A mobile app is a collection of connected experiences. It’s a designer’s job to make those experiences cohesive and frictionless. This is no small task. UI patterns and components must look and behave consistently across all screens. Interactions must be intuitive and aligned with users’ desired outcomes. The entire app must incorporate accessibility guidelines.
User research and testing are the best ways to uncover the nuanced insights needed for an app to achieve lasting success. However, there are widely applicable best practices that can help you design mobile apps that delight and retain users for the long haul.
Simplify and Streamline Your Onboarding Process
Studies indicate that users who are presented with onboarding tutorials tend to perceive tasks as more difficult compared to those who don’t see tutorials. In certain situations, onboarding screens and tooltips can be effective ways to introduce an app’s key features and encourage users to engage with the app as part of their routine. However, asking users to review more than three or four onboarding screens or read too much information upfront can be a nuisance; users would often rather figure things out for themselves.
In general, an app’s UI should be so instantly familiar and intuitive that it does not call for a tutorial. However, if you find it necessary to use onboarding strategies, limit the number of steps in the tutorials and, if possible, show them only in contexts related to the actions users are already taking. In addition, limit tooltips to a handful of your app’s most important features.
Offer the Same Features on the App and Desktop Versions
With mobile web traffic increasing, most users expect to be able to do the same tasks on their mobile devices that they can on a desktop. While one study shows that a majority of users still prefer to complete complicated tasks on their desktops, a Pew study found that 15% of American adults use smartphones as their only means of accessing the internet. Being unable to access all the features on a mobile banking app, for instance, can be a source of frustration that ultimately leads users to take their business elsewhere.
Managing feature rollout expectations can be the difference between a good app review and a bad app review. If you need to launch your app before implementing its full feature set, go beyond posting a “Coming Soon” screen, and create a publicly accessible feature roadmap to establish accurate expectations.
Use Notifications Wisely
Notifications are among the most powerful tools for retaining users, providing timely nudges to re-enter an app and engage with content. But it’s crucial to consider the frequency and timing of your push notifications—along with the content they offer. Receiving too many pings or irregular bursts can lead users to disable notifications altogether.
When you display a notification, keep it contextual; for instance, ask for permission to access the camera when users attempt to take a photo. Add granular notification settings that are easy to access so users can tailor notifications to their needs. Also, refrain from asking users to allow notifications until the third or fourth time they interact with your product, after they’ve had a chance to experience your app and the value it provides.
Keep Your Web Views Frustration-free
Web views allow developers and designers to iterate quickly and cheaply—and make changes in between app updates. When used skillfully, they can save on development time and simplify UX by keeping users in an app while also displaying a predetermined page.
Web views also benefit users. For example, they make it easy for an app to access a device’s hardware, such as a camera. Also, many apps use web views to authenticate users, who can sign in using their password manager, and then be redirected seamlessly back to the app.
However, users won’t tolerate friction when it comes to context-switching between a native app and web views. Having to go back and forth between the app and a browser to complete a task is poor user experience.
Optimize Your App for Poor Connectivity
Any app that is not optimized to handle the most critical tasks under poor connectivity is subpar. For example, if users are booking travel plans or making e-commerce payments, ensure that their actions are saved and then performed as soon as connection is regained.
If your app requires connectivity at all times, communicate to users that they need a connection to proceed, rather than presenting them with an endless spinner or, worse, nothing. Users who are afraid of being double charged will lose trust and ultimately abandon your app.
Keep Your Patterns and Components Consistent
Visual consistency is a must when it comes to digital products. Failing to implement and uphold visual guidelines conveys a lack of professionalism and can erode trust among users. Experiential cohesion is equally critical. For instance, components and patterns such as buttons, forms, menus, and dashboards should not only be styled uniformly but should also behave consistently throughout your app, no matter the page type.
As a mobile app designer, you’re creating more than a collection of views; you’re a designer of UI systems. To instill consistency when starting a new project, experiment with various design systems such as Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines and Google’s Material Design in order to determine which is most appropriate for your users’ devices.
Reduce Noise in Your UI
Boxy-looking UIs are a carryover from ’90s software design. In addition to looking outdated, the style features too many lines, borders, and solid shapes that create excessive visual noise and make it harder for users to process the information on the screen.
Yet some supporting structures are necessary to help users understand the page’s visual hierarchy. While there’s no magic formula, err on the side of less, and use supporting structures like lines, solid backgrounds, and drop shadows sparingly. If used thoughtfully, padding can offer as clear a distinction as a line, provided there’s enough space within the composition.
Make Your App Fully Accessible
Neumorphism is a design trend in which interface components are rendered using subtle shadows, gradient overlays, and monochromatic colors. Neumorphic components are meant to appear tactile and invite interaction, yet their reliance on monochromatic colors and low contrast can make it challenging to view them clearly. Neumorphism is also largely inaccessible to users with visual impairments—placing the trend at odds with a widening demand for inclusive digital products.
Additionally, neumorphic components are often difficult to code, making it tricky to combine this aesthetic with a company’s visual guidelines. If you decide to use neumorphic components, do so in moderation, and make sure your product still meets accessibility standards.
Commit to Continuous Learning
Adhering to mobile app design best practices requires continuous learning: reading design sites and articles, trading tips and tricks with other designers, and staying up to date with emerging tools and processes. It also means facing the challenges posed by new devices and platforms, and recognizing when you’re relying on comfortable patterns and practices—rather than designing what is truly best for users right now.
Editor’s Note: Thanks to Toptal network member Damir Kotorić for contributing design insights to this story.