Mobile App Planning and Design Insights
When designing and building mobile experiences there are several things to keep in mind throughout the process. At AIM, we take a multi-phased approach to mobile application design and development to achieve the best results.
This document does not take into account any market research or similar due diligence that would validate your mobile app initiative. It picks up from the point of validation to provide guidance that can help lay the foundation for building out a successful mobile strategy that aligns with your business goals backed by user centered design and analyst research.
A good mobile app strategy can help your company reach more users across more channels. This will require cognitive and monetary investments to reach your goals. This includes investing in market trends, user research, solution expertise and operational planning.
In the discovery phase it’s good practice to identify and validate user needs by conducting user and market research. This could be in the form of user feedback, industry analyst guidance, shifts in user base or market, and many other similar sources.
The goal in discovery is to use all of the above to identify the need through valid research and set realistic project goals. The results can then be manifested in a strategic roadmap that meshes with the overall business and marketing strategy
Depending on your needs, your project goals might range from building a reasonable minimum viable product to building out a full multi-faceted mobile platform solution. An MVP can be built on a small budget utilizing the right resources. From there, you can then decide whether to do the work in-house or find a trusted partner to guide and support the maturation of the app strategy.
At AIM, our strategic consulting engagements begin with thorough discovery and product planning. Before we make a recommendation, we first want to understand each client’s business goals, competencies, pain points and goals. These inputs are useful in helping us deliver highly relevant, targeted, and actionable results.
Although this paper focuses primarily on mobile strategy, it’s worth mentioning that the success of every well-designed app is only as good as its market penetration. As we’ll see later, the choice of deliverable can impact how discoverable your application will be to users. For example, native mobile apps can be found in the app stores, while progressive web apps[i] are not, and hence are typically harder to find and promote.
A product plan should consider what success looks like, and from that the business can determine how to best meet those goals. Who are the target users? Is loyalty and organic growth important? How many subscribed users represents success? Is revenue derived from the app, and if so, what amount represents success?
For example, a retail store might want to increase loyalty through mobile experiences. Therefore, success might be to reach a certain number or percentage of new subscribers. Or it could be measured by the number of users that opt-in to a new loyalty program promoted through the application.
The product plan should also take into account the capability and maturity of the business and technology teams. Specifically, are they able to build and maintain the given strategy. For example, is a retail loyalty program in place today that can be adopted to and promoted through mobile experiences, or is the business starting from scratch? Does the business have the resources required build and maintain each aspect? If not, how does this impact the timeline or goals?
The plan can be produced with a crawl, walk, run approach. First crawling to figure out what the model looks like and determine what is important to the business and relevant in the industry and community (what is a loyalty program). Then walking to build the foundation on which the concept will run (what are core data and information systems required, and how does it manifest in mobile experiences). And then finally running, once all the key pieces are in place (integrated mobile web and app experiences coupled with robust backend data processing and insights).
Whatever the plan, it should provide the building blocks for your campaign, and define the key performance indicators (KPI’s) by which the business will measure success.
Consider who the users are that make up your primary user base. For example, try to identify what’s important to them, what do they have in common, what demographic do they make up within your industry. For example, at a high level you might start by identifying the target demographic to include baby boomers, millennials and generation X.
Mobile apps have become an integral part of people’s daily routines. In fact, 91% of smartphone owners use apps. But when we dug into who is using mobile apps and how they use them, we uncovered surprising insights. – Think with Google, 2018
From there you can use other market data and analytics to further refine your user population. This will help guide the next steps beyond the strategic insights to focus the user and market research that will help guide feature selection and refinement, A/B testing, prioritized market expansion and related activities.
Conduct focused market studies within these demographics to further identify and prioritize features, market segments and related roadmap dependencies.
Cultural and Industrial Cues
In determining your demographic and primary target groups, there will ultimately be numerous groups identified by criteria such as location (city, rural, suburban), interests, social circles, and any number of other indicators.
You might also consider the industrial ecosystem. Are you building an experience that will be consumed on mainstream devices in major cities with good internet connectivity on user accounts that don’t worry about data consumption or bandwidth? Are you designing an app to be used in an industrial setting, like doing warehouse inventory or auditing shipments going through customs at the border?
Different disciplines and cultures engage with products and services in different ways and at different times. When thinking about delivering messages to users, consider when a particular audience might be the most receptive. – UX Collective, 2018
If you expect your app to be deployed in multiple geographical regions, are there any core cultural traits that should be considered in designing the user experience or flow? Perhaps it’s a cultural aspect of a certain industry, such as agriculture or shipping, where decades of formal process through paperwork have instilled certain expectations. This is especially important to consider when introducing an app experience to a group for the very first time.
Thoroughly investigate your target market and user demographics to better focus your targeting efforts to achieve the best possible results.
