Designing Apps for Simplicity

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If you were to ask a group of app users why they love their favorite apps, you’d likely get a range of responses. Yet one answer is likely to come up more than any other: “I like it because it’s simple.”


Simplicity is one of the most valued traits in any application – mobile or otherwise – yet ironically, it’s also one of the most difficult to achieve, because many designers and developers confuse “simplicity” with ease of use and an aesthetically pleasing design.


While some might argue that it’s simply a matter of semantics, and that the idea of simplicity is, well, simple (to make something easy to use), it’s often a lot more complicated than that. It’s actually quite easy to create an app that contains all the bells and whistles, and provides 101 different options for accomplishing the same task. (It’s natural to want to give users plenty of options, and give the impression that nothing has been overlooked.) It’s much harder to condense those options and features into an elegant — simple — interface that creates the same impression.


Creating a simple app is important not only because it’s easier to use. Simplicity is a cornerstone of engagement, and supports continued use of an app. Statistically speaking, app engagement is no easy feat. One researcher estimates that only about 23 percent of apps are used more than once, and that 90 percent of apps are abandoned within a month of installation.


Obviously, there are many reasons why users abandon apps that may not have anything to do with their experience at all, but complexity and a poor UX are at the top of the list of app abandonment causes. Users don’t want to be bombarded with choices and options, even if they are designed to help them accomplish a task. They don’t want to have to jump through hoops and take multiple steps. They want their apps to make their lives easier and more enjoyable, not be one more thing that causes frustration.


At PointClear Solutions / Worry Free Labs, we spend a lot of time consulting with our clients on this particular subject. Ultimately, we recommend anyone considering a new app consider these (ironically) simple things:


Simplicity Is User Focused

The most important thing to remember when designing any application is to maintain clarity.  That is, you have to remain focused on the user and his or her needs and goals. Think about what he or she wants from their iPhone; design apps with that desire in mind.  Users should know right away what you are trying to help them do via the app. More specifically, this means:


  • Avoiding unnecessary information or functions
  • Focusing on features that are needed / wanted, and fully functional
  • Using headings and labels to tell users where they are and what they need to do
  • Putting only the most essential information up front, and leaving more complex tasks that most users won’t need for advanced menus
  • Navigation should be intuitive, and it should be obvious what the user should do next

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WANT TO CREATE A USER-FOCUSED APP EXPERIENCE?

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In short, everything you put on the screen should be useful and designed to help users accomplish what they’re in the app to accomplish.


Kill Your Darlings

In the writing world, the expression “Kill your darlings” refers to being willing to take out scenes, chapters, even entire characters if they aren’t moving the story forward — even if you love them and they are the best writing you have ever done. The same principle applies to app design.


You might be inclined to include a host of features and functions, but if they aren’t necessary for the primary function of the app, or they aren’t fully functional, leave them out. It’s much more important to have an app with only a few excellent features than a bloated one with a dozen half-baked ideas.


Evaluate every idea against the vision for the app and your success metrics, and lose those that don’t push the project forward.


Don’t Confuse Simplicity With a Style

When planning your app, it’s easy to think about simplicity as a style of design — clean lines, minimal clutter, etc. While there is an aesthetic element to simplicity, it is far more than just a design approach. Simplicity is a philosophy that should guide every decision you make.


Think of simplicity as a means of eliminating complexity, at least in terms of user experience. The app may still be highly complex behind the scenes, but what the user sees and does should be easy and uncomplicated.


Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

Finally, creating a simple app often means drawing on ideas that are already working. Don’t feel like you need to completely reinvent the wheel. Lean on app standards and guidelines to create an experience that is comfortable and familiar, while still fresh and somewhat unique.


For a good example, think about toasters. For generations, toasters have worked in the same way: Put in the bread, push down the lever, wait. There is little cognitive effort that goes into using a toaster, regardless of the model. Use that same approach in designing your app, and incorporate common processes to accomplish familiar tasks.


The fact is, achieving simplicity is not necessarily simple. It requires a great deal of creativity, refinement, and testing. However, when you put in the effort, the end result is a product that delights users, and doesn’t fall into the abyss of abandoned apps.