What Makes a Great Mobile App?

I got a review recently on You Doodle where a user was frustrated that picking a picture frame overwrote a Chibi that they had been working on for several hours. Currently in You Doodle if you pick a picture frame, it overwrites your image, even if you tap cancel. In hindsight, this was a poor decision on my part. Today I changed You Doodle to restore the previous drawing in the event that the picture frame tool is cancelled.

This got me thinking about what makes a great mobile app. You Doodle certainly isn’t perfect and has some excellent qualities but since it’s my first real mobile app that’s been used by hundreds of thousands of users, I have also seen it’s flaws.

I’ve been looking through the top apps in the Apple app store and drawing on my experience working on the Ancestry.com iOS app and I have come up with a list of qualities that define a great mobile app (and some qualities that absolutely will annoy or cause users to delete the app).

Qualities of a Great Mobile App

The app should launch quickly

Every time a user starts your app and they have to wait that adds a small negative vibe and tiny frustration that can build over time. Lazy load everything you can after the app starts. Even with all the caching and initializing that You Doodle does, it usually launches in 2-3 seconds on my iPhone 4S and 1-2 seconds on my iPad 3. I tried Adobe Photo Shop Touch and it took nearly 10 seconds to launch on my iPhone 4S, so I am feeling reasonably good about You Doodle’s launch time.

Provide an intuitive start view

Once the user has launched your app, provide a simple and clear view of what they can do next in the app. Some apps use on screen guidance, others have a few simple buttons. Don’t overwhelm the user at this point with too many buttons or views or they will get confused and delete the app. In You Doodle, we send the user right to a canvas where they can immediately use their finger to start drawing. A few simple buttons at the bottom of the screen allow the user to use additional tools.

Do ONE thing and do that thing WELL

Your app should focus on one specific thing (tracking receipts, playing music, sending messages, whatever that thing is). You Doodle has morphed into an all in one drawing, filter and clipart app. In hindsight, I think this has overwhelmed some users and confused others. Is You Doodle a fun kids drawing app? Is it a professional photo editor? Maybe both?

Do not clear a users work unless you prompt first

If any action in your app will result in the loss of a users work at the click of a button, you should prompt them and ask if they want to save their work first. We made the mistake in You Doodle of overwriting a users drawing when they choose a picture frame and then when they cancel the picture frame, it would reset to a blank drawing. Oops.

Test, test, test

With every You Doodle release, I go through every element in the app and make sure it is still functional. On any major release I have always found a user interface element that broke or changed behavior because of a code change. Any broken user interface element or crash will turn off your users and send them looking for a new app.

Most users don’t care about you or your app

You and your company have spent countless hours working and polishing your precious app. Your code is an amazing example of flawless architecture. Guess what? Your user’s don’t care. They only see the app. Your app is a tool for them and they are quite happy to use a different app. They care about themselves and how your app helps them as a utility or for entertainment. 99% of your users will never give you feedback. For every 5000 downloads we get on You Doodle, we get probably 1-2 user reviews. The really amazing and great apps break this pattern and cause the users to fall in love with the app and/or become addicted to the app.

Prefer simple user interface and function over beautiful

Every app description these days over uses the word beautiful. Does beautiful = downloads = $$$$? Maybe, but in my experience, a user prefers a fast simple app that does exactly what they want. Eye candy in my experience usually gets in the way. The obvious exception is a game where the graphics are everything. But for a non-game app, I could care less how fancy the animations are or how beautiful the texturing is on the user interface. Having said all that, try and avoid developer art and have a consistent look, feel and theme to your app so that it looks professional.

Provide options for purchase

Most users are not willing to buy things. For every 1000 downloads of You Doodle, we make maybe 10-15 dollars. That ends up being about 1 in 100 users buying something. The other users just want a free app that lets them do image editing. To solve this problem, we made three versions of You Doodle: You Doodle Pro (paid version), You Doodle (free version with in app purchase) and You Doodle Plus (free version, all features unlocked, with advertisements). Give the user some options. Most companies will provide a paid version and a lite version, but I really like what we’ve done with the 3rd advertising supported version.

Great software takes a lot of time

You won’t create a smash hit app overnight. I’ve spent close to 1000 hours on You Doodle and I would consider it a maybe a slightly above average drawing app now. I’ve learned a lot, but there have been many late nights debugging and polishing. Expect to spend countless hours on your app or managing the team creating your app.

What to avoid

To wrap up I’ll leave you with a list of no-no’s that will really irritate your users and cause them to delete the app.

  • Any user interface element that does not behave as expected
  • Overwriting a users work without their explicit permission
  • Crashes
  • Poor performance
  • Excessive startup time
  • User interface is too complicated
  • Too many advertisements or popups – use sparingly!

Thank you for reading, and best of luck to you and your app.

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