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Three Levels of Experience in App Design

Catalina Butnaru - Monday, August 22, 2011 |

User experience in app design is like state-of-the art service in running a fancy restaurant. It's all about the quality of interaction, and perfectly tuning it to the identity of your brand. Some of the best designed apps mediate gratifying experiences, such as feeling empowered and in control, entertained and curious and feeling like the app is money well spent.

There are three basic levels of experience connected to app design that we are going to explore in this article. The reasons and emotions behind them, along with examples of some of the best apps you may be using on a daily basis, will reveal a more deeper and complex relation between app design and user psychology.

Flipboard App by Johan Larsson on Flickr

Making the Connection Between Experience and Mind

There are three main approaches to interaction design, depending on the type of application you want to develop. First, there is user-centered design where you find exactly what the user needs and try to deliver work that not only exceeds those needs, but adds a touch of originality, keeping the user happy and completely immersed in the experience. User centered design is not exclusively picked over any other design method, it is part of the design process. Designing experiences for the mind to enjoy goes far beyond adopting a certain practice over the other. If you don't know how the mind works, don't design apps. Just like "if you don't understand people, you don't understand business" (Simon Sinek).

Using EconBiz App, photo by Die ZBW on Flickr

Second, there is activity-centered design, which we already talked about in our article about understanding users. The idea is, you - the designer - need to understand the tasks, purposes and goals associated with the activity users want to perform while using the app. This approach should be paramount in art direction for apps used in complex activities. We will talk about this later.

Third, there is system-centered design, which means you are concerned with building an app that users will have to learn using first, and acquire specific skills in order to use the system.

Although there are dozens of other methods pertaining to app design, the three approaches above are really all you need to know in order to understand how and why User Experience is really about the gratifying feelings you get while using apps on a daily basis. Going back to the restaurant metaphor, people don't pay for high protein or low fat food cooked in certain ways, they pay for the experience and the service they receive along with delicious dishes from a specific cuisine. Similarly, user experience can be gratifying in many ways. Here's how.

Experiencing Proficiency With Feature Rich Apps

Most often, feature rich apps are appealing to people who love what they're doing and go beyond and above to master tools and programs that make them feel skilled, efficient and productive. Designing a really complex app is a challenge for interaction designers. The extra hundreds of features need to be positioned and designed in a way that makes sense to users: from the most used tools those you can get familiar with later on. Another important element is feedback: how does the app provide feedback for all the little changes users experiment with? What are the options for users to control how the app responds? How fast can users accomodate to the interface and use it without having to consult the intro tutorial? Cognitive ergonomics needs to be the focus of art direction in feature rich apps.

Adobe Nav an app that transforms the iPad into a separate tool dock for Photoshop

What's most gratifying about using feature-rich apps is the feeling that you're an expert, that you have the ability to complete the things you love to work on. Sometimes too complex apps can be a real head-ache for new learners, but that doesn't mean you should compromise and choose simplicity over the promise of proficiency. Instead, you could decide to build a light version of the app that gradually introduces users to a fully flavored experience.

The best candidates are feature rich apps that either support tasks (project management) or constitute the main platform for those tasks (image processing). A good example is Aperture, a photographer's best friend, proudly adding over 200 new features to its interface. Aperture's feature rich interface is, on top of all, designed for the best experience. It allows for as much customization as you may need, although the default settings are pretty much fit to your needs. What's interesting with Aperture, is that the system is designed to have a memory - the tags, labels, faces, folders, projects and saved presets are very handy features. It's as if you had a clever tool that knows how you work and you need things to be.

Feeling like an expert with Aperture is part of the experience because the interface was designed to make photographers feel like a pro when they edit, organize and share photos

Experiencing proficiency withAperture - a feature rich app designed for passionate photographers

Experiencing Information with Content Rich Apps

The majority of apps are designed for passive and reflexive activities such as reading news, articles, books, as well as taking some time to go through your social feeds and friends updates. Information consumption is experience related to app design. You can go for a user-centered approach all the way through the process of designing a new reader app and you will succeed.

You need to observe the details of user experience in everyday activities related to consuming information. Where do we look to get more information and what do we enjoy seeing when information is presented to us? Realize how much we enjoy feeling more knowledgeable after pondering over a beautifully designed infographic. Observe the best menus in town at fancy restaurants. Then take a look at newspapers, billboards and even at the huge ads creatively crafted to steal that emotional response from consumers.

Be a great observer of how people prefer to digest information, and you will design a reading experience that is visually pleasing and challenging. One of the best apps that lets you experience information differently is the Popular Science+ app. The creators, Berg, fully embraced the idea of re-inventing the way we interact with a digital magazine on the iPad. While other apps attempted to re-create the feeling of reading a book, Popular Science+ defies the familiar and introduces a very different interface where you scroll over images to read more, play puzzles and interact with infographics by turning on and off the colors for the data you want to see.

How Power Happens interactive infographic designed by Fathom for Popular Science+

Experiencing Playfulness With Imaginative Apps

Apps can take users to a deep level of engagement when the user is left to discover  and explore different interaction scenarios. Although the purpose of using the app can be achieved with several other tools, users will choose the one that is designed to entertain, to captivate. Experiencing playfulness with apps is not just about playing games, it's about re-inventing the things people do, introducing novelty in a much familiar habit. For example, think about what you experience when you listen to music on Planetary. How does it feel to take a break from computer work while using the tibetan singing bowl with Awareness, or using Elementar to pinch and pull fonts into different weights and sizes?

Elementar a parametric font system designed by Typotheque

Recently Typotheque, a font design studio in Netherlands came up with a neat app for typography lovers, called Elementar. It was pretty clear even from a while ago, when Typotheque created the Dancing Writer, that the studio had a different approach to UI design and user interaction.

The challenge behind designing interfaces is that you need to create visual affordances to take interaction to a different level. Typotheque breaks the rule and erases most of these cues showing how you need to use the app.

Elementar is the type of app with minimal controls and simple interface. What's interesting about it is that it doesn't need buttons and bars to mediate interaction. When you first try the iPad app, you will be surprised by its mere simplicity - all you need to do is use intuitive gestures to explore different variations of parametric bitmap fonts. There is no strain on your experience, the core concept is simplicity, which again seems to work best with design, as we have already noted in one of our previous posts. Elementar is strikingly simple, yet imaginative: a genuinely engaging platform that feels fun and irresistibly natural to a font lover. The user experience of elementar makes you choose it before any other app with similar functionality.

Endnote: App design can succeed if you're using your skills to optimize the way users perceive and enjoy using the app. User experience can be designed because you can make the user feel differently about using your app instead of any other one. Feeling empowered, feeling like a pro, feeling entertained and informed, they are all part of the experience you create as a lead designer or art director.

If you enjoyed reading this article, please share it with your friends and let us know what your think about user experience in app design.

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