Design & User Experience
At AIM, we work with our clients to integrate user-centered design into the foundation of their mobile plans. This means putting customer needs first, a commitment to continuous testing, and taking responsibility for communicating those priorities throughout the development process.
Users are the key to success in a consumer app strategy. It’s important to define the target user audience. User personas and user journeys are powerful tools that can be used to guide the creation of these elements and refined over time as you learn and adjust based on market and user interaction data.
Personas define representative types of users, such as Sarah, age 29, works in real estate, has two sisters, lives in the city, is a volunteer caregiver on the weekends, and likes to blog about her cooking experiences. By producing detailed personas that represent categories of your target users, you can better align your user’s journeys to them.
Once you have the relevant personas, the next step is to use them to map out the applicable user journeys.
A great way to do this is to get your team in a room in a workshop fashion. Print out your personas and assign groups to each one to map out specific scenarios.
It’s a good idea to do this in a space where you can draw on whiteboards or large surfaces where everyone can see and collaborate on the journey maps and wireframes.
Interaction Design (Taxonomy/Flow)
In our experience the interaction design and flow of an application is another critical area. A good interaction design will be what keeps users coming back once they get the app in their hands. The worst possible outcome with any pilot or v1 product is to have it leave users with a bad experience that sends them toward alternative solutions.
When designing the app for the first time it’s critical to map out the task flows and test them with users before implementing in a production release. This can be done via any number of ways, from sticky notes, to paper prototypes to wireframe click-throughs. Once the baseline workflow has been properly tested and validated, then it’s safe to move to development.
Although your initial interaction model may be designed and tested internally, once your app is deployed it’s typically safe to leverage A/B testing to iterate on new ideas and experiences through a user preview program.
Personalization is also something that is important to work into your roadmap. However, you may not have the relevant data in the beginning to build a truly personalized experience. If you’re just starting out, relevant data could come from similar industry trends or web experiences. You can also do some research up front to learn more about your target users and what they want. Once the app is deployed, with proper monitoring and logging capabilities paired with intelligent analysist will be possible to provide continuous improvement.
While a data driven “intelligent” personalization model is the most powerful, it also takes a while to collect enough data to build out a mature relevance model. There are a few off-the-shelf solutions out there that can help you track and personalize for your users, but you may also find it more powerful to build your own solution.
Alternatively, personalization can be driven more simply through persona buckets or a similar taxonomy model where users are categorized based on certain traits and facets. For example, buckets could be based on a user’s location, whether they are a new or long-time user, or by their usage habits within the application or broader ecosystem.
Pull together any data you have on current users to date and try to map out any usage patterns. Also consider building out a persona-driven personalization model that can be used to help until a proper relevance model can be matured.
Button and menu designs
It is recommended that when starting out, the button and menu designs should try to follow common patterns proven by relevant industry or social media trends. Once you have a common pattern that works, you can make it your own through branding and other subtle changes that users will identify with when they user your products.
Depending on the goals of the project and the capabilities of the team working to build out the application, you might want to identify a design system or component library on which to base initial button and menu designs. If desired, the AIM team can help point you in the right direction or provide you with an appropriate solution from our pattern library.
Predictive Design & Intelligent Cues
Regardless of where the user is within the mobile experience, they should have no problem getting to the logical next step or back to the start. Put breadcrumb cues front and center (i.e. how to get home) and be thoughtful about what’s next by leveraging predictive cues.
Data-entry on a mobile device is always a challenge compared to the typical desktop experience. Give users pre-configured choices and pull data from similar fields where possible. For example, when asking for personal information like name or email make use of on-device caching or platform input.
Part of what impresses users and makes app experiences great are the cues integrated into the experience. An example might be a button that subtly pulses when it is the next logical step in the flow. Or a more explicit example with which we are more familiar is when a number appears on your feed to indicate there is a new response. Such interactions are what we call intuitive. How often have you found an app or interface frustrating because it just seems hard to use? However complex your information scenario is to present, intelligent cues can help walk the user in the right direction.
Build cues into your interaction model and regularly test and monitor behavior patterns and what users find useful, difficult or distracting.
The visual design helps to set the brand and tone of the user experience and your company. It can also help to draw in the user, depending on what the app is trying to accomplish. For example, your logo or brand might key off blue and orange, but how you use those colors in your application design should be driven (to some degree) by what inspires your target audience.
For example, the sample UI at the right is built on a light theme, taking inspiration from health and wellness white themes. This is just one of many potential design patterns that the team could establish. The visual experience is a combination of usability and branding. Finding the right combination can be both fun and rewarding.
Keep it Simple
Find the one thing that most users will want/need to do when launching the application. In the example above we’ve focused on the activity feed to help connect them with their community and encourage them to interact, share and further contribute. Also keep text to a minimum and use fonts and styles sparingly. Too many font sizes and styles will fragment the user experience. Try to keep each view to roughly three styles if possible.
