App UX: The fundamentals you need to know in 2023

By Einav Mor-Samuels
Mobile app UX - square featured

People spend an average of four hours per day using apps on their smartphones. If you want one of those apps to be yours, you must consider your mobile app UX (user experience).

The most frequently-used apps are the ones that simplify our lives. According to Josh Clark, author of Tapworthy: Designing Great iPhone Apps, we tend to be in at least one of these three modes when using our mobile devices:

  • Microtasking in short, intense bursts of focused activity, like checking a balance or conducting a search;
  • Orienting ourselves to a location, looking for directions or attractions near us; or
  • Filling time, scrolling news and social feeds while between tasks, in transit, or waiting.

In these ‘micro-moments’, mobile users are goal-oriented and have limited time and bandwidth (often literally). They want streamlined interactions and expect immediate results.

UX is an essential aspect of any product strategy, but mobile app UX has some specific considerations, like space constraints and context awareness, for designing an experience that’s optimized to meet people where they are.

In this guide we’ll walk you through the what, why, and how of mobile app UX, and give you a robust set of best practices for designing and improving your own mobile app user experience.

What is a mobile app UX?

Mobile app UX is the end-to-end experience and set of interactions users have with an app on handheld devices, including smartphones, tablets, and wearables. 

Note that the more general term ‘mobile UX’ refers to both app and website design, and the two are often used interchangeably. 

User experience and user interface (UI)  design work hand-in-hand. UX is concerned with experience: the holistic journey of touchpoints in a product’s design. UI is concerned with interface: the design language and system of elements with which a user interacts.

Why you should be thinking about mobile app UX (if you aren’t already)

For starters, almost three-quarters of internet users (that’s nearly 3.7 billion people) will access the web solely via their smartphones by 2025. And those users have high expectations of mobile experiences when it comes to speed, ease of use, and enjoyment.

Combine this with the fact that 38% of users are willing to download an app if they need it to make a purchase, but half will uninstall it after completing the transaction. In fact, half of all apps are uninstalled within 30 days!

And, to make things even more complicated, the average user only engages with five apps on a regular basis. 

To maintain user attention and loyalty, your app’s UX must constantly prove its value. If your app genuinely solves a problem and is easy and enjoyable to use, it’s more likely to be sticky: in other words, you’ll retain more users and have higher numbers of active users. That boosts your lifetime value and powers growth.

In short, you should always look to simplify users’ lives, create more contextual experiences, or simply offer moments of enjoyable distraction. Focusing on these qualities can help move your UX design from good to great. 

The need for speed

We’ve got plenty of tips below on how to improve your UX, but before we go any further, let’s take a minute to consider the fact that 70% of mobile users will abandon an app if it takes too long to load. And by ‘too long’, we mean about five seconds. 

You could have the most beautifully designed app with the sharpest copy and the hottest features, but if performance is poor, no one will use it. The back end must be on point to optimize network performance and ensure the app renders on all devices, without draining the memory or battery. And it goes without saying that crashes are a huge no-no.  

Key differences between desktop vs mobile UX

App UX: Responsible design desktop and apps

There are multiple differences between desktop and mobile app UX in a user’s context and environment. Let’s take a look at the main ones. 

Physical and virtual workspaces

On a desktop, users are likely to have multiple tabs and apps open for multitasking, as well as a full-size keyboard, and a more stable and comfortable physical workspace. What’s more, they’re probably  stationary and have steady lighting.

On a mobile device, however, users are likely to be focused on a single task that might have some urgency in the moment. In addition, they might be in transit, in an unfamiliar space, double tasking (think: coffee run, or picking up dry-cleaning), and might even have bandwidth or internet constraints.

Display and screen orientation

Desktop users may be using one or more full-size, high-resolution displays that make it easy to see and scroll to reveal details or calls to action. 

Mobile screens, however, are obviously constrained, so it’s critical to position important content and calls to action above the proverbial fold, and in places where they get the most attention.

Visual language and cues

Establishing a clear and comprehensive design language is essential to mobile app design, particularly when it comes to getting your users from one place to the next in the smoothest fashion. 

Just like in the real world, patterns help cue people on what action they should take, even if it isn’t explicit. 

While mobile interfaces rely heavily on these recognizable, universal visual patterns to signal common actions and features (for example, the hamburger menu, or a three-lined icon to indicate a collapsed menu), desktop is another story.

