How to design your startup (mobile applications)

11 mins read

Designing may be extremely intricate and time-consuming. Still, we hope that we will be able to put everything that we thought founders would get wrong or run into issues within this post. These are general and essential principles that you should be aware of.

Why are you starting a startup?

Since everything around you that you currently experience was made up by people no smarter than you, and you have the power to alter it, you can have an impact on it as well, and you can create something that others can use. So, once you discover it, you will never be the same.

What about design?

Design is about developing and building things that other people can utilize, and removing one word from that phrase, causes it to fail. So, in this article, we're going to look at what design is. What difference does it make? We will go deeply into the ideas of product design, interface design, and visual design. We'll also look at how to do it strategically, even if you have no design expertise and don’t know the design trends, it only takes to be a human being, smart, and put yourself in the shoes of others, in fact, as founder, you definitely need to.

What goes into a great product?

  • Great product management
  • Great design
  • Great engineering
  • Great customer support

Table of contents:

  • What is design and why does it matter?
  • Product design
  • Interaction design
  • Visual design

  • What is design and why does it matter?

    In a nutshell, it is just these two very simple things, creating things for users that work well and delight them. Those are two, sometimes disparate things as we'll see. There will be times in your startup like perhaps now, perhaps tomorrow that you'll want to start applying these things, well Google's, your friend. Everything in the world that you need to know, it's out there and so the computer is truly just a bicycle for the mind to train and learn.

    The other thing that I want to underscore is that we talk about design as the singular thing on its own, but it truly is deeply integrated with this broader picture of how to create great products. It's not just designed on its own, it's how the design interfaces with all the other pieces of the pie. So it takes great product management, in addition to that great design, then engineering, and customer support.

    It's all of these things and especially at your stage, don't box yourself in. You have to know that you are the shepherd of your product, and you're going to have to do every single one of these things. The first common misconception is that design is how it looks. It truly is not only about how it looks, but also how it works.

    The key thing here is how to create things that are not burdened with non-essentials. It really is about purity, about simplicity, this is a guiding force and everything that we see in the marketplace today. History doesn't repeat, it rhymes, and there's very little ‘totally new’ under the sun. In fact, as designers, you probably shouldn't be spending too much time trying to be extremely novel, because novelty is the opposite of functionality.

    So what do I mean by that? Earlier, we talked about form versus function. These were the two Yin and Yang, the opposing forces when you're trying to put together a design. We always want something to be beautiful, to make you feel good, and make the user feel good too, but at the same time, delight is also a part of the novelty. It's that "Hey this is new. I've never seen this before, this is interesting. I want to see more of this. Let me turn the page, let me click next."

    At the same time, the function is the thing that’s the stake. If delight is the sizzle and works well as a steak, that's why we're here. We're trying to get something done. Let’s call out Apple for its iPhone notch, that is the definition of form over function, and certainly, it's incredibly novel.

Certainly, it serves the purpose of a marketer to be able to have this very novel, unalike thing and differentiate it from all of these other smartphones out there. In terms of function when I'm watching a video, this is categorically worse.

So if you take a moment and try to think through, why is it that we see form over function so much in the things we use, the products we use around in our daily lives. Why does this happen? Clearly, this should not happen and so that form should follow function. Then you should emphasize the sympathy directed to your users. Ask yourself, what are your users thinking? What are they feeling? Why are they here? How do they perceive this UI for the first time? You must become genuinely interested in other people, you have to see their point of view. You want to be able to be sympathetic, and understand what their ideas are, what they understand, and what they want.

One of the things that are interesting about building highly technological products is that we often think about them as incredibly complicated machinery. The most useful mental model for us is actually to not think of it as building a car, or even building a website, or writing software, or anything like that. It's somehow like throwing the best possible party you can. That politeness, that inviting welcome nature, that thoughtfulness, that's something that you have to keep in mind as you do your work as not just a designer, but as a founder. The key piece here is knowing what problem you're solving. Here is some extra advice for mobile app startup founders.

This is the main belief of design thinking as well. So apart from not knowing your problem, is also the lack of empathy, and going back to form over function is that, if you don't know who the users are, what their problems are, then you are in danger of creating something faulty.

Product design

I know this isn't formally a part of the design, I just don't know how you could do design without doing this part too. Every single one of these things has fairly specific deliverables. One is a product requirement document (PRD) where you start with a problem statement, and once you have it then you can think about who are these very specific people that have this problem.

Let’s walk through user personas. So personas are just a tool for designers to figure out who are these very specific people. You name these personas and think of them as specific human beings with, sometimes, a backstory. So that will help you a lot when you're making decisions about, well what are you trying to do, and about the features that matter.

Being able to write down specific personas, means figuring out the type of users we want to deliver our product to and being as crisp as possible around what their needs are. We call that user research and it happens before you even start thinking about what problems to solve at some level. So when you see that term out there, if you end up trying to hire people for that role, this is where it fits. Once you know what these requirements are, the next step is prioritization.

So prioritizing and being able to be very firm about these requirements are two of the most fundamental ways that you can make sure you release a product successfully, and you know that the product's going in the right direction. That's product management 101 but if you do this, you will be far ahead of your peers. A lot of people don't even do this very basic step of writing down what these features are, who they are for, what are the problems they're trying to solve, and then what are their respective priorities.

