Mobile apps aren’t just for major brands anymore; in fact, a recent study showed that over a third of all small businesses either already have a mobile app or plan to launch one in the next 12 months. Wondering what’s behind the push toward mobile app development? Consider what millennials, the largest generation in the U.S. workforce, have to say about mobile apps:
- Three times as many consider mobile apps “must-haves” compared to other generations.
- Most have at least 20 to 25 branded apps installed on their phones.
- Nearly 75 percent like to browse and purchase products and services using mobile apps.
And while all of that is great news for businesses building and using mobile apps, there’s one major caveat to keep in mind—
Over half (55 percent) say a poor mobile app experience would make them less likely to buy or use a company’s products or services.
In other words, if your mobile app isn’t delivering the user experience your customers want and expect, it may be doing you more harm than good.
Designing for Bigger Screens
Think they’re great or think they’re clunky, the new generation of phablets and oversized smartphones are here to stay—perhaps because people are consuming more visual content on their mobile devices than ever before. In fact, the phablet market is expected to grow about 36 percent a year until 2018, compared to just 4 percent for smaller smartphones.
The obvious response to these larger screens is often “design bigger.” But this doesn’t address the real issues underlying oversized screens: Changes in UI/UX and navigation. On smaller devices, over half of the screen area is within comfortable reach of the user’s thumb, but less than a fourth of the screen is in natural thumb range on an iPhone 6 Plus, for example.
Image via Designmodo.com
Then there’s the question of how people hold the larger phones—vertically in one hand or horizontally in two? Add in the fact that 10 percent of the population is left-handed, and you begin to see the challenges in designing a comfortable interface on today’s larger screens. Which leads to the next design trend…
Simplified User Interface
The user interface has come a long way from the early skeuomorphic designs of five or 10 years ago. Flat design, with its emphasis on clarity, simplicity, and functionality that plays up the advantages of digital screens, came into its own with the design changes in iOS 7, and Android’s Lollipop update in 2014.
Today, the trend continues, with minimalism the name of the game in UI design. Blank screen space is now a design element in itself, no longer just a backdrop for the functional elements on the screen. Designers highlight and maximize the empty space, allowing users to focus on the other elements, with an eye toward clarity and simplicity throughout the entire app experience.
Image courtesy of Dark Sky App
Swiping Replaces Other Gestures
Remember the novelty of Apple’s pinch to zoom feature in 2007? As a first attempt at programming to solve a problem for an entirely new class of devices, it wasn’t a bad solution. But it really wasn’t a very good one, either, in terms of mobile app design. Ditto buttons too small to tap, another defining feature of early generation mobile apps.
The swipe is the most natural gesture for app navigation and this year’s apps will highlight its ease of use in their designs. Card layouts go hand in hand with the universal swipe and more mobile apps will combine these elements (think card-based feeds in Twitter, boards in Pinterest, and stacks in the dating app Tinder). These two design elements, swiping and card layouts, dovetail neatly with this year’s minimalist design trends.
Image courtesy of Pinterest
Animation has long been used as an eye-catching element that helps differentiate an app from its competitors. Now, however, more designers are incorporating animation as a functional element that enhances the user experience—to simulate the appearance of interacting with a real object. Animation is no longer just for games.
It also illuminates navigation: Think of a button that toggles a panel of otherwise hidden content, such as a menu. Closing the panel shrinks the menu, where it disappears back into the button. Other examples include zooming content or providing feedback to confirm a user’s action.
Functional animation makes the app experience more dynamic and provides a more direct visualization of the user’s action. As smartphones become more advanced, designers are adding HTML5 animation and parallax design to mobile apps to bring a new level of richness and excitement to the user experience.
Image courtesy of Dribble.com
Overlays have been a regular feature in web design for some time, but they are increasingly showing up in mobile app design as well. Overlays move the user out of the app’s regular flow and into a moment of focused interaction, like a speed bump or a stop sign. Modals, too, are growing in popularity in mobile design, often complemented by a blurred background to highlight the content overlay.
Some designers, however, have cautioned against overusing modals and overlays in mobile design, suggesting that they interfere with navigation and the way mobile users consume content. Here are some criteria and guidelines for incorporating overlays and modals in mobile app design:
- They should not interrupt the user at a crucial moment in the app’s “story” or functionality.
- They should provide a “deep dive” look at a specific piece of content (product information, video, image, etc).
- They should confirm an action or decision.
- They should not include content that would be better placed on a page of its own.
- Button placement and size should follow recommendations for ergonomics and common usage scenarios.
App designers know that clear navigation is key to a successful mobile app; in 2016, users will see more creative options, such as horizontal, vertical, modular, and parallax scrolling, and hidden navigation.
Hidden navigation is increasingly popular with apps that feature a lot of content; the navigation displays on the screen for a limited period of time and vanishes after a period of inaction, leading to a cleaner interface with clearer content. Modular scrolling also solves the clarity problem for content-heavy apps by allowing users to scroll through individual rows or columns of information.
