How to Make the Next Angry Birds

The Hard Work Behind Making Something Easy

Never before have so many software applications become available so quickly. According to recent data, there are over 1.4 million apps available for Android and 1.2 million apps available on iTunes.

As a result of this wide range of choice, mobile apps users are notoriously fickle. According to Localytics, 20% of downloaded apps are used once and never opened again. Only 50% of apps are used more than five times. It might seem an impossible task – how does one get their app to stand out from the crowd and be used?

Looking at the most popular apps, it’s clear there’s a common theme — all of them are extremely usable. Users can use them right away intuitively and do not need to read an instruction manual. Any usability barrier makes users stop in their tracks and discard the app. Users simply don’t have the time or inclination to figure out a complicated app.

An app that no one can figure out is an app that no one buys.

Work with a partner that makes apps people buy, again and again.

As such, if you want to make a popular app, make it usable. As much work as possible should be devoted to anticipating user problem points and making the app simple to use. As Blaise Pascal once wrote, “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”

Over the years I’ve observed what makes for successful usability tests. Among the things to note:

  • Mock it up – Before you write a single line of code, draw up user interface designs on paper or with screenshots. Frame it in the size of a smartphone screen. Doing so will allow you to identify potential issues. It’s always easier and cheaper to change design on paper than it is to rewrite code.
  • Observe how users interact with it – Closely observe and take plenty of notes when watching users interacting with the app in all stages — paper mockup, prototype, and functional app. Watch their hands, facial expressions and body language. Note moments when they seem pleased or frustrated. Is it working the way they expect?
  • Engage in real world testing – Testing in real world conditions can reveal usability issues that won’t show up in a controlled environment. Test in environments your users will be in — a shopping mall or in a home. Avoid giving instruction. Relaxed users will give you insight on how they behave naturally.
  • Keep tests short and simple – The longer and more complicated a test, the less likely users will stay focused and interested.
  • Vary platforms – If you’re releasing on more than one platform then make sure you cover each one. Different platforms present information differently and as a developer you need to anticipate variation.
  • Ask the right questions – While the bulk of your insights will be gleaned from close observation, it’s important to ask some questions after each session. Make sure you are getting actionable data and ask for elaboration and demonstration of specific points.
  • Collect information and assess – Draw meaningful conclusions from the collected data. Avoid personal bias and make sure insights are drawn from observations of most end users, not just the loudest ones. Create a plan based on implementing on these insights.

Following these guidelines involves a lot of hard work but will deliver the information needed to create a truly stand-out and popular app. Your best bet in winning over users is with ease-of-use.


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