No one really messes with established mobile conventions like the ubiquitous hamburger menu mentioned above. However, on desktop, there’s a much wider variety of ways for designers to tackle UX. 

App UX hamburger menu

Just take a look at Awwwards menu design inspiration gallery if you want to see some pretty out-there UX patterns. 

Consistency and continuity

With mobile overtaking desktop usage since 2014, and especially with Google’s recent emphasis on user experience and mobile-first indexing, designers have increasingly adapted their UX work to a mobile-first approach.

This means the design process is driven by a focus on the constraints of a user’s smallest device (which might be an Apple Watch or iPhone) and adapted upwards to larger screen sizes. 

It also means providing a smooth experience between mobile web and native apps using both on-brand visual cues, and technology such as deep linking and deferred deep linking, to make sure users have an uninterrupted journey. 

As a first step, product teams need to make an important decision about their development strategy, which we’ll explore in the next section.

iOS vs Android app UX 

To maximize reach, you’ll likely want to make your app available to both Apple and Android users. Each system has its own specific design guidelines that you’ll need to adhere to — Flat Design for iOS, and Material Design for Android — and there are also some UX differences you need to be aware of. 

For example, there are differences in navigation: on iOS devices you can swipe to go back, whereas Android devices have a Back button in the bottom-of-screen navigation. Likewise, you can move around Android apps via a hamburger menu, whereas iOS has a tab bar for switching screens. Button design varies too, and the floating activity button is positioned differently.

All of these factors and more — from the shape of your app icon to the size of your tap zone — need to be considered at design stage, to give all your customers an equally amazing experience. 

The mobile app design process – explained

The mobile app design process is essentially the same as any user-centered design process, except that it involves an upfront decision about how the product will be developed.

Let’s dive into some important steps along the way:

1. Evaluate the development options and decide which one best aligns with your business objectives and your user’s needs. There are three options to choose from:

  • Native: this refers to developing an app for a single operating system, typically Apple iOS or Google Android OS. You’ll need to follow the published guidelines for design, development, and app store distribution to the letter.
  • Adaptive: this is where you develop several versions of the app or site, starting from the smallest device and designing up. Related is a hybrid approach that is developed for an app or a site to work across multiple platforms, and enables support for multiple operating systems. The end user experience should be indistinguishable from a native app.
  • Responsive: generally regarded as the best practice for developing sites and web apps today, this means designing with a mobile-first user experience in mind. The main drawback is that responsive websites cannot be distributed through an app store.

2. Create a user persona. Ideally you’ll base this on primary research, like interviews, surveys, and customer data and insights, alongside secondary market research. Focus on understanding your user’s needs: what challenges might they face while using your app, and what specific, actionable solutions can you offer to help them meet their goals?

3. Define the essential steps of the end-to-end user flow. Identify the key interactions at each touchpoint and prioritize the content and calls to action required to move the users through the experience efficiently.

App UX design process

4. Develop sketches into wireframes of individual screens, establishing a navigation system and information hierarchy. In the beginning, your wireframes should be simple, with the minimum amount of detail necessary to get useful feedback.

5. Connect the screens into prototypes that you can test with users. Prototypes help determine whether your steps are in the right order and if there are any gaps in your flow. They’re an effective tool for getting feedback throughout the design process. Test early and often!

6. Iterate, adding layers of detail as you receive feedback from your users and team. With each round of testing, you can layer on visual design elements and style, switch from lorem ipsum to real copy, and add more complex interactivity. You can even use augmented reality to enhance the experience, for example, showing how a product might look in different environments. 

As a general rule of thumb, in mobile app UX, your focus should always be to make things easier. 

The constraints of mobile can actually work to your advantage in distilling the essence of your product up the responsive ladder, forcing you to put only the most valuable content and interactions front and center. 

So how can you reduce the clutter and sharpen the focus?

The dos and don’ts of mobile app UX design

According to the industry experts at the Interaction Design Foundation, “a user’s comprehension is 50% less on a mobile device, which means that content, navigation, and visual design elements must be twice as intuitive as they are on a desktop.”

App UX - Dos and don'ts

1. Show users the way forward with focused calls to action

  • DON’T waste above-the-fold real estate with vague calls to action or extraneous content.
  • DO provide easy access to common tasks.
  • DO use micro-interactions (small animations) to demonstrate required actions, like typing into a box or flicking a switch. 
  • DO provide feedback and real-time validation that reassures users something is happening. Again, micro-interactions keep users engaged and entertained rather than staring at a blank screen (think: a moving egg-timer with the message “we’re processing your payment”). 
  • DO make it simple to ask for help, for example with click-to-call or chat functions.

2. Make onboarding easier with familiar navigation patterns

  • DON’T hide the search functionality in a menu.
  • DON’T make users pinch to zoom in on images or use a horizontal scroll.
  • DO offer a single-click path back Home.
  • DO make sure your most important links are always visible. Secondary items can live in a collapsed or slide-out menu if necessary.

3. Eliminate distractions that interrupt a user’s task flow

  • DON’T make users start over when they switch to mobile — create continuity between your desktop and mobile experiences, pre-filling and retaining as much data as possible.
  • DON’T take users out of the experience with pop-ups or new windows.
  • DO break multi-step processes into bite-sized tasks.
  • DO offer alternative inputs such as voice. While essential from an accessibility point of view, this is fast becoming a wider preference — from Siri and Alexa to WhatsApp voice notes, we’re shifting from typing to talking.

4. Make every design element on screen count

  • DON’T use tiny target areas for making selections. Apple recommends a minimum of a 44px square.
  • DON’T make it hard to input data. Use a visual calendar to select dates, rather than a long drop-down menu. And keep forms simple: ask for the minimum data you need (avoiding ‘optional’ fields), pre-fill where you can, and offer a keyboard for typing in credit card numbers. .
  • DON’T add animations for the sake of it. Avoid distractions and ensure every element has a purpose. 
  • DO create a clear visual hierarchy with typography (consistent heading levels, for instance) and visual contrast (like dark mode) to avoid screen glare.
  • DO make one-handed navigation easy by putting key selections in the ‘thumb zone.’
App UX thumb area
85% of users interact with their screen with a single thumb. (Source)

5. Be intentional with users’ requests

  • DON’T block user exploration with upfront registration.
  • DON’T ask for data without offering a clear reason (like location data).
  • DO allow single-sign-on (for example with Facebook or Google credentials).
  • DO allow guest checkouts.

6. Be inclusive

  • DO make sure your design is accessible to all users, regardless of ability. Physical disabilities, visual impairments and reading difficulties can all make using apps a challenge, so make things as easy as possible. 
  • DO be inclusive in your copy (for example, using gender-neutral language) and imagery (reflecting the diversity of your audience).
  • DO embrace diversity. The more diverse your team, the better placed they’ll be to understand different experiences and perspectives, and incorporate those in your product.
  • DON’T forget your users. Find out as much as you can about them so your app reflects who they are. 

7. Make it personal 

  • DON’T send generic marketing emails that may not be timely or relevant to all customers. 
  • DO use personalized push notifications: right message, right person, right time.
  • DO put thought into your onboarding process, and enable users to personalize the app as much as possible.
  • DO keep listening: gather user feedback and study behavioral data. Then, give them more of what they like — a surefire way to keep them coming back. 

 8. Make it fun 

  • DON’T just give users a list of instructions — they’ll soon lose interest. Gamification and reward techniques can really boost engagement, starting with your onboarding process. Try showing progress and allocating reward badges to keep users moving along.
  • DO make rewards worth it. Completing certain tasks could unlock additional features, or build up loyalty points that result in a discount.
  • DO introduce healthy competition, for example by setting challenges and creating leaderboards. You’ll see this a lot in health apps, for instance, encouraging users to increase their activity.  

9. Touch, gesture and haptic feedback

  • DO allow users to make the gestures they’re used to on mobile — swiping, tapping, dragging, and so on — and ensure your app responds as they expect.
  • DO consider haptic feedback (the little vibration to show something’s happened) to boost interest and engagement.   
  • DON’T go overboard and let haptic feedback become irritating. 

10. Create a conversation

  • DON’T make users leave your app to talk to you. 
  • DO use in-app notifications to alert users to particular features, tasks or offers (but be careful not to interrupt their flow).
  • DO ask for in-app feedback. Requesting a quick rating, net promoter score, or brief review while they’re already using your app is an effective way to gather user views and identify any issues.

How you can work with UX designers to create converting, memorable experiences

Good UX, like marketing, is grounded in deep customer insights. UX is not only responsible for enabling useful and usable functionality, but also for creating resonant brand experiences. 

Marketers and UX designers must work hand in hand to ensure an app’s success: after all, both have the same goal of creating lasting engagement. 

If you’re looking to better understand the baseline experience for your app, start with the UX design. Talk to your designer about the choices behind in-app user flows and paths. Also, see if they had a certain experience in mind for web-to-app journeys. 

Powered with this knowledge you can then begin to dig into behavioral data and insights to examine your app’s performance

Squaring KPIs like session depth, number of screens per visit, and in-app event completions against the UX design can reveal what’s helping or hindering users on their path to conversion and point to where they might be dropping off.

For example: serving up any offers or promotions that interrupt the user’s flow in the app might be one cause of abandonment. 46% of the time people had an interruptive mobile experience, driving them to declare they would not purchase from that brand in the future. 

Marketers can work with UX designers to find the appropriate moments in the experience to reach users, with the right message at the right time, without distracting them from their goals.

An app’s UX holds the key to its successful market adoption. 

When looking at an app’s K-factor, or word-of-mouth virality, for example, keep in mind that 89% of people are likely to recommend a brand after a positive experience on mobile. 

Though an app’s moments of interaction might be small, their impact has the potential to be mighty.

A/B testing: your secret UX weapon

App UX - A/B testing

A/B testing — where you run two different options in parallel and compare responses — is a powerful tool in improving your UX design. Your designers may be bursting with great ideas, but UX is based on evidence, not personal preference. Every decision you take should make things easier for users. 

For example, you can try moving the position of a call to action to see where it gets the most clicks. You can amend the copy on your welcome page, tweak your color palette, or even experiment with different reward schemes. Just make sure you’re only testing one element at any given time. And remember, user behavior and preference can change, so keep testing regularly.   

ChatGPT: the future of app UX design?

Like it or not, the AI power of ChatGPT is here to stay. We’ve shared loads of tips about how this new tool can help you market your app — but have you thought about using it to improve your UX?

Here are just a few practical ideas to get you started:

  1. Write copy

You can ask ChatGPT to draft copy for a particular page or section. This probably won’t be your final version, but it’s a starting point. The tool can also provide functional copy for buttons, calls to action, error messages, and more — try requesting a particular tone of voice or character limit. 

  1. Create wireframes

Try prompting ChatGPT to suggest a wireframe for your app, based on your industry, audience, and functionality. Again, this gets you past the ‘blank sheet of paper’ stage and gives you something to work with. 

  1. Improve the user journey

Not sure how users will experience your app? You guessed it — ChatGPT can help. You could ask it where potential pain points might be, or how the journey could be made smoother. 

App UX - ChatGPT
  1. Do your research

Maybe you’re anxious to know what common UX mistakes to avoid, or which trends you should incorporate in your design. Or perhaps you’re curious about the apps your audience uses most. Typing prompts like these into ChatGPT is a quick way to gather information, without trawling through tons of less-than-helpful websites yourself. 

  1. Analyze data

You’ve sent out your surveys and done your interviews — but how do you make sense of all that data? To get the headlines in a hurry, you can tell ChatGPT to summarize the findings or pull out keywords, for example. 

Don’t worry, we’re not suggesting you replace your designers with robots. But if technology can help make time-consuming tasks easier, or offer a fresh spin when you hit a creative block, why not add it to the mix?

Key takeaways for designing a mobile app user experience

There are three main points to remember when it comes to mobile app UX. Get these right, and you’re well on your way to getting your app on users’ home screens:

  1. Context awareness is everything. Mobile users fluidly shift between modes. Mobile app designers need a clear understanding of how, when, where, and why your customers are going to use your product (and hopefully keep using it for the long term).
  2. Constraints are your friend. Mobile app designers should see mobile’s constraints as opportunities to laser-focus on your product’s most essential messages and actions.
  3. Design with intent. Focus on what, exactly, you want your users to do in your mobile app, and then give them an unobstructed path to do it.

Above all, when designing features or developing flows, ask yourself how you might make something simpler, faster, smoother, and more enjoyable for your users. Technology can help you, but there’s no substitute for genuine user testing, reviews and feedback. 

Einav Mor-Samuels

With extensive experience in digital marketing, Einav is a Content Writer at AppsFlyer. Over the course of the past 15 years, she has gained ample experience in the mobile marketing landscape, researching market trends, and offering tailored solutions to customers' digital problems. Einav fuels her content with data-driven insights, making even the most complex of topics accessible and clear.
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