The Biggest Design Mistake an App Producer Can Make

If you’re building an app and wishing you had paid more attention in art class, you’ll be pleased to know that what you learned in first grade is good enough. That’s because exquisite design is about making an app easy and enjoyable to use, not just composing a masterpiece worthy of a spot in the Louvre.

Just as there’s a process to distilling your ideas, there’s a process to pulling them together into designs that are easy to understand and easy on the eyes. So before contacting a designer or hunkering down at your computer to whip up the layouts yourself, put down the mouse and pull up a chair.

Creating computer layouts at this point is the biggest mistake you could make. Even if you’re just trying to capture some vague ideas, you’re actually cementing the design because things as simple as the colors and fonts you select can unconsciously lure you in the wrong direction.

Instead, you’ll create your initial designs using the same tools you had in first grade—pencils and paper. You’ll test these designs on your target audience, who will help you make them even better, and then gradually work your way up to creating everything on the computer.

As an independent developer, you may be thinking that these steps are unnecessary, or perhaps you’re planning to outsource the design, so you feel it’s the freelancer’s job. Skipping these steps or expecting someone else to do them for you won’t shortcut the process or save you any money. Hand over heart; it’s just the opposite. This process is the shortcut. You will be thanking yourself down the road.

Design problems are worse than software bugs and they hide in the details. Even the hottest designers don’t have elegant creations magically appear to them over a cup of Earl Grey. They encounter the same design dilemmas that you do and use the same tactics to discover what works best. If you plan to hire a designer, there are still some incredibly productive activities that you can do to both save money and help your designer create the masterpiece you’re aiming for.

A carefully thought out design is the cornerstone of quick and affordable development because developers know exactly what to create and aren’t guessing, filling in the gaps with their own ideas. Development will be faster because you’ll have fewer code changes and bug fixes. The time and cost estimates you receive will be far more accurate because just like your plumber, developers pad estimates to account for unknowns. But if you show developers a well thought out design first they won’t have to guess, so comparing bids will be comparing apples to apples.

It all pays off at the selling stage. Your app will sell more because it’s easy to use and stunning. Plus, you’ll have a competitive edge over the other apps whose creators mistakenly thought the design process could be shortened or cut out altogether. Sales will be hot because your customers love your app and are telling friends and family about it. They will leave priceless feedback on iTunes, send you fan mail, and when you create another app, they’ll automatically buy it because your design reputation precedes you. Best of all, Apple will feature your app, making you a global blockbuster and opening doors to all sorts of new opportunities.

If for some reason you’re still not convinced, rest assured that these steps are actually entertaining and don’t take that much time. You’ll progress from pencils to the computer soon enough.

 I always start every design process by sketching out a ton of different ideas before touching the computer. Putting a pen to paper is a fantastic way of exploring as many crazy thoughts as possible. When you’re on a computer it’s difficult to concentrate on more than one thing at a time, but sketching enables your creativity to jump around and hit on original ideas that you’d never find otherwise.

—Paddy Donnelly, co-founder and designer at WeeTaps (Wee Rocket app)

Not to sound like a broken record, but the best advice I can give you, dear first-time-designer friend, is to start with pen and paper, not a computer. This gives you artistic freedom design software could never deliver. Computer mockups tempt you to spend too much time on unnecessary details before you’ve even grasped the basic concepts of what you’re creating. So steal a notebook out of your kid’s room, maybe a highlighter, some markers, and a few crayons, and dive in.

Don’t worry if you can’t draw. Sketching has nothing to do with artistic talents. In fact, some of the best designs I’ve ever seen were created by people who claimed they couldn’t draw. If you can draw basic shapes, arrows, and stick figures, you’re set.

Paper prototyping costs peanuts and can be done in minutes. Because it’s so cheap and easy, you can experiment with as many versions of your designs as you like without wasting hours of work. Also, people will know you didn’t invest a lot of time creating the mockup so they’ll be more comfortable with giving you honest feedback. Another vote for paper is that it’s a great way to document everything so you can go back to ideas you may have otherwise deleted on a computer.

        Our apps always start out with a pencil and paper. Once we get a basic design and functionality worked out, there are probably three to four iterations done in Photoshop.

—Mark Jardine, co-founder and designer at TapBots (Tweetbot app)

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