How to Make an App Your Users (and the App Store) Will Love

August 16, 2016 - 10 minutes read
iPhone app developers

iPhone app development: not nearly as easy as stock photo models make it look.

Submitting apps to the Apple App Store is the scariest part of mobile app development. Apple is notoriously selective about the apps they allow into the iTunes ecosystem, meaning that only carefully-vetted iPhone and iPad app developers ever see their products reach end users. When it’s all said and done, around 30% of apps are rejected outright.

So, how can you ensure your app is a hit in the App Store?

The trick is deceptively simple: create an app that both Apple and your users will love. Easier said than done.

Apple provides a set of guidelines ranging from the broad (offer lasting value) to the specific (don’t use private APIs).

We explored the more straightforward guidelines in a previous post, Top 10 Reasons Your iPhone App Will Be Rejected from the App Store.

In this post we’ll unpack the less straightforward guidelines to explain the elements of iPhone apps that Apple cares about most when evaluating your iOS app.

“Create lasting value”

Uber: lasting value. An app for rides to a specific event? Value, but not lasting.

Uber: lasting value. An app for rides to a specific event? Value, but not lasting.

The clause requiring app developers to “create lasting value” is among Apple’s least specific — yet most important — guidelines. What does it mean to create lasting value?

First, ask yourself: will your app still be useful a year from now? What about five years from now? If your iPhone app is centered around a specific event (e.g. 2016 Superbowl, Olympic Games) or any other time-sensitive purposes, brace yourself for rejection (and start working on a web app).

Second, take a look at the competition. There are over a million apps available to iOS users on the iTunes App Store, so chances are at least a couple iPhone app developers have put out products similar to yours. This post to Apple’s developer blog says it best:

“Before creating your app, take a look at the apps in your category on the App Store and consider how you can provide an even better user experience.”

In other words, the question isn’t whether or not it’s been done before; the question is how to improve upon what’s been done before.

Craft quality UI & UX

Wireframing iPhone app

UI and UX: not an afterthought.

Apple is known for upholding a ridiculously high standard when it comes to user interface design.

After all, simple and attractive interfaces were what gave the company a leg up on Microsoft back in the 80s. Therefore, it’s no surprise that they maintain equally high UI & UX standards for iPhone app developers on their platforms.

UI & UX are obviously huge topics to cover in a blog post, but here’s a shortcut for getting acquainted: take a look at the winners from Apple’s 2015 design awards.

You’ll quickly notice that while the apps featured have little in common when it comes to functionality, they have a lot in common when it comes to a preference for clean lines, flat vector graphics, and intuitive viewports with minimal clutter.

Monument Valley, an Apple-Award-Winning mobile game, demonstrates the rewards of a fine-tuned visual identity.

Monument Valley, an Apple-Award-Winning mobile game, demonstrates the rewards of a fine-tuned visual identity.

Even relatively complex games present the viewer with relatively few options, and the actions for escaping a screen or locating settings and controls are intuitive across the board.

Your second stop should be the official Apple Developer list of do’s and don’ts. The biggest issues we see with “rescue” projects here at Dogtown Media are poorly-sized touch controls, poorly spaced content on sloppy grids, and poorly formatted image constraints.

Rules of thumb for iPhone app developers:

1. Only apply labels to buttons if absolutely necessary.
2. Limit the user actions available from any particular screen to four.
3. Separate screen elements on a grid with flat colors, as opposed to randomly with decorative gradients or unnecessary 3D graphics.
4. Use mockup tools to create semi-functional prototypes. Test them on actual people. Search for patterns and unnecessary actions.

Develop unique products

app developer

Again, the Apple App Store is a crowded place. Your iPhone app will be featured alongside over a million other apps, meaning that distinct branding and unique value propositions are critical to success, both with Apple’s testers and your future users.

Never underestimate the importance of creating strong brand identity guidelines. Most of the top apps of 2015 featured strong brand color palates, which they stuck too religiously even in peripheral materials like social media. Strong brand identity is the visual differentiator between products built by experienced San Francisco iPhone app developers and products built by slap-dash teams with no connection to the startup mission.

Also make sure your brand’s voice is clearly defined and shines through in all interface copy. Alerts should sound like they’re coming from your brand, not a robot. Keep it fun — or if not fun, at least in character.

Users should walk away from your app with a clear memory of who you are. Stock “bootstrap” app design and generic messaging rarely makes as strong an impression as custom, hand-crafted iPhone apps.

The Goldilocks effect: not too simple, not too complex

amazing app design

While the mantra of “keep it simple” reigns supreme in the cult of Apple, it’s important not to shy away from adding features and details that your users will actually enjoy. Apps are just as likely to be rejected for being too simple as they are for being too complex. Besides, most of the uber-simple app ideas (flashlights, screen tinting) are already hardwired into Apple devices’ native functionality.

The secret is to start simple and add features selectively, informed by data from market analysis and prototype testing. User stories are helpful, but remember that they’re just that — “stories.” They should be the springboard rather than the rule.

In general, apps that find success hit a sweet spot between minimalism and complexity. The job doesn’t stop once you’ve figured out how to design an app that give users what they want. The challenge is in delivering that functionality with as much added value as possible, securing your iPhone app against the onslaught of imitators and competitors that’s sure to follow once you make it into the Apple App Store.

Creating apps that users love

iPad app developer

Apple’s review process can seem shadowy and mysterious because, frankly, it is shadowy and mysterious.

Individual elements of your app are evaluated by a range of individual testers, and while we can’t know everything that goes into that testing process, we can know this: app testers are subject to whim and opinion as much as the real-life people who’ll be downloading your amazing app idea onto their iPhones.

It’s frustrating to get rejected for something surface-level, like having too many buttons on the settings screen. (Particularly when another tester might have been less strict.)

The thing is, fixing even a minor glitch in your app ultimately generates better user experiences on launch day. Positive reviews are worth their weight in gold during your iPhone app’s maiden voyage into the Apple App Store, so don’t take rejection personally.

App Store rejections are ultimately just constructive criticism. As with all constructive criticism: the more it hurts, the stronger the final product.

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