Software development acronyms can be confusing and, quite frankly, a little over-the-top. It’s rare these days to have a conversation where someone doesn’t mention the MVP and CPC – or PMF, ARPU, CTR, IAP and WAP.
Google any that inspire head-scratching, but let’s focus on two of the most important design acronyms for entrepreneurs and digital product creators:
UX and UI
“Yeah, yeah. I know what those mean,” you might be thinking.
“But… do you really?” I would ask.
Humor me for a moment.
UX stands for User Experience. It’s all about maximizing how people flow through an app or site, structuring information properly, and ensuring that users like to open and interact with your product. A positive UX eliminates friction and confusion, and it makes the app enjoyable to use.
UI stands for User Interface. This is the look and feel of everything from images to buttons to graphics and text. The right interface makes your product look professional. It builds trust and confidence, ensures you attract the right customers, and immediately distinguishes your app in the market.
Building from the bottom up
My kids think I draw pictures and play games all day at work (they’re not entirely wrong), but I tell them that my job is like building a house. The UX is the blueprint. It maps the technical structure, and outlines how you move from the kitchen to the bathroom. The UI is all the pretty, sensory stuff inside. It’s the furniture, the paint colours, the fluffy pillows and the soft rugs.
So, I plan things out – where to put the plumbing, electricity and structural beams – but I also make sure the app looks great and is ready for house guests.
We’re all digital product users, so we know first-hand that both UX and UI are essential – even if you’ve never thought about WHY an app feels simple and compelling. We can feel innately that the structure and the décor need to be solid.
If we put them in a Mad Max-style cage match, though, UI would always emerge victorious. For apps and digital products, almost nothing matters more than UI.
Putting UI to the test
An Australian app developer company made two versions of a single app. They released the first, beautifully-designed version and worked with Apple’s App Store to lock the ratings at one star. The reviews were awful, too. People warned each other not to download the app and bashed every part of it.
A year later, the researchers released a poorly-designed and downright ugly version of the same app, but this time the ratings were locked at five stars, and the reviews were glowing.
After spending equal time in the store (in the same category and with all other variables negated), the beautiful version earned $87,000, while the bad one brought in $56. This groundbreaking test proved that an app’s design and appearance – from the brand icon to the final screen – matters more than positive ratings.
The power of trust
As of May 2017, there were 2.2 million iOS apps in the App Store. With that kind of volume, how on earth do you choose? People want to download something that feels trustworthy – and if it looks good, they’ll forgive you for almost everything else.
Since the caveman days, humans have also been adept at making snap visual judgments. Should I eat that spiky plant? Chase that wooly mammoth? We are built to take in huge amounts of information and decide in a fraction of a second.
Today’s app users have incredibly sophisticated taste and visual sensitivity. Underestimate them at your peril, because if you don’t look pro, you’ve already lost the game – and it doesn’t matter what’s actually in the app.
Even when I repeatedly beat the UI drum, most entrepreneurs still underestimate its power. They worry about features, and they get really stressed about price. Founders often think they need to be the cheapest app out there, but products with a premium price point or a fair subscription model typically do well. Ultimately, it’s all about finding a balance between value and visuals.
Emotional drivers and ease of use
Let’s return to poor, neglected UX now. Don’t think it doesn’t matter, because it sure does. As we’re iterating and testing a product and discovering the needs of early adopters, UX plays a starring role.
For example, when you download and open an app for the first time, what happens next is essential. Your introduction, or onboarding, should build trust, quickly explain the app’s value proposition, show how to use it, and create a sense of ownership. That’s a lot to accomplish in just a couple screens or a few precious seconds.
The stakes get even higher if you’re asking new users to do something, like fill out a form, connect to their Facebook account, pay for a feature or create an account. Apps typically lose 80-90% of users at these pivotal moments, which we call drop-off gates.
In order to avoid seeing users fall off the cliff and close your app, we apply UX strategies to keep people engaged. Here are a couple common techniques:
Keep the gates open for as long as you can
We never want to force users to sign up or create an account right from the landing page, for example. Let them come in and look around. Figure out what the product is all about. Airbnb does this well by allowing people to browse available places without creating an account. Users can get excited about a destination and learn how the app works long before they have to provide personal details.