Infinite scrolling is another navigation trend popularized by social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram. For apps with lots of data and content, the infinite scroll keeps users engaged with a smooth, uninterrupted experience.
Parallax scrolling has emerged as an eye-catching and creative choice for intuitive navigation and a better user experience.
Image via Episty.com
Storytelling and Branding
Many brands are recognizing that the mobile app is the link between their online and offline presence and as such, needs to tell a good story featuring the user as the hero. For many businesses, mobile branding and storytelling come together in a loyalty program.
Starbucks is particularly successful at exploiting this trend. Their app achieves the major objective of branding through mobile storytelling:
- Highlighting the user with a highly customizable app experience
- Incorporating new or emerging technologies (think Apple Pay)
- Keeping the experience local and relevant
As more businesses enter the mobile app market, branding and storytelling will continue to play an increasing role in the overall app experience.
Increased Emphasis on Typography
In the overall scheme of app design, typography has historically taken a backseat to essential considerations such as navigation, color, and overall aesthetics. In 2016, however, designers will pay more attention to fonts—and scalable typography in particular.
Since fonts represent a visible hierarchy between content types, designers need a typeface that fits any device, regardless of screen size. Since Apple rolled out iOS 7 and the Helvetica Neue, scalable, legible fonts have become a standard for each operating system. Android’s Lollipop release included Roboto, and Apple has introduced San Francisco for use with its Apple watch apps.
In addition to function and scalability, font will also play a role in the overall design and appearance of the app interface. Big, bold typeface paired with negative space or a striking background image embodies the clean, minimalist design of next year’s apps.
Image courtesy of Punchkick.com
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Fresh Color Palettes
Flat design apps are often paired with subtle, minimalist color schemes with plenty of white space. In 2016, however, the simple colors and soft contrasts featured in earlier app designs will be replaced with new color hierarchies that emphasize both light and dark backgrounds.
Material design emphasizes a more contemporary color scheme, taking inspiration from unconventional sources such as architecture, pavement marking paint, and athletic courts. App designs will move away from monochromatic palettes to more diverse and vibrant color schemes.
Image courtesy of Google.com
Designing for Wearable Technology
As the wearables market continues to grow, app designers will devote more attention to mobile app design that works for these diminutive devices. Just as early app designers considered the way users interacted with their smartphones, today’s wearable apps designers prioritize the unique ways users interact with their wearables and the advantages of the technology.
Design principles for wearable apps include:
- Emphasis on “glanceability.” A well designed app won’t just shrink the UI, but will focus on presenting only the information the user needs to see, in a format that is easily interpreted with a glance.
- Incorporate the other senses. Accentuate the advantages of wearable technology such as gesture driven activation of certain features or apps (think raising and lowering the wrist, for example). Vibration and/or audible alerts, and voice dictation for text messages and emails are other design features for wearable apps.
- Prioritize privacy. Wearables, by default, should keep information private. This means buzz notifications over displays and dimmed screens when the device faces outward, for example.
Image courtesy of Glympse
Increased Use of App Development Platforms
App development platforms have blown open the mobile app market. In the past, mobile app development was an expensive and time-consuming proposition reserved only for major brands and enterprise customers. The path to ROI was slow and steep, with development costs running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and a development timeline of 12 months or more.
Today’s app development platforms like Buildfire are equalizing the mobile app market by giving beginners and SMEs the tools and knowledge to build, launch, and promote a full-featured mobile app on a modest budget and a short timeline.
In 2015, about 15 percent of SMEs had built a mobile app, a figure that will more than double in 2016, due, in part, to these app-building platforms. This trend will continue to grow as app platforms simplify the process of building customized apps that advance the marketing goals of the SME segment.
Overall, in 2016, app designers will continue to refine and refocus the UI/UX trends of the past year, with special emphasis on creative navigation, natural gestures, and the design advantages and challenges of the larger screens on today’s most popular mobile devices. The march toward a more simplified user interface and a better interactive experience through functional animation, and modular and parallax scrolling, will underpin the mobile app design trends of 2016 and beyond. The monochrome, low-intensity color palettes that defined flat design will be replaced by more vibrant, complementary color schemes with both light and dark backgrounds.
While wearables still comprise a relatively small segment of the mobile device market, app designers will give greater attention to scalability and the unique functionality of these devices.
The continued expansion of the mobile app market for small and medium-sized businesses is another design trend that will grow in 2016. New apps that customize the user experience through location-based notifications, loyalty programs, simplified eCommerce, and social media integration will help these businesses compete on a more equal footing with their larger enterprise counterparts.
These trends all share the common goal of making mobile apps more accessible, engaging, and easy to use as today’s consumers becoming increasingly reliant on their mobile devices at all stages of the buying journey.