What Everyone Should Know About The Process of Designing Apps
By Michael Flarup

I realised something the other day: I’ve been designing apps for nine years now! So much has changed since the early days and, it feels like developers and designers have been through rollercoaster of evolutions and trends. However, while the actual look and functionality of our apps have changed, along with the tools we use to make them, there are some things that have very much stayed the same, such as the process of designing an app and how we go through the many phases that constitute the creation of an app.

Sure, collectively you could argue that we’ve become a lot better at the process. We’ve invented new terminology and even completely new job titles to better facilitate the process of designing mobile applications. But, at its core, the process remains largely unchanged:

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The process in broad strokes

And while this approach has become a truism in most of our industry, it’s far from obvious for anyone entering the field. A lot of articles have been written about all the different aspects of this process, but that doesn’t seem to change the fact that I encounter very basic questions from clients and new designers alike. How do you go about designing an app? So here’s an article about just that. A top level, somewhat simplified and very honest overview of the steps involved in designing an app. This is an account of how most of the apps I work on are born, complete with shameless links to the tools I use (several of them my own).

It might be different from how you do it. The steps might be named differently or the tools might vary. In fact, If you’re a seasoned designer, you’ll know most of this. You might even think the content is trivial or “something everyone knows”. In that case, you’re most likely part of the bubble we live in. But if you’re a new designer, or someone trying to understand what you’re paying other people to do, this will hopefully give you a down-to-earth overview.

Now when people think of ‘designing’ something, their thoughts often circle around the visual aspects of a product. Pixel pushing in Photoshop or laying grids in Sketch, but that’s a common misconception. Design, in the context of this article, covers the entire process. It is every deliberate action meant to produce something. The truth is that from the moment you get an idea, you are designing.

Idea

Everything starts with an idea. This might be your idea, or an idea that a client is approaching you with. Ideas are great, but they’re also a dime a dozen. The sooner you realise that ideas are nothing but passing phantoms of something that might one day turn into a product, the better you’ll be able to handle this phase.

Getting the idea ‘right’ is far less important than people think and we tend to put way too much stock in ideas. Ideas are sealed up and protected by NDA’s, paraded around in pitch decks and tend to take on a very defined state much too early.

Keeping your idea malleable and changing for as long as possible is, in my experience, much more healthy and leads to far better end-results. Ideas should be subjected to a healthy dose of darwinism before being pursued. Survival of the fittest. You want to evolve the best version of your idea, and to that end, it can make sense to talk about a circular process within this phase.

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Depending on the type of idea it is, there might be different questions that make sense to ask. In the case of apps, these are some of the questions we often ask:

  • Is this idea financially viable? 
    Making anything takes time, effort and money. Can you recoup your investment? Does the idea have a solid plan for revenue? A realistic one?
  • Is this idea technically feasible?
    Can this be made? Who is going to make it? How would we go about making it? What sort of tools do we use? What sort of data/API/touch points do we need? What are the obstacles facing the implementation of the idea?
  • Is someone else already doing this?
    Most things today is a remix. That’s cool, but what is it that we can do better? What components of this idea differentiates from existing ideas? How are we adding something new to the market?
  • Could this be made simpler/different?
    Are there other ways to accomplish the same goals? Other methods that could be more effective or take less time to execute on?

Those are just a handful of the tough questions you need to ask when you or your clients idea is taking shape. To be honest, 90% of app ideas I’ve ever been pitched or come up with myself falls flat on the first question. People always underestimate how long it takes to make something and always overestimate how much they stand to gain from it.

Idea workshops are great ways to force evolution of your ideas. You can use things like Trello to keep track of aspects of your idea in an environment where you can move around and prioritise concepts. Collaborating on ideas help promote aspects of the idea that are strong and resonates with participants while eliminating things that are detracting from the idea.

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Generate Challenge and Revise ideas with others

Once you’re satisfied with an idea, it’s time to put things in writing.

Spec

A ‘Specification’ or a ‘Spec’ is the piece of paper(s) that declares what your app does and how it does it. It’s the blueprint, if you will. There are quite a few ways to do a spec, ranging from the more light (also sometimes called a ‘brief’) to the enveloping complete breakdown of everything. Whichever way you choose to go about it, always do a spec. I repeat: Always do a spec.

In client projects, specs are often contracts on which estimates can be based on — the mother document that dictates to all parties involved what needs to be made and (roughly) how. In personal or in-house projects they’re not as commonly seen as a priority, but they should be.

