Creating animations;
- Choosing fonts and color palettes;
- Designing UI elements like scrollbars and icons.
As you can see, UI and UX are the two sides of the same coin, as both lead to a better product experience. Therefore, it is essential to pay due diligence to each during the design process.
Now that you know the fundamentals, let’s go over the main app design process steps for building a mobile solution.
How to design a mobile app: 10 crucial steps
According to CIO, almost 80% of mobile apps get dumped after their first use. Unfortunately, this means that you don’t have a second chance to make a first impression. To improve your app’s first impression, below are ten recommended steps that you can take to design a conversion-worthy app.
Set clear goals
Any software development process should be preceded by thorough pre-planning. Therefore, before creating a digital product design, you should thoroughly analyze your future solution. At this stage, a design team will work closely with other software specialists and clients to evaluate goals, pain points, and competencies.
The planning stage can be further divided into the following milestones.
Planning starts with interviewing key stakeholders to gather valuable insights about business goals. Stakeholder interviews are also essential for understanding technical constraints, usability problems, and user needs.
These interviews also help establish a shared vision of the future design, improve communication, and build trust. Designers then document and analyze responses to shape a cohesive strategy.
Next, your design team will wrap the interview results into a succinct strategy. This contains core information about the product goal, target audience, incentives, and competitive advantages of the future layout. The strategy then helps you and the team define UX milestones and objectives.
Scope of application
In mobile app development, the scope is defined through functional requirements and content specifications. Functional requirements refer to a solution’s intended capabilities, appearance, and interactions that help users achieve their goals.
These requirements don’t include any complex technical details. Instead, functional specifications focus on how users will interact with the application and how the system will operate in response to users’ actions.
Unlike functional requirements, content specifications revolve around visual or media information that will complement the user experience. Thus, designers validate any content feature against strategic objectives, including images, audio, and video. Content requirements should offer rough estimates of the size of each feature, such as file sizes for downloadable content elements or pixel dimensions for images.
Write a plan of action
Comprehensive planning is among the salient app design steps that follow the initial pre-planning stage. A detailed UX plan sets specific expectations both for the team and the customer. Thus, securing key stakeholders’ expectations with key performance indicators to measure the product’s future success.
A plan of action also details the product objectives and the team structure. Moreover, this stage documents a single communication channel for the team and the client to ensure convenient and effective collaboration between the stakeholders. Generally, a UX plan aids a client in making their vision a reality while adhering to specified guidelines, KPIs, and clear goals.
Research your niche and competitors
After you have solidified the plan and determined the main objectives, your team will move on to the research phase. This stage mostly boils down to performing user research and assessing competitors’ solutions present in the market.
Competitor analysis helps UX designers deep dive into the industry standards and identify opportunities for a product in a specific niche. This stage also allows design teams to determine competitive UX/UI features using other companies’ experiences and success stories. By understanding the flow and functions of competitors’ products, your team can strategically design your solution to deliver a superior product and experience.
For user research, its purpose is to help you connect with potential users and explore their needs. Understanding what your users want is essential to creating designs that click with the end users.
Additionally, user research can help teams identify potential problems before implementation, allowing for fewer biases and improved usability. Ultimately, user research leads to a better user experience and more satisfied users.
Stages of user research
User research can take many different forms and include various milestones. Here’s how our mobile app designers tap into the minds of your future users.
Interviewing users is a method of research that gathers actionable insights about your target users’ needs, pain points, opinions, and experiences. Unlike focus groups (which we’ll highlight later), user interviews are one-on-one sessions that cover a specific topic, like behaviors, habits, or previous experience. User interviews can also provide insight into demographic or ethnographic data that will be later used to build user personas.
Compared to interviews, surveys are a quicker and easier way to collect valuable data about your users. For example, a UX survey is a questionnaire that provides qualitative and quantitative input for future design.
Here, your team will ask a group of people the same questions to gather their opinions on a given topic, be it a product feature or usability. User surveys are a critical part of understanding user feedback that helps to create an intuitive design and satisfying user experience.
A focus group is another discovery method approach that can help prioritize design features. Here, your team invites a small group of 5-10 participants to study their needs and feelings about your product.
Specifically, your team can set up a focus group to gauge reactions to potential new features or gain perspective on existing ones. A focus group is usually supervised by a moderator who guides the group on a specific topic of conversation.
