How to develop a user-friendly app

17 min read
May 4, 2021

Have you ever considered how amazing it is that the iPhone, a powerful and complex device that can rival a desktop computer, doesn’t come with an instruction manual? 

Yet, we instinctively know how to use it the moment we pick it up.

That’s the power of a user-friendly product.

When that concept is applied to apps, it makes the experience so delightfully smooth and rewarding that the user can’t help but feel engaged.

Still, what makes an app user-friendly?

Is it a great user interface design or intuitive features?

It turns out that “user-friendliness” is a holistic approach that touches on every aspect of the app experience. Call it a philosophy, if you will.

To help you out, here are some tips you can use to make your app more user-friendly. Let’s start with an essential piece of the puzzle—your users.

Focus on the Needs of Your Target Audience

Your target users’ needs are at the core of a user-friendly app. Every feature, UI element, and onboarding process should cater to them. 

If you don’t know their needs yet, start by asking their “why”—why should they use your app? What problem will it solve?

Remember, people don’t care about your app or any other product, for that matter—their only concern is how it will fulfill their needs.

Take a fitness app, for example. People use it because they want to lose weight. Why? To feel great and be more confident.

Centering the entire app experience around these needs is a surefire way to keep users engaged and happy.

However, it’s not enough to merely know their goals or desired results. 

You need to go deep and uncover their behaviors, quirks, biases, and preferences through surveys and interviews.

Let’s go back to our fitness app example. 

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If you’re targeting busy, single moms wanting to get in shape, your research might tell you that they often don’t have long periods to work out. 

Thus, features like short 5-minute sessions or pre-selected routines will be much more effective to keep them engaged than full-length classes.

The bottom line is to never skip on user research, even if it takes time. It’s like getting your hands on the exact blueprint for making a user-friendly app.

Prioritize Security

While not as exciting as cool fonts or layouts, security is every bit as vital for a user-friendly experience. After all, once your user’s private information gets hacked or leaked through your app, they probably won’t be using it for long.

Prioritizing security is the foundation for building trust with your users, especially if you’re going to ask for their data.

Despite this, not too many developers prioritize it as much as they should. 

According to a 2020 Verizon report, 43% of app creators compromised security in favor of faster development time.

Admittedly, making your app secure takes a whole lot of development time and effort. 

Secure mobile apps

Here are a few best practices to get you started.

First, track your app’s assets, including every API, third-party tool, and server connection you’re using. 

Pay extra attention to open-source or commercial software you didn’t develop yourself. Then, go through each one and assess for any vulnerabilities

Update, remove or replace those elements that pose a security risk.

Next, anticipate points of attack, which are parts of your app ecosystem that hackers can exploit the most. These are often server connections or user logins. 

Knowing them in advance allows you to reinforce them with extra protection.

Lastly, protect your users’ data at all costs with multiple layers of encryption, privileges, and access management methods.

Offer Great Design

Your app’s design is just as important as having the right features and functions to solve your user’s problems. 

Even the most functional app will not be user-friendly if it’s ugly, cluttered, or visually jarring.

People buy and decide with their emotions—it’s just how we’re wired. Design happens to be the best way to tap into that.

Think about it—the reason you clicked on an app in the App Store is partly that the icon graphic caught your attention.

The same is true with using the app itself. The goal is to make it engaging, interesting, and easy to use through user interface (UI) design principles.

UI of an mobile app 1

Color is an often understated yet crucial foundation of UI design. It’s human psychology in action. 

Red, for example, evokes feelings of urgency, which is why it’s often used for alerts that require immediate attention. 

Blue, in contrast, has a calming effect, which is effective for financial apps that want to get their users’ trust.

user-friendly app

Graphic elements in your app, including the font you use, also impart certain feelings and emotions. Using quirky illustrations can bring a sense of fun to an otherwise “boring” bank app, for instance.

Also, be consistent

Stick with the same color scheme, layout, and design elements throughout your app.

Finally, the most fundamental design principle of all is simplicity

Apps that are cluttered will be a pain to look at and use, no matter how well-designed they are. This brings us to our next point.

Use Available Space Wisely

Your app’s layout is crucial for the best experience. You don’t want to overload your user with too much information at once. 

A fundamental way of achieving this is through the clever use of space.

Great design is as much about what to remove as it is about what to add. 

Negative space is an essential ingredient for effective UI design. 

It can direct your user’s eyes and emphasizes key parts of your interface. It also helps prevent clutter and gives elements in your app the room to stand out.

However, it’s also important not to reduce screen elements too much in the name of creating space. 

Buttons or icons that are too small can be hard to tap and will frustrate users. 

These need to be large enough (around 7 – 10 mm) to accept input, whether through a user’s thumb or finger.

Also, consider how users hold their phones. Areas of the screen nearer the phone base are easier to reach than those further up, so place input elements accordingly.

Optimize the Font and Graphics Size

We’ve covered the importance of fonts and graphics above, which are elements of great design. 