You’d be surprised how much of an idea is further developed, changed or refined when you’re asked to put everything in writing. Areas of uncertainty are naturally brought forward and further questions are raised. In a sense, the act of creating a spec is the first conscious and calculated ‘design’ of the solution. A lot of initial ideas and assumptions are explored and illuminated in this document, which keeps everyone involved in tune with what is being built. It can also be beneficial to periodically revisit a spec and update it retroactively while the project moves into its next phases.

A program like Pages, Word, or any other simple markup editor will be fine for this phase. The real trick is deciding what to include and what to leave out of a spec. It is best to keep things short and concise under the assumption that the more you write, the more can be misinterpreted. List both functional and non-functional requirements. Explain what your app is, and not how it needs to be done. Use plain language. In the end, the best spec is the one that is agreed upon by all parties.

Many articles could be written about the art of a good spec, however, this is not one of those articles.

Wireframe

Wireframes, or low fidelity mockups, can be either part of the spec or built from the spec. Information Architects (iA’s) and User Experience Designers (UX designers) usually take ownership of this phase but, the truth is it’s important that everyone on the team discuss and understand how the product is put together and how the app is structured.

If you’re a single designer working on the product, then you’re likely the one holding the marker here. Draw on your experience of the platform conventions, knowledge of controls and interface paradigms. Apply that knowledge to the challenges you’re trying to solve with the people who might have domain specific knowlegde. The fusion of knowing how to do things best on the platform with knowledge about the target audience or the goal of the product, creates a strong foundation for the architecture of the app.

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An example of one of our white boarding sessions

We tend to do workshops either internally or, ideally, with the client and go through the spec, screen by screen, and whiteboard the wireframes. They’re then brought into a tool to be digitised, shared and revised. Many people prefer something like Omnigraffle or Sketch, some of us still use Photoshop.

There are many tools out there that will help you wireframe. On applypixels.com I’ve got a wireframe UI kit that I use. Here’s an example of how work like that is done:

Wireframes are the first deliberate design made in a project. Everything not caught in the production of the spec usually becomes painfully obvious during this phase. Inconsistencies in navigation, entire missing sections of the app or counterintuitive flows are brought forth, discussed and fixed. I like to think of it as the great ironing out of all the wrinkles the original idea has left behind.

Digital tools for wire framing can speed up the process
Digital tools for wire framing can speed up the process

Armed with a spec and a wireframe you’re now ready to get serious. This is also the material that I advice you have ready when you contract other people to work on your project. Specs and wireframes can vary greatly in quality, but showing that you’ve made those initial preparations makes all of the difference. You had an idea, you’ve committed it to a document and you’ve thought through a proposed solution.

You’d be surprised how many people do not do this. Why? Because it’s difficult and laborious work. You need to be specific about what you want and how you propose it could be done. The single reason why most apps that I’m pitched doesn’t get off the ground is because it is entirely more compelling to talk about the overall idea of an app instead of asking the tough questions and getting into the gritty details of how to execute it.

Prototype

The next step varies greatly, in fact the next 3 steps are all intwined and often runs alongside eachother. With the spec and the wireframe in hand, we’re now ready to attempt a prototype. The word prototype in this context covers many different things, but ultimately it’s about creating a bare-bones version of the app with the goal of testing your hypotheses and get early feedback. Some people use tools like Invision or Marvel where you can convert your low fidelity mockups to interactive “apps” that you can tap around in. We often go straight for a native prototype written in Swift.

There are pros and cons to the different approaches. More complex and “bigger” apps with larger teams influencing the product (or with more loose specs) might benefit more from this intermediate step where iterations are quicker and more easily shared. For smaller teams with a more solid spec, going directly to code allows for a quicker turnaround while laying the foundation for the actual app. This also often handles implementation issues more head on as you’re actually building the real product right from the get go.

There are many tools popping up that span the gulf between visual design and functional prototype aiming to take collaborative design to new interactive heights. Both Framer and Figma are worth looking at.

How you choose to prototype depends on many different factors. The most important thing in this step when deciding is getting early validation of your idea. A bad experience with a prototype might cause you to uncover issues with your wireframes, your spec, or even the very core of your idea. You can then, before you’ve invested time in the next two phases, make changes or abandon it entirely.

Visual design

You’ve been ‘designing’ all along, but in this phase you get to what a lot of people consider ‘design’. Visual design deals with the appearance of things. Not just making things look nice, but also making sure that there’s a consistent and identifiable visual language throughout the app. Here design helps, not only to tell a story and communicate your brand, but also guide users through challenging parts of the app or make particular aspects of the experience more enjoyable.

Proper visual design should build on top of all of the experiences you’ve made in the previous stages. It should support the overall ethos of the idea, the goals defined in the specs, the flows laid out in the wireframes and the learnings learned from the prototype.