Unlike focus groups and interviews, field studies study users’ lives and goals with additional context about the user's environment. This research technique may involve day-in-the-life user interviews to help teams identify the most valuable personas and contextualize potential design features. Since field studies don’t occur in a formal setting, they allow researchers to observe the user’s natural, real-world behaviors.
Diary studies are another UX research method where participants keep a log of their experiences, activities, and thoughts over time. Participants can also take photographs or engage in other activities to document their experiences and better communicate their needs.
Here, researchers analyze the users’ feedback when the study time is completed. Although diary studies aren’t as exhaustive as focus groups, this research method can still chip into creating a more user-oriented design development.
Analyze the findings
The mobile application design process continues with analyzing and evaluating the data collected from the conducted studies. This stage aims to create a holistic vision, visualize the findings, and validate the hypotheses. However, the analysis process will likely require these subsequent steps.
Creating user personas
These are usually archetypical fictional users whose goals and characteristics represent the needs of a specific target user group. By creating one (or more), you can better understand who your target audience is, what their needs and wants are, and how to better appeal to them. This information can then be used to create targeted design user flows and interfaces.
Helpful resource: User persona template
Outlining user stories
This step refers to a general explanation of a design feature from the user’s standpoint. It is a lightweight method to capture the users’ interactions with the future product.
User stories contextualize the app’s functionality so that designers can better understand how the end user will benefit from a given feature. These usually come in short yet informative sentences such as “As a [user], I want to/can [goal to achieve] to <receive value>.”
Helpful resource: Storyboard template
Mapping user journey
Now it’s time to bring our user personas into a cohesive whole with the product interaction process. Customer journeys are visual storylines that describe the app touch points the end-user goes through as well as problems they may face using your future product. These maps can be simple or complex based on the level of detail you’re aiming to describe.
Helpful resource: Customer journey map template
Establish application structure
After you and your team have all the vital insights on your hands, it’s time to go over the application design. Here, the application structure will define the user interaction, application behavior, and content layout. The process of designing an app can be divided into two substages.
This design component encompasses a broad range of user-product elements that help the end-users achieve their goal. Interaction design is also commonly defined as “the goal of creating products that enable the user to achieve their objective(s) in the best way possible.”
Simply, it helps design teams examine and define the interactions between the system and the user to increase the app’s usability. Interaction design typically stems from a combination of user behavior, time, physical space, graphical elements, and content.
Helpful resource: Flow chart template
As the name may imply, information architecture helps organize and structure content. It lays out the location of elements or content to make them easily discoverable for users.
Therefore, thought-out information architecture should be flexible and adaptable to new content. It can either remain at the structure level or be more detailed when describing each element.
Helpful resource: Information architecture diagram template
Wireframes are essential during the app design process; these are low-fidelity sketches that depict the layout of a website, app, or other product. By creating wireframes, designers can establish a visual hierarchy, determine UI elements and how they will interact, and explore user flows.
Usually, wireframes include a visual display and arrangement of interface elements, content, and navigations based on collected data from previous stages. For designers, these sketches help create the final layouts of the application design. Also, wireframes help speed up the development process by allowing stakeholders to get on the same wavelength before moving on to high-fidelity mockups.
Take care of UI design
Once the wireframes get your approval, UI designers step on the scene to breathe an aesthetic into your application. At this stage, UI designers decide on the color palettes, typography, and graphics, and they study the main UI elements of the interface. Remember, UI design is always based on the project vision you established during previous stages.
By this time, your UI team should also have a few application concepts for you to choose from. Once you select the best option, the team will develop a style guide that provides guidelines on the product's user interface to build your UI consistently.
Helpful resource: Spectrum – Figma plugin and web app for generating color palettes.
We recommend using interface design guidelines from Apple or Google if you do not have a budget allocated to testing your design hypotheses. These guides increase your chances of creating an intuitive and compelling interface for your end user.
Send designs into development
At this stage, the designer creates the final layouts, which will later be presented to the development team. The final layouts should be as detailed as possible, covering all screens in their various states.
For example, your design team should include a display of an empty news feed post-registration or ‘incorrect password’ messages. Also, if the application displays articles, designers should include examples of long and short headlines.
Tools like Figma allow your team to create interactive prototypes that mimic the behavior of a future application. By creating interaction layouts, you can prevent the appearance of undeveloped screen states. They also expose your user flow to additional testing and help your team run final tests.
