The Essential Guide to App UX Optimisation

The Essential Guide to App UX Optimisation

User Experience (UX) is an essential aspect of modern app design and development. However, not all organisations have a handle on what UX optimisation is and how it ensures apps meet the needs of the people using them.

To remedy this, we decided to write an essential guide to the way developers typically approach app optimisation.. To simplify things, we split UX into three fundamental concepts – use, access and consistency. Working around these three foundations of UX optimisation, we examine the ways we improve an app’s performance and deliver a world-class user experience.

A brief introduction to User Experience

two people looking at a whiteboard - a brief introduction to User Experience

Before we get down to business, we thought it would be a good idea to ensure we’re all on the same page when it comes to what UX means and why it’s important. Don’t worry – a quick definition and a few compelling stats, then we’ll get stuck into the good stuff.

As Don Norman coined the term User Experience in the 1990s, it may be best to start with his definition.

“The first requirement for an exemplary user experience is to meet the exact needs of the customer, without fuss or bother. Next comes simplicity and elegance that produce products that are a joy to own, a joy to use.” (Nielsen Norman Group)

As you can see, Norman took a relatively broad approach to UX. Over the years, this approach has narrowed, particularly as UX was applied to specific fields, such as mobile app development. But why is UX important? Take a look…

  • 90% of users say that poor performance is the main reason they stop using an app (Toptal)
  • 80% of users are willing to pay more for a good user experience (TrueList)
  • 35% of ecommerce sales are lost due to poor UX (Amazon Web Services) .

To summarise, a greater focus on UX enhances customers’ perceptions of your brand, helps you retain customers, and makes customers value your products and services more.

Use – the ways users interact with the mechanics of your app

The first aspect of app UX optimisation developers look at is usability. Specifically, the way an app fulfils customer needs, how they engage with it physically and what prevents them from doing so effectively.

Serving a purpose

What do users want to achieve with your app? It’s a question that goes straight to the heart of the issue and is the first thing on a designer’s mind at the start of a project. All apps need to serve a purpose, whether it’s to entertain, inform or facilitate purchases. The UX is built and optimised around that purpose.

The same is true when you think about more specific functions. Usually, an app facilitates several processes and enables users to complete various tasks. However, users generally utilise certain features more often than others. For instance, users open up their banking app to check their balance or make a transfer more often than they do to deposit a cheque. As a result, app design should prioritise these processes by making them far more prominent.

An effective way of optimising this aspect of the user experience is by referencing usage data. With existing apps, developers look at the analytics to establish:

  • How long users interact with an app
  • How regularly users open an app
  • What features users engage with most regularly
  • Whether certain features and processes are ignored despite prominent positioning.

Usage and performance analytics provide considerable insight into whether an app performs a valuable function for users. Sometimes, users lead the way and indirectly show developers what they want and need from the app.

In instances when there is no existing app or usage data to draw on (ie. when creating an entirely new app), the process involves a considerable amount of research. Typically, app developers will:

  • Create detailed user personas
  • Perform competitor analysis
  • Create the user flows
  • Wireframe the individual app screens
  • Build a functional prototype for initial testing.

Distractions detract from the design

As developers make core tasks more prominent, they also remove superfluous data, details and visual stimuli. Users tend to engage with apps on smaller screens. Clutter makes the user experience far messier, more overwhelming and difficult to manage. Distractions direct users away from the key processes and detract from the overall experience. 


Distractions can also be a product of poor design. When considering UX, it’s a good idea to ensure the elements of your app look like the way they behave. Want a user to tap I Agree? Make the text look like they can press it. Make it look like a button. The reverse is also true. Good developers always avoid making design elements look like they do things they don’t. It’s confusing, frustrating and distracts the user from their journey through the app’s workflows.

Understand how users physically interact with devices

To optimise app UX, you must understand how users physically engage with their devices. Most importantly, how they hold them, wear them (eg. smart watches) or position them. This may sound simple, but it’s a pretty complex and fascinating area of study and some serious research has gone into the biomechanics of device usage.