Still, one point worth mentioning is the need to optimize them to the correct size on-screen.

Let’s start with fonts. 

Your goal with text size is to make it easy to read without breaking any design rules (i.e., don’t make it so huge that they “scream” to the user). 

Small fonts will strain your users’ eyes.

Generally, sticking with font sizes of 11–14 points is a safe bet.

example of fonts inside an app 1536x1108 1

Apart from size, legibility is also crucial, primarily if you use creative fonts. 

We generally recommend reserving these for headings or graphic elements and use more readable sans serif fonts like Arial and Helvetica for the bulk of your text.

As for images in your app, they must support the user experience and never get in the way of the UI and functionality.

Image dimensions are crucial here. 

For example, if you plan to use an image as a background, it should have enough resolution to appear crisp when blown up. 

However, don’t go overboard with it, either. If your file sizes are too large, it can slow down your app’s loading time and negatively impact user-friendliness (more on this later).

The bottom line with optimizing images and fonts is constraint. Only use the minimum needed to contribute to a positive app experience.

Make Onboarding Easy

Onboarding is the foundation of a user-friendly app because it introduces your app to the user as fast as possible. 

It can lead to a positive experience during the first few weeks, which can increase overall engagement.

Without an effective onboarding process, you risk confusing your users. They might also miss out on essential app features that can give them a better experience. 

Either way, both are counter to user-friendliness.

While an onboarding process does take more work and development time, the benefits often outweigh the added costs. 

mobile app onboarding 1

To make implementation easier, here are a few best practices to keep in mind.

First, focus on your value proposition or the most significant benefit your users get from the app. 

Leading with this excites your users and encourages them to go through with the onboarding process. Don’t forget to include your app’s core features as well.

You can also use specific strategies to make your onboarding more exciting. Incorporating gaming elements like progress bars and rewards can get your users addicted to the process.

Finally, make onboarding as fast as possible

Remember, you want them to use your app right away, so the less time they spend onboarding, the better. 

Also, give them the choice to opt out of your onboarding at any time.

If you’d like to know more, check out our comprehensive app onboarding article.

Use Push Notifications Wisely

Push notifications can be a user-friendly app’s best friend and worst enemy. 

On the one hand, it’s easy to annoy your users with excessive push notifications. Far too many apps are guilty of this.

On the flip side, it can be a fantastic user retention tool. 

A study shows that apps that send push notifications regularly in the first 90 days see a 190% increase in retention rates.

The key to reaping its benefits is to use this feature wisely.

Your app needs to walk a fine line between sending notifications to increase engagement and disrupting the user. 

push notifications

Timing is everything – you want to remind them back to your app at the exact time that they need to.

Unfortunately, there’s no rule of thumb on push notification frequency—it all depends on your user and the nature of your app.

There are, however, best practices you can consider. 

For one, only send notifications when you absolutely have to. Critical information, like when a ride-hailing app tells you that your car has arrived, is a prime candidate. 

Next, always give users the option to control which notifications they would like to receive, including turning them off entirely. 

Finally, users will be more tolerable of push notifications the more engaged they are with your app. Sending it progressively over time is an excellent approach. 

Keep Your App Intuitive

“Intuitive” is an adjective you’ll often hear when describing the perfect app.

Essentially, it means your app is easy to use and understand in every sense of the word—not just with the interface but the entire user experience. 

Users can jump straight into an intuitive app with minimal training. They always know where they are and the next steps they need to take. 

contacts management app

Every part of the interface feels so familiar, even if they haven’t used your app before.

Most users value this kind of experience more than anything else. 

The problem with designing an intuitive app is that it can be easy to describe but tricky to nail down. 

Fortunately, there are a few tips you can keep in mind.

UI design plays a huge role in making an app intuitive. 

As a guideline, every feature must be accessible by the user from any screen with minimum navigation, but in a way that doesn’t clutter the screen. 

That requires a clever layout and the effective use of hidden UI elements.

Familiar visual cues in the app are also important, such as using “+” icons to add something or a text bubble icon to indicate a messaging function. 

Your typical users will instantly know what these mean, reducing confusion and eliminating the learning curve.

Other important points include creating a responsive app that gives immediate feedback and giving users the freedom to explore the app and make mistakes with minimal repercussions.

In the end, an intuitive app is all about eliminating frustration from the user experience. 

Reduce App Loading Time

The time it takes for your app to load has a significant impact on how user-friendly it is.

In many ways, loading time is the most basic metric. 

It doesn’t matter whether you have the most intuitive and functional app ever; if users have to wait too long for it to open or run, they will get frustrated and disengage.

Fortunately, a slow app is a relatively easy problem to fix for the most part. There are only two sources of slowing down—the loading time and latency.

Loading time refers to offline delays that are inherent in the app, often the result of slow execution of the code. As a rule of thumb, you should keep loading times below 3 seconds for the best performance.

long loading times

To speed up loading times, try streamlining the source code for faster execution, compressing or optimizing images, and updating third-party tools or APIs.

