There’s an app for that: The world of user design

Image of student creating an interactive application

Sometimes it feels like our lives revolve around our smart phones. Not only are these mini computers useful for texting and making calls (yes, some people still talk on the phone. Shocking, I know), but they also allow us to download applications (apps) that help us do, well, everything. These apps assist us in socializing (think Instagram and Twitter), shopping, eating right (or wrong), getting fit, learning beauty and makeup routines, checking the weather, finding the newest restaurants and then guiding us with step-by-step directions to get there via the best route, listening to music, watching videos, reading magazines…you get the idea and I haven't even scratched the surface.

Most apps today are created with the iPhone or Android platforms in mind and you likely won't be surprised that in a list by Mashable of "100 iPhone Apps of all Time" Instagram claimed the top spot. If you're curious, Google Maps, Facebook, Twitter and Angry Birds rounded out the Top 5.

But what actually goes into making an app that's useful, user friendly and generates downloads?

Creating an app falls under the umbrella of interactive media management, which involves user design (UX), digital strategy, content strategy and planning, interactive storytelling, analytics, digital project management (grant charts, budgets, project planning, agile methodology), and researching and surveying the interactive media landscape. All of these aspects are essential to app building and Centennial College offers a three-semester program that covers them all. You'll want to check it out if interactive experiences interest you. 

User experience is at the heart of any good app. The definition of UX is "a person's perceptions and responses resulting from the use and or anticipated use of a product, system or service." Simply put, it's how you feel about every interaction you have with what’s in front of you at the moment you’re using it. Some of the most commonly considered aspects of UX include answering questions like is the app or website useful, usable, desirable, valuable, accessible, credible and findable? 

App developers start with preliminary research that includes getting a good understanding of their target market (and the competition), making lists of things a user may want to accomplish when using the app, early wireframes (visual architecture of the app) and a budget. A vital question is: what problem is the app going to solve and how it will simplify users' lives?

Design and wireframes go hand in hand. Once the wireframes are complete, an app developer is able to start mocking up what the app will look like using high-resolution .psd files. This stage also includes determining the feel of the app by considering logos, colours, styling and fonts. At this point, there is a round of testing during which testers get access to wireframes and identify flaws and dead-end links.

Following design and prototype testing, an app developer gets his or her hands dirty with development, which includes setting up servers, databases, APIs, and storage solutions. There is a lot of tech talk that is like a foreign language occurring at this point, so let's skip to the final post-development steps.

When design is complete, it's time for another round of testing. This one, called beta testing (or user testing), involves testing the app from a number of platforms and under various conditions to make sure there are no bugs or crashes. You wouldn’t want your app crashing because users may get frustrated, delete it off their phone and download a competing app. Yikes!

When all the kinks are ironed out, it's time to launch. Getting an app into app stores may take a few weeks because Apple, for example, reviews each app submission and may ask for changes before publishing. The waiting period is a chance to start promotion and generate interest in the app. Remember, however, that even with a successful launch, the work isn’t finished. Once it is out there for public consumption, you want to get feedback from users so when you make updates, you can incorporate that feedback.

Knowing more about the process makes me wonder: What app will knock Instagram off its top spot? Will it be yours?

By Izabela Szydlo

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