For as often as we use apps to make our daily lives more convenient, we rarely ask how they work or how they even came to be in the first place. But gaining a better understanding of our personal tech better equips every one of us to control and limit how big a part of our lives they will become. So to help us do just that we got in touch with an expert in the field of app design, who guided us through the early life stages of smartphone apps.
Yunning Liu (who also goes by Hilary) is a designer who has dedicated her talents to creating and reinventing websites and smartphone apps. Most recently, that’s meant a total redesign of the popular health app Achievement, which aims to help people record their daily exercise and other healthy activities, as well as offering the opportunity to contribute voluntary data to medical studies.
“I chose my current project because I believe that the work is meaningful and beneficial for users. Our new design will improve the user’s experience of the app on several levels. I can’t wait to see how it will impact our millions of users and how they track their healthy activities.”
Prior to her extensive work on Achievement, Liu also rebranded the LUX app, a sleek furniture and home decor outlet. The success of the redesign earned her attention and acclaim from top minds in the industry.
From her impressive beginnings as a member of the famed Young & Hungry creative co-op in San Francisco, Liu has managed to forge her own unique style, one that comes off as both effortless and extremely effective. She received the Best New App award in 2016 as well as the silver prize at the IDA Design Awards in 2015. Her work has been featured by a number of design competitions around the globe.
We reached out to Liu for a freewheeling discussion on app design, as well as design in a broader sense. She enjoys sharing her work and her experiences in many different aspects of design. She walked us through her detailed process, which often begins with nothing more than a simple desire to solve a problem, or to make a particular task a little bit easier.
“I will start by brainstorming ideas. I ask myself, ‘What problem do I want to solve? Is there a better way to do this?’ I then sketch out early ideas on a piece paper. It helps ground me in the project.”
Those first few raw ideas then have to be funnelled through previously established brand identity. And in addition to achieving consistency with an entire ecosphere of other visual marketing materials that a company already has in circulation, each new app and each new version of an existing app must be aware of other contemporary outlets and how they present themselves. Design involves a fair amount of cross-pollination, and for Liu, keeping both eyes open to other successful brands is a great way to take note of successful features that users love.
“Next, I do research. I observe the work of as many designs as possible, especially those within the same industry. I also look into new technologies that could be used for my projects.”
As always, function comes first. An app’s purpose and performance are priority. Only after those decisions have been made do the visuals come into play. Liu’s redesign of the Achievement app makes use of soft colors and thoughtful composition that presents all features and options clearly. These same traits are shared by some of the most well designed apps on the market today, including Rise, TeuxDeux, and Evernote.
“Finally, I come up with a visual identity for the project. That can include color, fonts, patterns, and icons. I then make high fidelity mockups of these ideas. Basically everyone in the company has to be onboard with the overall plan.”
All told, it can take months or even years to complete a project like Achievement, and the process doesn’t end when the app goes live. As more users experience the new version, they report bugs and make requests. And that data can be used to find the boundaries and limitations of the app’s current build.
From there, it’s a team effort to continually design new, updated versions of the app that each tries to solve as many problems as possible. Every issue needs to be examined from multiple perspectives.
“You can’t be an expert at everything. Every person in my workplace has mastered a specific skill, and I want to learn from each of them.”
For Liu, a project is only really finished when users send consistently positive feedback and genuinely enjoy the app experience. That’s when an app’s real purpose has been fulfilled: when, in a small way, the users’ lives have improved.
“I know I’ve done a good job when I see lots of good reviews on iTunes and the Google Play store. Then our customer support team starts receiving fewer tickets and complaints. Users are willing to share the app with their friends and family, which is some of the best marketing we could ask for. For a designer, that’s the best reward.”
And by going through this process again and again and again, Liu has been able to expand her skillset beyond just graphic design, becoming increasingly interested in other crucial aspects of turning an app idea into a reality.
“I see my work as a mix of 40% graphic design, 35% visuals, and 25% user experience design. These are all necessary to completing a satisfying final product.”
But nowadays Liu sees the value of looking beyond the details every so often to better see the big picture. And in those times, it’s her years of experience that help Liu take note of subtle industry trends.
“Life and work experience are some of the most valuable assets a designer can have. My experiences have certainly shaped who I am, not just as a designer of course but as a person. And do I do my best to stay open-minded and never stop learning. If a designer stops learning and accepting change, they will stop growing altogether.”
And during the brief time between projects, it’s back to keeping an open mind, one ready to seek out even more problems that need solutions, absorbing influences at all times. It’s a time when Liu allows herself to explore other mediums, always with the hope of learning something new that could potentially be translated to her future design work.
“I think all types of design are somehow related. In my spare time, I have attended lots of art workshops, such as pottery making, jewelry making, and tote bag making. I believe doing those things will inspire my daily work. For example, I’m able to use my animation skills by creating a demo video to show to engineers to help communicate the visual effect I want to achieve. In little ways like that, it all comes together.”
Eventually, these many different iterations of creative thinking lead to experimentation and innovation when it comes time to start a new project. It’s a cycle that feeds off itself, encouraging improvements each time. Liu hopes that she will never stop growing.