App latency, on the other hand, is the online delay between your app and a server. 

It’s trickier to fix because network performance is something not entirely under your control. 

You can, however, minimize through content delivery networks (CDN), local data caching, or reducing server access as much as you can.

In cases where a slow loading time is unavoidable, you can use “tricks” like progress bars to help keep users engaged while waiting.

Avoid Redirects

You should generally avoid redirecting users to sites outside of your app. This can be a problem for a variety of reasons.

First, it can be detrimental to engagement because you’re pushing users to leave your app and risk them doing something else. 

Even if it’s something related to your app (like, say, a help article), it can be enough to break the experience. 

Redirecting can also annoy your users, especially if they don’t expect it to happen. Shady apps do this all the time, transferring users to sites to spam them or, worse, infect them with a virus. 

It’s also a weak point that hackers can exploit for various attacks on your users.

Therefore, try to keep everything in your app as much as you can. You can load external content in an in-app browser instead, for example. 

If you absolutely need to redirect users, make sure you clearly state the URL they’re being redirected to and explain why, to set expectations.

Ensure Accessibility

Accessibility is about optimizing your app experience for people with disabilities.

Not only can it increase your user base, but it’s also a gesture that will be greatly appreciated.

If you think that accessibility is not necessary in app development, consider this: 15% of the world’s population has a disability of some kind. That’s a billion potential app users. 

In short, it pays to make them a priority.

The good news is that making your app accessible doesn’t take too much time and effort for developers—and accessibility features will provide added value to your able-bodied users as well. 

There are plenty of best practices you can implement, and we’ll give you some to start with.

Don’t rely solely on colors to communicate something in your app to benefit people with color blindness. 

Ensure Accessibility

For example, if a red light indicator conveys an error, clearly label it with the word “Error” as well. 

You should also consider how contrast works for colors if they become monochromatic.

For people with partial blindness or blurred vision, you can have a screen reader voice out information on your app instead. 

Hearing-impaired people will also benefit from having captions embedded in videos or push notifications that accompany sound alerts.

It’s also good practice to have alternatives to app gestures if your user has some physical disability that prevents them from doing them.

There are plenty of other accessibility tips not covered here. 

However, the most important one bears mentioning: always test your app’s accessibility with the help of those with disabilities

Only then will you know if it’s effective.

Consider Multiple Platforms

Creating an app that works for all major platforms might take more work, but it’s one of the most effective ways to capture a larger user base. 

However, don’t sacrifice user-friendliness along the way.

That means knowing the quirks and nuances of each platform and tailor-fitting your app to look and work flawlessly on them.

different technologies for mobile app development

Both iOS and Android have distinct UI elements, navigation structures, gestures, and visual styles that will feel familiar to their users. 

Adopting these is an excellent shortcut to make your app instantly more familiar and intuitive.

You should also consider multiple device dimensions and have a mobile-responsive design that will adjust accordingly. 

For example, the look and layout of your app should adapt when it appears on an iPhone versus if it’s on an iPad. 

In the end, remember that you’re still building one app experience. 

Your branding, color scheme, UI layout, and functionality should still be consistent from device to device.

Don’t Forget the Offline Experience

A user-friendly app means providing a great user experience, whether online or offline. Thus, your app should still guarantee a degree of functionality even if the user doesn’t have an Internet connection.

Having your entire app experience rely on the user being online constantly is risky. 

Internet outages or network slowdowns do happen—quite often, in fact. If your app stops working when these happen, it will frustrate the user.

There are many ways to approach your offline strategy, and it will largely depend on the nature of your app. 

One that stands out is data synchronization.

Say you have a note-taking app, and the user goes offline. They should still be able to access, create and edit notes like normal. 

Then, when they go back online, there should be a mechanism to synchronize local changes with the online version while eliminating duplicate entries.

The above example also illustrates the freedom of data and transparency, both important to the offline experience. 

Simply put, your users should be able to access their data at all times. 

If the data is offline and not updated, your app must say so, then promise to sync it at the next opportunity.

A User-Friendly App Isn’t Rocket Science

A user-friendly app seems like an elusive goal because not every developer gets it right. However, in reality, it’s actually pretty simple.

At its core, user-friendliness is all about caring about your users enough to tailor-fit an app experience that satisfies their wants, needs, and behaviors. 

If you commit yourself to this goal, then you’ll be on your way to create a user-friendly app that delights your users

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Written by

Vladimir Kolbas

IOS Team Lead

When something unusual happens, Vlado is the man with an explanation. An experienced iOS Team Lead with a PhD in Astrophysics, he has a staggering knowledge of IT. Vlado has a lot of responsibilities, but still has time to help everybody on the team, no matter how big or small the need. His passions include coffee brewing, lengthy sci-fi novels and all things Apple. On nice days, you might find Vlado on a trail run. On rainier days, you’ll probably find him making unique furniture in the garage.

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