The Basics: Starting Out In App Design

Things to know, tools to use, practices to develop.

Note: Excerpts from this post originally appeared in a Dice Insights article titled Breaking into Mobile App Design: A Guide.


What tools should mobile app designers be familiar with?

The digital tools we use are constantly evolving, whether it be for designing, prototyping, or both, so gaining a sense of fluidity and adaptability when picking up and learning new programs is more important than perfecting one particular system.

Right now people are using Sketch, Figma, Adobe, Principle, Framer, and myriad others, with new programs emerging all the time. Figma is one of the newest rising stars I’ve been trying out, with its very handy team collaboration in real-time. But Sketch is about to release a new version that aims to surpass even that, so it’s an exciting time!

What's different about designing for mobile?

Since designers are always considering things like context-specific needs and accessibility, we really just extend that attention to the mobile environment in order to address the unique attention patterns, thumb and finger ranges, tapping interactions, et cetera that are inherent in designing for phones rather than larger, more stationary screens. 

Doing research and learning about uniquely mobile features and user needs will help direct those skills, as well, because mobile technologies open up a whole new set of opportunities, too. With built-in tools like motion and light sensors, geo -tagging, -tracking, and -fencing, AR Kit, and more – not to mention the now-ubiquitous voice – designers have an even wider range of tools with which to work. There are so many possibilities outside of the screen-box.

What should I learn?

Learn as much as you can about the building process. Having a grasp of what is possible technically will help you create better and more interesting designs, whatever the platform. And most importantly, by focusing on the users and their needs, designers have the flexibility to craft experiences across media. 

Developing a practice for research and empathy, then testing and iterating, is critical and device-agnostic. We are not always one of our own target audiences, so keep doing the research – reading everything you can, talking to people about their specific needs and contexts – and keep checking in with those you’re designing for throughout the process.

What's different about designing for Android versus iOS?

There are a few key differences between designing for Android and Apple products – things like tabs, settings, and in-app navigation – but it's not overwhelming. 

It’s always good to go over Google’s Material Design for Android and Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines for their products just to check for standards, iconography, and patterns as you work. I think we all fall into one camp or the other personally, so it’s good to refresh ourselves when designing for both, especially as both companies continue to come out with new tech and corporate directions that change the landscape.

How can I tell if my UX is too complicated?

I think every designer has had that moment when you realize what you’ve initially done is visually impressive but has some key usability issues. It’s disappointing! 

But if people can’t use it, it’s pointless. During the design process, it’s always important to periodically take a step back and check in on the usability – is that lighter grey text you chose for aesthetic reasons actually accessible? Would the slick animation you have planned break someone out of the flow you’re building? Is that new design trend you’re trying out actually applicable in this context? Can people even read it?

Design is about solving problems, and the visuals should always aid in that aim. A clear, well-planned user experience forms the basis of a design, while the visual design complements, reinforces, and augments the underlying interaction models, flows, and structure. Without a good user experience, you’ve entirely missed the point.

How should I prepare before applying for jobs?

Be able to talk about your work. It’s easy sometimes to feel like your work should speak for itself, but walking others through your process is essential.

When presenting work and ideas, being a bit bold never hurts. Volunteer info instead of waiting for questions to come to you. Why did you make each of those design decisions? What was the context and how did you come to that decision? Where did you need to compromise, and why?

Articulating your design choices and speaking clearly about your work doesn’t just show that you think things through, it also shows that you can convey your ideas to multiple audiences: coworkers, clients, other designers, and developers.






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