Next are scope, quality, and time. So how much you do, that's part of the prioritization. Quality, its reality is not encompassed by your PRD, it's just purely in how people use your products, in how many bugs there are, in the things that don't work, and these are always an issue. Finally, time. You can always do all the features you want with the highest possible quality, but you might have to slip your date by two or three weeks if not longer. If you don't cut scope likewise, well you might be able to hit your time but users are going to run into 1,000 bugs and you're not going to like that. So if we work backward from that, then this is precisely the process you use to fight that.

Interaction design

All of these things are incredibly important for this very first part, which is just pure product design. Interaction design is here so you know who the user is, what the problem is, and how to translate that into something that you can start working on. The questions you ask are, how will they do it, what are their goals, and how do they achieve them? At the end of the day, what you're trying to get is either a prototype or a wireframe.

There are quite a few prototyping wireframing tools that are out there, and what you want to do is figure out the text, the call to action, and the screen-to-screen flow. You don't want to care about color, how it looks or what font you use. You don't even really have to worry about layout too much either, you should rather start thinking about the layout as a part of this process.

Interaction design is about commands and about telling people what to do because people are incredibly suggestible. An interaction designer is not only the person who figures out where the buttons go, what the layout might be, or what the flow is. They're also the writers, they are trying to influence people directly by using direct command language. Don’t use passive voice, you're not showing, you're telling, you're just describing something about what you're doing in this third-party disembodied voice.

A big company might get away with it because of its immense salesforce, but you as a startup cannot afford that. So everything that you write needs to be direct, and also a direct personal voice. You need the ‘call to action’ to be incredibly obvious, use command language. When they go to that mobile app they should know what they need to do.

The other important part of interaction design is trying to figure out how to get people to do things. We generally think about this in two ways. One is how do you implement actions, for example, you shouldn’t optimize the product for a strange case that doesn’t often happen, like asking users to confirm their password by inserting it twice. The login should be done easily by email and if they forget it, allow them to use “forgot password” instead of typing the password twice.

These are a couple of patterns that you can use. Another big misconception that beginning designers run into all the time is that they're always trying to do something incredibly novel at the interaction design stage. We recommend that you just steal what works, and so don't try to reinvent the wheel. For instance, the motion of ‘pull to refresh’ is something that works incredibly well, also the ‘swiping from left to right’, so try to work with these instead of searching for new ones. A lot of apps do it, but it's become a convention these days because they are easy and natural to use.

That's actually what is desirable for most of your designs. You don't want to be novel, you want to be something that gets people to the right place as quickly as possible.

One other interesting thing I want to call out and it's the danger zone of using design patterns. Some of the most common ones we’ve seen are using the wrong kind of pagination. We’ve seen people design for the web and they use these little dots to represent where you are and also the swiping navigation but sometimes that makes no sense at all. So you have to be incredibly careful with mixing modalities, and even with these design patterns, as you implement them you should think like the user, why am I here? What is the user trying to do? Does this make sense for my modality?

Visual design

Visual design is about blending these things. It's the interaction design and visual design super linked. It is how you tell the user what is important at the visual level. What emotions do you want to evoke, and how do you want them to feel?

Another major misconception that people start to have around visual design is about not expressing themselves. The secret thing is to express what you are trying to and what information you are trying to get across. One of the principles you can apply is to look at any design that you're doing, and just try to figure out if it can be removed without taking away any meaning. That includes texts, lines, borders, and anything else.

We found three very simple principles that you can use in visual design. The first and most important is contrast, for example, the most basic type of contrast that you can give is bold versus not bold, more important, less important, or incredibly simple. Bold is not the only way you can denote what is important versus not. You can use color, and that's an incredibly valuable tool. You can also use size where you can immediately see as a visual designer, just pay attention to when, what is more, and less important.

When users come to your app/site, they try to figure out why they are there, what they are trying to do, and if your app experience is what they want. They will immediately be drawn to the highest contrast things. Then if they care about any of the page’s or app’s parts, they will immediately dive deeper into exactly that part that they enjoy.

So visual hierarchy is your best tool for giving your users the guideposts, this is the way to go. After you’re done with the visual hierarchy, you start learning how to use colors and do your layout. Figure out what you need to put on the page, and then first try to use padding and margin to the extent that you can use a grid, you can put related things close to each other.

So 90% of the time you can probably get away with just using a proper grid with enough spacing, putting related things together with good headings, and using the contrast. Then, using a box is a very important thing. It draws a lot of attention, so that's why you'll see it so commonly on websites around a ‘call to action’ button.

It really is a high contrast thing, but be very careful when you use it so you avoid ending up with this blend of boxes where the user has no idea what's important and what they should be doing. Whereas if you use the grid and that visual hierarchy, it is very straightforward.

Another aspect that's rather important is you don't have to fill every single design, margin to margin. A white space can be incredibly useful, sometimes even helping direct the end-user, helping them understand what's going on. Having a space on the side just gives you a place to put relevant things or to just allow users to be more focused.

All of these bits of advice are incredibly simple things, the use of contrast, a grid, lines, boxes, and the use of color can do a lot for your page or app. In the end, it’s not that complicated, just remember to have empathy, think like a user, what do they look for in your page, and how do your layout, motions, and the rest of the design, impact their experience to make the dive more into that specific thing they’re looking for in your app or site. So there you have it, the most important tips and tricks on how to design the right way your startup, now you don’t have a reason to make the same mistakes.

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