In this guide, we focus on three aspects of physical device usage:

Size of elements – for users to easily engage with an app, they need to be able to interact with its elements. This means making them an adequate size for tapping and far enough apart that you don’t mistakenly tap a nearby element.

Thumb reach – whether users hold their device with one hand or two, they almost always use their thumbs to interact with the screen and input data. Consequently, thumb reach plays a big role in guaranteeing ease of use. Only around a third of a device’s screen is within natural reach of the thumb (Google). Anything outside of that area requires a thumb stretch or hand movements.

What does this mean in practical terms for UX? Developers place important actions and navigation functions within the natural reach of the thumb. They also position less regularly used features and those that you don’t want to be triggered accidentally (eg. delete or undo functions) in the hard-to-reach areas of the screen.

Image Source: Smashing Magazine — The Thumb Zone: Designing For Mobile Users

Screen size – not all devices are designed alike. Some have small screens, some have big screens. While big screens may be more visually appealing and give you a much larger area to play with, there’s also a lot more space that’s difficult for your thumbs to reach. Experienced developers consider all device types and cater for a wide range of screen sizes.

Access – ensuring people can find and use your app

Next, we’re moving on to the role issues of access play in optimising app UX. You can interpret access in several different ways, all of which contribute to the user experience. 

First, there’s access to the app. How do users find it? Then there’s the accessibility of the onboarding process: is there a steep learning curve when using the app? Is it intuitive? Finally, there’s accessibility for different audiences. Are the app and its features accessible to everyone?

App access – where and how to find it?

The user experience begins before an app is opened or even downloaded for the first time. The first step in the user journey is searching for an app. How and where users find an app defines who uses it. And where you position your app is often dictated by one of the earliest design decisions – whether to go native or develop a dedicated web app.

There are two main types of native apps – fully native and hybrid apps. Fully native apps are restricted to the OS they are developed for. Hybrid apps are more complex but offer access to several operating systems and therefore different app stores. Native apps make full use of an OS’s capabilities, whereas adaptive apps are maybe limited by some of the platform’s features. A good example of this is a custom Apple Watch app. Whether you opt for a native app or a web app depends on a complex combination of factors, so we’ll save that important discussion for another blog.

Learning curve – familiarity makes things easier

When a user first opens an app, they want to get stuck straight into the action. They don’t want to struggle to get to grips with the interface, fumble their way through the workflow or go through a long and testing onboarding process. As a result, developers tend to smooth out the learning curve in two ways:

  • They think about familiarity – we’ve been using mobile devices for the best part of 15 years now. Over that period, we developed a few ingrained behaviours. We intuitively understand that certain gestures produce predictable results. We swipe sideways to delete or share, for instance.

When it comes to UX, familiarity is our best friend. So developers lean into it. They make sure things work in the same way they have for years. Your business may be trying to do something totally new, but that doesn’t mean your app UX needs to. For this reason, Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines and Google’s Material Design system are invaluable resources that help developers build easy and intuitive apps.

  • Consider a quick onboarding – some apps require no onboarding. Others may benefit from giving the user a quick lesson in how things work and where to locate important features. When it would, developers usually make sure they keep it brief and focused on the app’s core tasks.

Access for users with different needs

Those who rarely have to think about accessibility often struggle to identify design flaws that make life more difficult for users with different needs. Sight and hearing impairments can prevent some users from engaging with specific types of content, while physical impairments can make touchscreen interactions difficult. An optimised UX recognises these obstacles to accessibility and finds ways around them.

Thinking about accessibility needs can make a big difference to your users. Consider that 51% of over-55s find voice functionality empowering (Toptal). If your app makes users feel empowered, it’s doing a fantastic job.

