Golden Rules for Building User-Friendly Apps

User interface (UI) design is a big topic in application development. So big, in fact, that entire books have been dedicated to it, and it has been a defining principle of the product design strategies of some of the world’s most successful tech companies, such as Google, Amazon and Apple. 

But what exactly does UI design mean, why does it matter and, most importantly of all, how do you do it successfully? In this blog, we’ll try to break down one of the biggest subjects in software programming into something a little more digestible. 

Why UI design matters

If you’re not quite sure what UI design means, let’s put it another way. Whenever you build a piece of software, one of the overarching aims is making the application as user-friendly as possible. People don’t want to use complex, sluggish, convoluted programmes. In fact, failing to prioritise ease of use and convenience in your design is a sure fire way to doom any application to failure.

How user-friendly a piece of software is centres on the interface. This is, after all, the point where the user interacts with and manipulates the app, usually via a screen (although, with the rise in voice-activated smart devices, that is slowly starting to change).

The UI therefore dictates everything a user can do with an app. The first principle of user-friendly UI design is to build the software in a way that helps rather than hinders what the user wants to do with it. That covers the way everything is laid out on screen, the navigation from one part of the programme to another, the way options are flagged and explained, the content, the aesthetics, the technical performance and more.

So how do you implement these things in a way that makes a UI straightforward to use, intuitive and convenient?

Some of the most famous iterations of what makes a great UI design, such as Ben Schniederman’s book Designing the User Interface and Nielsen and Molich’s Ten User Interface Guidelines date back to the 1990s. They have stood the test of time as classic definitions which continue to be relevant in practice today. Here’s our own summary of the golden rules we follow when aiming to build user-friendly applications.

Keep designs simple, uncluttered and consistent

Small details can add up to have a significant impact on the quality of an experience a programme offers. Building a web app where you try to cram too much ‘stuff’ onto the screen, for example, can make a user feel overwhelmed and disoriented. Even using lots of different colours and fonts can have a negative impact. 

That’s why one of our design golden rules is to keep things stripped down and straightforward. Clear demarcation between elements with plenty of white space, simple colour pallets, not overusing icons and graphics and so on make it easier for users to scan their options and feel in control wherever they happen to be in the app. Certainly with web and application design, striking style doesn’t have to be all about going big and bold. There’s a refined elegance in simplicity, too. 

Go big on prompts and navigation cues

People are not that good at remembering sequential steps required to complete a task, certainly until they have repeated it so many times that it becomes second nature to them. One of the big challenges for software developers is helping users move about an app with confidence and control.  

Because you can’t fit all options available on a single screen (especially on mobile devices), you have to design apps so tasks are completed by moving through different views. But if you don’t flag up how to move through various options clearly enough, users will quickly forget what they need to do next and become frustrated as a result. 

That’s why we always feel it is important to include plenty of prompts and navigation options. By including various menus, links and shortcuts, you not only give the user greater choice, you also increase the likelihood that they will spot a pathway that jolts their memory and helps them progress with what they are trying to do. 

Help users avoid or at least undo mistakes

Nobody likes doing something wrong when they are immersed in a task and having to go back on themselves to repeat it. User-friendly app design should therefore aim to minimise the number of mistakes someone can make, typically by not allowing progress. A good example of this is building a form where only certain types of information are accepted in each field, so that an email address can’t be accidentally inputted into the password field or vice versa.

Of course, it’s very difficult to eliminate all errors completely, so the objective then should be to take steps to help users undo it in as pain-free a manner as possible. This should start with clear signposting in plain English that explains to the user what the error is and what they can do to fix it. An undo feature is often the easiest way to put a mistake right.

Don’t underestimate the value of real-life experience

Programmers can spend all the time they want in the development environment working on a build that they believe offers the ultimate in seamless, high-quality user experience. But it’s dangerous to second-guess what actual users might think. Until you have an application ‘out in the wild’ being used by real people, it’s very difficult to anticipate all the issues that might arise.

At Key Element, user feedback is an integral part of our development process. We use Agile methodologies to guide our UX prototyping and testing, developing apps in short iterative cycles where features are added incrementally in stages. At each stage, we release a version of the app for testing by clients and real-life end users, and use that feedback to inform the next stages. As the process progresses, we can be sure that we are developing a product that gets closer and closer to meeting user’s expectations based on their direct experience of it.

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