Produce a few different landing page experiences and test them against your sample user base. Determine which one most resonates with your target audience and focus on that for your v1 release. Once you start to collect actual usage data and related input, you can use that to better tune the overall user experience.
Adaptive vs. Responsive Content
Adaptive vs. responsive design is a decade long debate when building aps for the increasingly disparate mobile and IoT ecosystem. Adaptive design explicitly targets devices or categories of devices, primarily based on device expectations like fixed screen aspect ratios and resolution. This is an ideal method to use when targeting a specific device or class of devices that share common traits. For example, you could use this adaptive design to target iPhones, iPads and iOS laptops. But then what happens when the device is connected to a 4k ultra-wide monitor? If this is a common case and not an edge case, you might consider a responsive approach instead.
Responsive design is instead based on the concept of building content with component breakpoints that allows content to adapt to the container, to flow like water. This is ideal for most consumer-facing solutions as it allows content to be built once and used everywhere. A user can resize the window and the content will reflow to adapt. Adaptive content is not as flexible and may not adapt to the same degree as responsively designed content.
Be formless, shapeless — like water. Put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot; you put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle – Bruce Lee 1971
In taking a mobile-first approach, a responsive design that can be leveraged across all screen sizes is the way to go. It’s an easy way to build out experiences that are consumed within the browser, and can feed into both hybrid or progressive mobile apps that leverage the same web-based content. This is not to say that a native approach isn’t warranted, as there would be more due diligence involved before making the right decision. More on native vs hybrid in the next section.
Consider a responsive approach to building content for a mobile solution and test whether the breakpoints and flexibility is appropriate and will scale across web and mobile in similar fashion. Once a project plan or direction has been determined, this could be done through a short workshop, and AIM is very familiar with this exercise should there be any questions.
Components & Design Systems
Current trends in mobile development leverage design systems or component frameworks to maximize code reuse and ensure more consistent user experiences and branding across a range of applications and services.
At AIM we can either utilize our existing component framework built on industry standard best practices or leverage your framework if you have one. By leveraging AIM’s framework, it works out well and is easy for customers to adopt and maintain going forward. When considering your project, evaluate what you have internally against industry standards, toolsets and device targets, and maturity of the system based on your mobile platform goals.
Once a product plan has been established, conduct an assessment to determine the best way to support your short and long-term goals with respect to the application. If the plan calls for a family of apps then a component framework, or at least a set of well-established patterns, can facilitate production.
Native, Hybrid or PWA
Depending on the goals of the project, mobile applications today utilize one of three typical approaches, native, hybrid and progressive web apps (PWA). Each has its own pros and cons, and rather than go into detail here, we will cover the most relevant points.
Native app development is the most powerful when needing to leverage native hardware features and optimize content for performance. This is typically most important when working with video and gaming themes, or when a team is already present that has expertise with the native operating system and related device APIs.
Hybrid app development is a sliding scale between web and native. This approach can be used to leverage web content used elsewhere, while also gaining access to the app stores for distribution and sliding into native api’s as needed to integrate with native device functionality such as camera and NFC. This is a good choice when wanting to keep costs down by utilizing existing web content and web developers with minimal native requirements.
Depending on the overarching business strategy, resource capabilities and availability, and legible budget considerations, these items can be used to help determine the appropriate model to embrace.
If you are just getting started with your mobile app effort, any one of these or similar industry standards should suffice.
Based on the overall project plan and business requirements, determine the technical requirements and work with the respective mobile architect and engineering lead to identify the best implementation based on budget, requirements, knowledge, resource availability and related criteria.
Customer experience is a key element in keeping your users engaged. Insights are an important mechanism across many channels. They help the business track signals like installs and user activity through known identities. They are also critical in loyalty and related campaign metrics. Consider a loyalty program that engages users primarily through their mobile app to announce highly sought-after items or promotions. This drives existing customers to download the app, and draws in new prospects at the same time.
Some web platform leaders have been late to the game in supporting mobile, but have been showing up more recently through acquisitions and related innovations. Google purchased Firebase back in 2014, and have been building on it ever since. Apple has been in the game from the beginning and has robust analytics that track user engagement across the board. Facebook also has a robust analytics platform that can provide insights across mobile, web and related channels, which also takes advantage of powerful machine learning.
And there are many other specialized or independent offerings out there, like Adjust, Appsee, MixPanel, and others with their own strengths and weaknesses.
Within your mobile ecosystem, consider tracking signals like installs, active devices, session activity, latent accounts, user profiles, funnel events and user satisfaction, among others. This data should feed into a broader customer experience and data management program and framework (CDP, DMP, etc.) for best results.
Based on the business goals of the application, prioritize the signals that need to be tracked and choose a solution that best meets those needs. Facilitate the help of experts in the industry that have had experience working with the various offerings and can speak to their pros and cons.