When it comes to accessibility, developers often talk about inclusive design. That’s because designing with accessibility in mind often improves the user experience for everyone. To understand this, it’s useful to think of accessibility in terms of permanent, temporary and situational impairments. We’ve included a great visual guide from Microsoft that includes a few examples of each type of impairment below.

How does this apply to app design? Consider captions on a video. Not only do they improve accessibility for deaf users (permanent impairment), but also users who are in a noisy environment and have no headphones (situational impairment). 

Optimising UX for greater accessibility requires comprehensive testing. While developers can carry out some manual testing, they also need to put the app out there and receive feedback from users. A willingness to identify issues and address them will go a long way and result in a more satisfying and accessible user experience. While accumulated experience enables many developers to design apps that boast excellent accessibility from launch, the best are always looking for ways to improve our design.

Consistency – uniformity is key to an excellent user experience

One thing UX experts always talk about is consistency. An app has to look, feel and behave like a coherent product. It’s part of a wider customer service system and it has to be consciously and deliberately situated in it. Optimising UX involves developing an app that offers a consistent internal experience but also sits comfortably alongside your other channels. The easiest way of ensuring consistency is to use an established design system and following the best practices contained within that system. However, within a design system, there are a range of factors developers need to consider.

Establishing a look, a theme and a feel

Think about the home screen on your mobile device. All those neat, well-ordered icons arranged into tidy boxes. You open up an app and the screen is consumed by it. You’re instantly transported into a small, self-contained universe that looks a certain way, feels a certain way and operates according to a clear and simple logic. Users like that sense of order. They don’t want chaos, they appreciate consistency.

With this in mind, developers usually design an app according to a consistent and carefully-considered aesthetic. Transitioning from one screen to another shouldn’t be jarring – the changes should be subtle and the general style should remain the same. They aim for recognition and reassurance. Users should be able to know what app they’re using just from the colourway, the format and the layout.

Intuitive navigation for ease of use

As well as a consistent aesthetic, an app must adopt standardised navigation mechanics. That means placing elements that progress you to the next stage in a process (or return you to a previous stage) in roughly the same place across all screens. It also means using the same gestures across all features and ensuring menus follow the same format.

Developers sometimes refer to design language. This consists of the visual patterns and cues we use to guide us through processes smoothly. For instance, we all understand that three horizontal lines stacked one on top of the other represent the app menu. Some of these cues (the menu icon is a good example) are well established and we don’t mess with them. Many cues are still up for grabs and it’s up to the developer what design language they use. However, once they settle on a specific design language, it is vital that they use it consistently.

Finally, when it comes to navigation, app developers assist users and optimise the UX by providing visual feedback. This can involve adding animations and transitions to let them know that a process has been completed or is being completed, or to highlight what they should pay attention to next. Again, this is only useful if applied consistently.

Branding

Our last point centres on the connection between app UX and branding. Every one of your digital channels is an opportunity to enhance your branding, make a deeper impression on your users and develop longer, more valuable relationships based on trust and loyalty. Apps are no different. Omnichannel philosophy is now the dominant approach in the digital realm and the ability to move seamlessly between channels is all-important.

With this in mind, an app needs to express your brand’s vision and personality. It has to take a similar approach to tone of voice and push the same brand values. Essentially, the app should feel like an extension of the organisation, not something entirely different. If users are going to move between channels, you want a sense of continuity, as this ensures you benefit from the goodwill and trust you’ve built over years.

What next?

UX optimisation is an enormous subject and there are experts who dedicate their entire careers to the study of this influential design discipline. In this guide, we gave you a practical overview of the ways app developers typically optimise the user experience. At The Distance, we’ve been creating and refining cutting-edge apps for over a decade and UX has always been central to what we do. While this guide has touched on just a few of the core ideas behind UX optimisation, we hope you found it interesting and valuable.

If you would like to find out more about how The Distance can help your organisation optimise its app UX or you wish to discuss the development of a new app, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with a member of our approachable and professional team.