Use emotional connections to drive behavior
Once an Airbnb user is ready to move forward, the app asks them to share some personal info with the member on the other side of the booking. They can connect, chat, and create a relationship before the actual transaction takes place. The finalized booking is the carrot on the stick, so it’s important to delay that moment. You want to build the excitement, anticipation and emotional connection that incites a user to follow through and complete the booking.
Experiment to find the right triggers
In the early days of Twitter, the team learned that a huge number of users dropped off after they created an account. People would sign up – and then never return. Through testing and experimentation, Twitter discovered that by requiring new users to follow at least 10 other Twitter members during the onboarding process, the drop-off rate took a nosedive.
Why did this work? Users who connected with people they knew or admired or were simply curious about quickly felt a sense of ownership. They made connections and wanted to see what other Twitter users were saying on the platform. They had conversations. Other people began to follow them. The loop soon got tighter and more engaging.
Create habitual dependence
Enticing Twitter users back in via conversation and connection establishes habitual dependence – a cycle that most of us understand intimately. It’s that thing that compels you to pick up your phone and check Instagram, or to get those last 1,000 steps on your FitBit. Ensuring your app has that something is an art and science built on psychology, sociology, human biology and lots of trial and error.
We know that humans love instant gratification. We crave a quick win. And speaking of FitBit, that’s why the smart people who built the product made sure new users quickly rack up badges. As soon as you plug it in, the app rewards you for putting one foot in front of the other. You feel special and you want to get that next badge.
Transform tasks and steps into games
Status hooks, badges and wins are also a form of gamification. We compel users to take a desired action by turning that action into a pursuit. Facebook clearly isn’t a game, but the more friends and connections you add on the platform, the stickier it becomes. You’re less likely to leave because you’re invested and you have 250 friends sharing their vacation photos and restaurant meals.
LinkedIn gamifies its platform by awarding benefits for using and staying in the network. When you’re deemed an “all-star” user, it feels like you’ve just sprinted past the other runners or kicked a goal into the net. It’s strangely satisfying (even if you’re a cynic), and it makes you want more.
Develop action-driven learning
In the early ‘70s, Allan Paivio developed the Dual Coding Theory, which (loosely) holds that verbal and visual information work together to enhance our cognition and memory. In app development, this means teaching people how to do something as they actually do it. We use graphics and text to simplify what might otherwise be a complicated process.
A mobile game called Cut the Rope is a great example of Dual Coding Theory in action. Instead of reading how to play the game or watching a demo, you learn by playing. We can apply the same logic to onboarding. Smart UX design will teach people how to use and interact with the app as they begin doing exactly that.
Cut the excess
At Appster, we also spend a lot of time on Velocity Optimization, which is a process of determining all the steps required to complete an action, then cutting them down to the bare minimum. We remove as many taps as possible and try to move people quickly through gates and flows.
We also sequence data to help people understand how long an action will take, or to help them get through a certain step. If there’s a boring form to fill out, for example, it might work better to spread that form across six beautiful and cleanly-designed screens rather than forcing the user to complete it in a single, overloaded one.
We’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible with UX – and this doesn’t even begin to explore the intricacies of testing and refining based on user feedback. It’s a fascinating field that can have a massive impact on the success of your app. Bring UI back into the story and you could have a cage match, but these two contenders are better off battling a shared enemy: app deletion.
A final thought – and some homework
Even if you know the basics of UX and UI, I recommend digging a little deeper to understand how they can enhance your product. It should also go without saying that anyone you partner with to create your app should have deep and nuanced knowledge of these constantly-changing factors.
My team and I spend a lot of time following the latest UX and UI news. We look at how Webby- and other award-winning apps are solving common problems. We read books, watch videos, and try to keep ourselves up on new research. If you’re ready to get equally nerdy, I would recommend following these blogs and newsletters: