How app design works

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How app design works: step-by-step guide


Anyone who has ever designed an app, or worked on a product team, knows that app design is more than just making things look pretty. It’s about thinking through how users will interact with your app and figuring out the best way to solve their problems in an easy and effective way. But how does the whole process look in practice?

In this post, we’ll take a closer look at how app design works and explore all the steps to go through to create a successful app. We’ll also share some tips for creating an effective user interface that makes your app stand out from the competition.

So let’s jump on and learn how app design works!


What is mobile app design and how it differs from other kinds of design

App design is a process that involves ideation, the definition of solutions and structure to create an app’s flow. The end result should be easy-to-use with the right look.

Designing for a mobile app is different from other types of design in a few key ways:

  1. Mobile apps need to be easy to use on small screens with touch-based input.
  2. The context of use is often unique. We use our apps both on the couch and while waiting for the tram. This has a huge impact on the way apps need to work.
  3. App design must account for different screen sizes and orientations.

It’s important to keep these differences in mind when thinking of how app design works.


UX app design vs UI app design

App design involves both designing the user experience (UX) and interface (UI). UX and UI are often used interchangeably. But they’re definitely not the same thing! So what’s the difference between the two?

UX design is all about how an app works. It’s the process of creating solutions to user problems. A good UX designer thinks about the best way to solve these problems. UI design, on the other hand, is all about how an app looks. It’s the process of creating a visually appealing design that’s easy to use.

Now that this is clear, let’s move on to the 4 steps to creating a killer app!


Breaking down the 4 steps of the mobile app design process

So, the best app design process comprises:

  • Research
  • Ideation
  • Design
  • Test & Iteration

Let’s have a look at each one of these phases separately.


1. Research


First things first: understand who will use your app

So, if you want to be successful with your app design and development strategy then it’s important that before anything else–you must first identify what problems or pain points are going unaddressed by current solutions. How might we help users solve those issues? And most importantly: Why should they care about this particular project in the first place? These three questions will guide all aspects of our design process from here on out!

The first step is to clearly define who will use your app. App teams usually call this “persona”.

> Here you find the complete guide to how to create a description of your ideal user.

This doesn’t mean that other people can’t or won’t use your app, but your persona will help to keep the design focused on a specific goal.

Creating a user persona ensures that your team always has an idea of who they’re designing for.

Here’s an example of a persona template:

Miro customer journey map


Escape the “me-too” trap: what problem are you exactly solving?

With an average of 3.739 apps released to the store every day, you need a solid plan to stand out! Too often, app developers think they have the next big thing without taking the time to figure out who their target market is and what problem their app is solving for them. As a result, these apps get lost in the shuffle of the millions of other apps available and eventually fail.

If you want your app to be successful, you need to start by defining exactly what problem you’re solving for your persona. What need does your app fill? How does it make your persona’s life easier?

You’ll notice that the main problems we try to solve are always the same: time, money, convenience, entertainment etc.

Go to the root causes of each problem you hear.


Make a business plan: how will you monetize with your app?

Now that you have a clear idea of what problem you’re solving and for whom, ask yourself: is the problem so big that my persona would pay to solve it?

Now here’s what most people will say: “but my app is free, I don’t want people to pay for it”. Sometimes they add: “I will make money with ads!”.

That’s okay, but there’s a “but“.

The problem with this approach is that too often it’s a shortcut to truly validate if the problem you’re solving is big enough. Asking people if they would pay for your app doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily have them do so. What would you prefer to hear between “I really like your app, I’d pay 2$/month for it!” and “I really like your app, but I wouldn’t pay for it“. On which one of these two apps would you invest your money?

That’s why you always want to make sure you’ve found a big enough problem that people would pay for you to solve it.

It can be easy for you to use a business model canvas to map your business plan.


2. Ideation


Don’t start with a full-fledged app. Release an MVP instead.

An MVP, or minimum viable product, is a version of your app with just the bare essential features. The goal of an MVP is to get your app out to market quickly, so you can gather feedback from users and start to generate buzz. There are several advantages to starting with an MVP instead of a full-fledged app.

First, it allows you to assess user demand for your app before investing significant time and resources into development. Second, it allows you to validate your business model and gather feedback on your product. Finally, it can help you build buzz and generate interest in your app before it is even launched. So if you’re thinking about launching an app, Starting with an MVP is a good way to go.

What is an MVP


How do you provide a world-class experience at each stage of the funnel

This is the time to start putting ideas on paper. Where to start?

AARRR is a very used framework to map each stage of your app. Basically, it’s like a cheat sheet to help you figure out how your app is doing. You answer these simple questions:

  • Acquisition: How do I get new users?
  • Activation: How do I onboard new users? How do I motivate them to start using my app?
  • Retention: Do I offer a reason to return?
  • Referral: How can users share the app with their friends? Why would they want to do that?
  • Revenue: How do I monetize the app?

AARRR funnel


Map the flow

You now have screens that match each step of the funnel, but you don’t want your app to be a Frankenstein of features piled on top of each other, right?

The best way to avoid this is to think in terms of flows. Users don’t simply browse through screens. They perform actions. To give some examples, they create an account and connect a payment method to it. They decide from what restaurant they want to order and then order their food. Occasionally, they’ll check how long it takes before their food arrives.

So ask yourself:

  • Where do users start their journey?
  • What do they do after starting?
  • Where should users end their journey?
  • Do they have questions or doubts while moving on?

This will help you guide your user from start to finish while considering all the possible actions they might want or need to do.


3. Design


Sketch your screens

Now that you have defined the main actions that users will go through, you can sketch each screen.

If you’re not a designer, don’t worry! The point here is not to make beautiful screens. The goal is to get an idea of what elements need to be on each screen.

For each screen define what elements will be there. Think of what will help users complete these actions. But think also of how users will go back, cancel an action if they’ve made a mistake and so on.

You can easily do this with wireframes. Wireframes are low-fidelity designs that help you quickly visualize the important parts of your app. They are not meant to be beautiful, but they help you communicate the structure of your product.

Why using wireframes

Wireframes Include: 

  • Page Layout Designs
  • App Layout Designs
  • Navigation Elements

Wireframes DO NOT Include: 

  • Colors
  • Graphics
  • Videos


Design the UI of your screens

If you’re not a designer, now is the time to start working with a designer that will curate the UI (user interface) of your app. Sometimes though, before moving to UI design, you want to test the flow you’ve sketched. It’s not a must-have, but it’s highly recommended.

The UI part is when designers will make the app look beautiful. But also, and more importantly, they will think of how each element works together to create a smooth and easy experience.

Lastly, this is the phase when you want to curate the look and feel of your app. Don’t underestimate this passage. The look and feel of an app convey an important feeling of trust.


An example of the components of Material Design, a widely used UI framework:


4. Test & Iteration

Once you’ve designed and developed your app your work is not finished. You’ll have released it to the App Store (or Google Play Store) or in a limited beta.


Have a systematic way to test your app

You’ve released your app, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. There are always ways to make it better. Keep track of what users are doing, what they’re saying and most importantly how they feel. Make sure you keep testing your app.

There are different kinds of tests you may want to run:

  • Functional testing: Can I do what I’m supposed to do with the app?
  • Usability testing: Is it easy and pleasant to use the app?
  • Performance testing: Does the app respond quickly? Does it handle a lot of data easily?
  • Security testing: Is the app safe enough?

Also, don’t forget to keep collecting qualitative feedback from your users. They’re always your best way to learn what works and what doesn’t.


Iterate on what you’ve built

The feedback you collect while testing will help you prioritize the areas of your app that need improvements. A good way to do it is to have an internal product roadmap (things you want to add to the app) and an external one (things your users want you to add or change). Try to keep a balance of both to continuously improve while also adding new features.


The context of use of app design

As said before, app design is a unique challenge because the context of use is often so different from one moment to the next. We might be using our apps on the couch, while waiting for the tram, or even while walking down the street. This has a huge impact on the way apps need to work. They need to be able to adapt to our changing needs and surroundings. As a result, app designers have to be incredibly creative and flexible in their approach. Ask yourself:

  • When would users typically be using my app? In what context?
  • What will they be doing while using the app?

This will help you understand the best way to design your app for each specific context.

Designing for context: think of an app people would use for moving:



When creating a mobile app, it’s just as important to think about what problems your product will solve and how you’re going to communicate that. The more clearly defined the problem before us at each step of development is – whether we are designing for iOS or Android platforms-the better chance we have at delivering an end-user experience with excellent form AND function in every detail.

The essence behind successful apps lies not only in having visually appealing designs but primarily in working smoothly. In generating the confidence from users that they can use your app to easily solve their problems.

By focusing on both form and function in equal measure, you can create an app that not only looks great but also works flawlessly for years to come.

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