Visual design is not just a ‘skin’, it’s not a coat of paint applied to make things look pretty. It is the visual framework you use to create a coherent and consistent experience, tell an engaging story and differentiate your product from other products. Great visual design elevates the mundane, makes clear the unclear and leaves a lasting impression with the user.

Rules defined in the great unwritten design manual of your product, informs every choice about every visual solution you could need to come up with. The work in this stage consists of the designer defining a series of rules and conventions, and then applying those to every challenge he or she might encounter when putting together the interface. Luckily you don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time (even though we sometimes do just that). iOS & Android has a ton of existing rules, conventions and expressions we can lean on. “UI Kit with a Twist” is an expression being thrown around that covers the idea of a visual design that leans on the standard iOS UI components, but with a sassy colored navbar or other minor customisation.

There is no right way of creating a visual design for an app and this stage is probably the phase that has the most tools and approaches. If you’ve been diligent and digitised (and updated) your wireframes you could start to add embellishment to those and build it from there in Sketch or Photoshop. Another place to start is to base your design off existing iOS UI elements and then tweak from there.

I usually start my visual design basing it off a UI kit, like the one available from applypixels.com (available for both Sketch & Photoshop). This helps me lean on iOS conventions while attempting to break the mold and experiment in subtle but meaningful ways. There are many other UI kits out there and particularly places like ui8.com can be a great place to shop around for a pre-made style to start from.

Visual design hardly ends with you handing something off to the developer. It is a continued process of constantly evolving and evaluating the visual rulebook you’ve made and the choices it dictates. Delivering and redelivering assets or tweaking interactions, sometimes right up until you ship.

Development

Next up is the development of the app — or, as it is sometimes the case, alongside is the development of the app. In the ideal world, the person responsible for developing the app has been part of all of the previous phases, chiming in with his or her experience, deliberating on the difficulty level of implementation of various proposed designs. Discussing best practises in terms of structure, tools, libraries etc.

I have come across people’s desire to clearly separate development from design, both from an organisational and a cultural perspective. It is my clear conviction that the best products are build by teams that have a mutual understanding and who benefit from multiple professionals from various disciplines. Development shouldn’t be devoid of a design presence and design shouldn’t be without development knowhow.

There’s an obvious balance to this. Designers probably shouldn’t have much to say in the choice of an API implementation, like developers probably shouldn’t get to veto a color scheme. However, during a wireframing session a developer could save a designer from making a disastrous proposed solution that would cause implementation to increase tenfold. Likewise, a designer overlooking implementation of navigation could steer the interaction towards a much more enjoyable experience that better fit the consistency and feel of the app. Use your own best judgement but don’t rob your team of their combined expertise by putting up imagined barriers.

A lot could be written about the iterative nature of development too, but I am not the person to write that article.

Iterate

The real truth, that seems to catch a lot of people off guard is that you’re never actually done designing. In most good projects, designers have product ownership from spec to ship. You want to avoid design becoming a relay run where you hand off something to another department or group of people where you don’t have a say. Even just by listing the individual steps like I’ve done above I run the risk of misleading you, as it can very easily be understood as a progression that runs from A to B. Designing apps, or anything for that matter, is rarely a straight line or a clear succession of stages.

While our tools have changed a lot over these past years and the things we make have changed too, the underlying process of making apps remains largely the same:

  • 💡 Get an idea.
  • 🖊 Write it down.
  • 🔨 Build a prototype
  • 💃 Enter into the dance between design and development until something comes out of it.

As you progress down this narrowing funnel of bringing something into the world, you make assumptions which you then challenge and revise until some nugget of truth makes it into the next stage (or the next build).

People tend to think about building apps the way they think about building a house. First, you lay the foundation, then the walls come up and the appliances are installed. It seems straightforward. There is a blueprint, a design, and a team building it. This fallacy is the source of much grief in the world of making software. It’s why clients expect you to be able to tell them how much their idea costs to develop. It’s why estimates are almost always wrong, and frankly, why we have so many terrible products. It implies that we know the outcome of the process — that right from the start we’re working in a mostly controlled environment with a clearly defined goal.

But if the process and the stages outlined above teaches us anything, it is that we don’t and we shouldn’t have one. The process is there to help us explore the potential by challenging our assumptions and iteratively execute each step. To bring the best nuggets from the idea into the hands of people.

Rather than building a house, designing apps is probably more like composing a symphony. Each profession a separate instrument. In the beginning it sounds odd, hollow and out of tune. Slowly, however, as we move through the acts and apply our experience and skill iteratively it finds its direction and becomes some version of the music described in the original idea.

 

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