Spice it up with animation
User interface animation is a must-have ingredient of modern visual products since it makes apps more interactive, dynamic, and intuitively understandable. From a tech standpoint, UX animation is the process of adding motion to the user interface to improve the usability and satisfaction of a user’s interaction with a product.
Animations can be used to explain how a product works, guide a user through a task or make the waiting time more tolerable. More interactive mobile applications also help reduce cognitive load, which is especially useful for educational applications.
Other benefits of animation include:
- Increased usability – dynamic pieces help provide key context and prevent users from getting lost;
- Originality – when animations combine emotions and storytelling, users can be enticed further into the digital solution;
- Convenient, easy interaction – animated elements can be used to make transitions more obvious;
- Multitasking – animations can fulfill several functions simultaneously;
- Faster interaction process – animated scrolling allows the user to jump to a new position on the same page;
- Clear feedback – visual feedback reduces uncertainty and creates necessary expectations.
Animation includes screen animations, onboarding flows, animated log-ins, and explainer blocks. Therefore, designer teams may resort to various tools to dress up your solution.
Next, let’s look at the usual suspects found in our toolbox when building engaging animations for your mobile applications.
Adobe after effects
After Effects is the golden standard for creating visual effects and motion graphics. It is one of the most-used animation software that empowers both simple and detailed, sophisticated motion graphics animation. Packed with robust functionality, After Effects is our favorite tool for 2D animations.
Figma is another software masterpiece with a less steep learning curve than After Effects. It is a flexible, cloud-based tool with in-built functionality to quickly turn Figma designs into advanced animations. Structural animation, push animation, and button interactions are just a sliver of Figma’s capabilities.
Framer's animation library is also sufficiently powerful, with Framer Motion fuelling production-ready animation. Framer Motion is mainly associated with React and is often used for quick prototyping. As for animations, Framer is great for simple animated elements, transitions, and mount animations.
Principle is a lesser-known prototyping tool for animated designs with a Mac-friendly interface. The tool’s timeline allows designers to tweak the bounce, ease, and pop to a tee as well as experiment with different interactions.
While InVision Studio comes short as a full-blown general design tool, it brings powerful animation design capability to the table. In addition, InVision Studio is a valuable tool for interaction design and allows designers to add advanced transitions and animations for added interactivity.
Using this variety of animation software is often necessary for your design teams. They allow designers to select a winning combination of features and customize animations for specific interactions.
And don’t forget the post-launch research
Even after successfully launching your mobile app, the design work is far from over. That is why your design team should invest time into post-launch production to ensure that the final product hits it off with the end user.
Post-launch research is a type of market research conducted after a fully designed product has been released to consumers. This research evaluates how well a product is performing in the market, assesses customer satisfaction, and flags potential improvements through established metrics.
Post-launch initiatives also help identify unmet user needs that could be addressed in future product releases. By understanding what resonates well with customers and what could be improved, businesses can make informed strategic decisions about their mobile applications.
Among the most popular post-launch research methods are:
A/B testing, also known as split testing, is a scientific method of testing changes to a digital product. Here, designers present two or more design features to the user to test them against each other. A/B testing can be used to test anything from the color of a button to the text on a page.
This research refers to evaluating a final product by testing it with representative users. In this case, real users are asked to complete a list of tasks so that the researchers can see weak points or ill-timed interactions. If the same problem is valid for most users, designers will schedule updates to eliminate the issues.
After your team has wrapped up a launch, your designers may also suggest the end users answer a few questions. For instance, surveys can include a set of design questions about a specific feature. Based on the users’ feedback, your team will plan further design improvements if needed.
This research method also provides useful metrics for further enhancements by providing recordings of users while they interact with your mobile applications. This way, UX/UI designers can see how the users interact with the app first-hand and pinpoint potential stumbling blocks that need perfecting.
The bottom line
Design thinking has a non-linear nature. And designing a mobile app follows suit, especially since the design is usually a combination of art and science with more variables than constants.
Therefore, the app design process described above may not look the same in practice. For example, during your development process, many steps might overlap or need to co-occur.
As your design team dives deeper into the minds of the end users, some design solutions can be set aside or swapped for more relevant ones. The rationale is simple – take the time to research your users' needs and keep calibrating your product until those needs are met.
If you are interested in testing our design approach, talk to us with your special request.