The Seven Traits of Highly-Successful Apps

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Are you an iPhone app developer? Whether you’re new to this game or an old hand, there are some basic interface (UI) and user experience (UX) rules you’ve just got to follow (and I’m not talking about Apple’s). If your app does these things, then you have a solid shot at making it big. But if your app falls short, well… don’t say I didn’t warn you!

I’m writing this list not to provide an exhaustive summary of everything you should be thinking about when designing an app. I’m writing this to give you some background in the kind of philosophy you should adopt in your project.

A lot of app developers are solitary: they’re just people at home. Some are small teams of two, three or five people. Small groups tend (but are not guaranteed) to make better decisions from a user standpoint: larger groups tend (but are not guaranteed) to make better financial or resource-based decisions (ie. inventing revenue streams, or building partnerships that make cool things happen).

So, here are a few things to keep in mind:


  1. Be engaging. Does your app do something really cool? Or, failing that, does it keep up with your user? Does it make them wait for transitions or loading screens? Does it Does it give them something they want, or does it give them something you think they want? Does your app seem like the kind of thing you’d tell your friends about? If it isn’t, the chances of it catching on are a lot smaller. Design with “viral marketing” in mind, always.

  2. Put the user’s needs first. But don’t worry about putting the user first. What could I possibly mean by this? Well, the user isn’t as sure of your app as you are. They don’t need to be your first priority if the work you are developing will help them later. When a new user downloads your app, there are tons of opportunities to confuse or bore them. There are places many of them will simply never go (such as deep in your Settings menus). There are scenarios you’ve sunk hours in designing that half your users will never see. But that doesn’t mean they’re not important. When you build an app, take every step necessary to show your users that you care about their needs. Anticipate them. Build in features that will be appreciated–even if only by a small group. But don’t spend months tweaking your tiniest details because of a few bad reviews. The user is not always right. But when using your app, their needs are your needs.
  3. Offer something both substantive and unusual. Nowadays, with hundreds of thousands of apps out there, you’d better do something interesting. More importantly, your app needs to do one of two things: it needs to either provide more substance (ie. more possible choices, levels, or modes for the user) or have a good unique selling proposition or USP (examples: an exciting interface, a different method of working, being promoted an unusual way, or something that’s just flat-out cooler than everything else).
  4. Make the user’s decisions easy–or make their choices matter. A good app tends to give lots of feedback and shows how the user’s choices are affecting the app in real time (a good example is anything that is “live”– searching, scanning, filtering, uploading, etc.). But an alternative exists: present the user with only a few choices at a time–and commit to them completely. An art program might let you choose a tool, or manipulate the canvas. A note-taking app might let you browse or write. A mapping app might let you search, post or explore. The point is that in each of these modes, the user’s decisions are easy because you are selectively limiting what they see. This leads right to my next point:

  5. Find a way to hide as much of your interface as possible. Show only what matters. Interfaces can and do change. It’s OK to have your app look like two or more different things. Consistency isn’t about having everything in the same place all the time. Consistency is about making it easy to see what you can do next, without your “next action” being only one potential action. This is something Microsoft has never (and may never) figure out, and something that shines in iOS apps. Present your user with options, sure: but make sure they’re immediately relevant. If they’re not, they can be hidden somewhere else until they become relevant again.

  6. A good app is extendible, not closed. Find ways to make it change shape and branch out over time. This can include in-app purchases, forays into online versions, and connections with other services, or multi-device functions (iPhone/iPad/Mac and PC). The majority of top-selling apps on the app store are “freemium”: that is, they are free or cheap to purchase but derive most of their revenue from what happens next. Note: While it’s great for everyone to have their own online service, it would be really great if these services talked to each other. I’m not saying ‘don’t reinvent the wheel’ if it’s what you need to do, but a little interoperability never killed anyone.
  7. <

    strong>If you don’t know much about interface design, or if you’re not sure, don’t try. This isn’t the time to experiment. Find someone who knows what they’re doing and your app will get exponentially more attention. Like it or not, apps are a consumer business. And consumers are taken by a pretty face. If you don’t absolutely know what to do from an interface perspective, get help. Your customers will thank you, you’ll have a lot more of them, and a simple app with a nice interface is miles and miles ahead of a complex app that no one understands (or uses). Even if you think you have your “look” figured out, it can’t hurt to hire a good UI designer.

I’d like to point out (subtly) that I’m available for free consultation on interface design, if you’ve got a project you’re working on. Just drop me a line!

What do you think makes a successful App Store app? Let me know in the comments!

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2 Comments

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