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How to develop an app and keep your users happy

(Image credit: Image Credit: Baranq / Shutterstock)

The decision to create an app as part of your overall customer or employee experience is not one to be taken lightly. While applications can benefit most businesses the development can be complex and time consuming, which makes it difficult to create something unique with user happiness at its core.   

Any growing business knows that being able to acquire and retain customers are critical components to becoming a success.  The same can be said for successful applications, as a business you need to understand how to get customers to download your app and continue using it.  To do this you need to make sure they start happy and stay happy. 

With this in mind, it’s surprising how often people neglect User Experience design during the development process. I believe this is because User Experience design is still a highly misunderstood and undervalued process by many. 

A lot of this confusion comes from the misunderstanding of User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX). Although they sound similar, these two disciplines should not be mixed up, lumped together, or generally interchanged in discussions. We need to know the differences between these fields as both areas have a specific role to play in the application development process. 

User Interface (UI) design is all about making your app look good. A successful UI design will provide you with an attractive, appealing app but it will do very little for the app's usability. In fact, a redesigned UI that does not take into account User Experience can negatively affect day-to-day usability. 

Winning new customers hinges on having a good user interface. It's hard to sell an ugly app, and easy to sell an attractive app, but a stylish UI is not going to keep users. That flashy, shiny new design will quickly lose its charm if your app is clunky and difficult to use. What good is bringing in lots of users if you can't keep them? That's where UX design comes in. 

In contrast to User Interface design, User Experience design is all about how your app works. A good UX design means your app is easy to use and feels natural for end users, which is key to retaining users. Removing areas of friction and ensuring important processes are front and centre is paramount. Users should never have to hunt for anything, tasks should be easy to find when required and should not get in the way when they are not needed. It should always be clear when an action has been acknowledged by an app. This isn’t easy and there is no single formula that will work in every app. While a well-designed UI will attract new customers, a well-designed UX will keep them. 

It’s worth remembering that you can’t please everybody all of the time, a good UX design can be subjective. However, there are some key concepts to always keep in mind when considering UX design. 

1. Practise first order retrievability. Users should never have to hunt for a desired action.  

2. Be responsive. Your app should give instant feedback to a user when they interact with it.  

3. Include contextual awareness. Your app should present users with information and actions relevant to the current task.

4. Predict when something is obvious. A system should include default values and suggestions where they aid the user's action.  

5. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Don't reinvent the wheel if there's an established convention. 

There is no magic formula to a perfect UX design. I can't give you a ‘10 simple tricks to make the perfect app’. Every app is different. You need to understand your system and how users interact with it to provide the best experience. Even so, there are some processes that can help you improve your app's UX design. 

Firstly, you need to understand how people actually use your app. What are the most common actions people will perform on a certain screen? What do people want to be able to do immediately after launching the app? Are there any friction points that people experience when trying to complete a task? These are all important pieces of information to find out if you want to produce the best possible experience for your users. 

The best way to get this information is to sit down with your users and watch how they use the system. We find this useful at Waterstons and it’s an important step in designing our systems. Unfortunately it's not always possible, especially with a public app. If this is the case, there are analytics tools available which allow you to record information about app usage. Possible insights include how people use the app, how long they spend on each screen, and the paths they follow through the app. 

Learning more about how people use your app will help you to understand which are the most important actions. This will allow you to better design aspects such as button placement, menus and programme flow. As a result, you can be sure users will have a more seamless experience. 

Having designed a new UX for your app, it is important to conduct some real world testing with end users to see how it is received. The most established method is called AB Testing. This involves running two or more designs side by side for a period of time. Your users are then provided with one of the given designs when accessing the app. For example, for an app with 1000 users, 500 will use design ‘A’ and the other 500, design ‘B’. Once your designs are in the wild, you can gain information from analytics services and direct feedback. These insights allow you to work out the best design option for your app. 

Organising a successful AB test sounds like a lot of hard work, but it doesn't have to be thanks to tools and frameworks that aid the testing process. These tools allow you to distribute a single version of your application with different designs shown based on criteria you set. For example, you can say design ‘A’ should go to 75% of users and design ‘B’ should go to 25%. You then build a single app and the framework handles who sees what. This allows you to test your new designs without requiring such a large amount of planning. You can also go on to use these same tools to roll out new designs to a larger user base in a controlled way.  

A widely held opinion is that UX design is only valuable in the consumer world and when developing an enterprise application, the only area considered important is functionality.

That is not true. We know that good UX design has huge potential in enterprise systems and delivers many benefits when the time is spent to properly develop it. These benefits include: 

1. Improved employee satisfaction. Working with end users allows you to produce a system that meets their needs and fits with their work processes, resulting in employees who are much happier and more satisfied. An inefficient system results in workarounds and frustrated employees. Instead, your employees can be free to do their job.  

2. Reduced error rate. A good UX will aid the user with their job; providing defaults, suggestions and validation. This reduces the error rate in an input based system, producing cleaner and more helpful data.  

3. Decreased training costs. Can you imagine implementing a new system without every employee attending multiple training sessions? A good UX design can allow you to do this. Not only will this make your employees happy, it also provides huge cost savings when rolling out a new system. Depending on the size of the user base, a UX design exercise can pay for itself in reduced training costs alone.  

4. Increased efficiency. Through the analysis of process and system flow, efficiency of completing key tasks can greatly improve. This results in less time spent working around the system, and more time put in to productive activities. 

So do you ignore UI and spend on UX?  

Having reached this point you may have come to your own conclusion. Unfortunately, the situation isn't always simple. It is a balancing act, and the balancing point is different for every app.  

If you are a new business wanting quick market traction, you may look to spend on UI design at first to gain a large user base. In contrast, when creating an internal application or upgrading an internal system you have a ‘captive market’, so keeping users happy by spending more on UX design is your best option.    

To make sure that your app is successful it is always important to consider the UX, a bad UX can ruin the best of applications by destroying their usability. Proper planning and research can turn a good system into an amazing one by improving efficiency, reducing errors, and increasing user retention. At the end of the day, it's all about keeping your users happy. 

Image Credit: Baranq / Shutterstock

Rob Burgess is Senior Bespoke Consultant for Waterstons Business and IT consultancy, focusing on mobile development where he works on enterprise mobile application.