SXSW 2015: Tips for Minimal App Design from 'Yo'

Over the past few years, we've seen a huge amount of new devices pop up, from new smartphones, tablets to devices like the upcoming Apple Watch. Each of these different devices poses different design challenges. During a recent talk at SXSW, Or Arbel, the Co-Founder of the Yo app, had a discussion with Josh Constine, a writer at TechCrunch, over some of the thought processes that went into the minimal design of Yo as well as some key things to keep in mind when it comes to your mobile app design.

Yo's Design

"Yo started when my partner asked me for an app that can, in the simplest way possible, call his assistant," Arbel said. "You tap one button and it sends the communication." Arbel continued, "In the beginning I thought, I wasn't going to make an app just for [my partner] but then I thought how it can be useful for other people and I got excited about it. Not about what this app can do, but what it cannot do." This poses an interesting approach as many designers these days think about the functionality their apps need. For most websites, there's a ton of features so when sitting down to design a mobile app the thought process is commonly to try and figure out how to cram as many features as you can into the app. Unfortunately, this can have a negative effect as it starts to confuse users when they're presented with way too many buttons or options. While every designer should always be thinking about what their app should do, Arbel also suggests you should be thinking about what you want your app to not do.

Inspiration for Minimalist App Design

"One of the apps I really admire the simplicity of is Instagram," Arbel said, speaking to apps for minimal design inspiration. "Their simplicity has contributed majorly to their success, I think." "Some of the other apps that I think are really useful includes Meerkat, which everyone has been talking about lately," Constine added. "There's not a whole lot to do, there's hidden menus really. All you do is type in what you're about to stream and either schedule it for later or start streaming immediately." Some other inspirations for minimal app design mentioned were Teleparty, which features an extremely minimal design to let you perform video chat with multiple people at once, and Push for Pizza, which simplifies ordering pizza through a minimalist app design. "One thing I really like about minimalist app design is because it's minimal," Constine stated. "Because there's less to build, you can build it quicker and actually build apps that aren't necessarily supposed to be a business. I think we're entering the age of apps as art as well as apps as business." "A lot of times when I talk about apps with my friends," Arbel said. "When they describe their app, they say, 'My app does this and this and this'. What I think is your app should do 'This' and when you find the word 'and' in the sentence of what your app does, that's when you should stop. You should find the part that means the most and that's where you should stop."

Accepting the Unknown

You aren't always going to know how your users will be using your app on day one. Citing Twitter as an example, Constine commented that your customers are really going to be the driver behind what your business is. "One of the craziest use cases we saw was in Israel, when there was a conflict with Hamas, and Hamas was shooting rockets on Israel," Arbel explained. "Developers in Israel connected the Yo app API to the IDF website and then when rockets were in the sky people got a 'Yo'." While this is an extreme use-case, it really showcases how a minimal design can be harnessed for something far beyond it was originally intended. And this sort of use is really only possible in a minimal design with a focused and specific feature. "Websites are designed with a pull methodology, where you go to them and find what you need," Constine added. "But with mobile, because it's in your pocket and because of push notifications you can design a whole new class of apps that are designed to push the information to you."

Kill the Hamburger Button

"When you're looking at apps, I think one of the most important things is looking through your flow and finding the extra taps," Constine said. "Where are there times when you just shouldn't need to click again and again to get to something?" Constine continued, "So a hamburger button is a button with those three little lines in it. You click on it to open a drawer of other functionality or menu items. But it's out of sight and out of mind, so when you put functionality behind one of those indescript hamburger buttons you're basically asking your users to forget about that functionality." About a year ago, Constine wrote an article to go into more depth on this perspective called Kill the Hamburger Button. "One of the apps I think has really done this in a really impressive way is SnapChat," Constine explained. "There is no hamburger button, instead it's all swiping. I love that that's how you move around and there's not one indescript catch-all button with everything piled inside of it." "I think hamburger buttons should be used for settings and not for features," Arbel added. Over the last few years, we've seen a growth in standalone apps as people start to realize that features shouldn't be hidden away. Constine suggests that this is because mobile app designers are realizing putting features under a menu or button that requires extra taps to get there isn't working. "You might remember when Facebook originally did this with Messenger, there was a ton of backlash and everyone was hating on them for it," Constine said. "But it worked. The app started growing a lot faster, messaging went up significantly and all of their metrics improved."

Knowing What to Remove

If minimal app design is so important, it's also important to make sure you know what to strip from your app. On the other hand, Constine cited Foursquare as an example of splitting into multiple apps while not working. "You guys might know, Foursquare cut itself into half with Swarm," Constine said. "Except both of those apps still have hamburger buttons full of functionality. And now, basically, the app is in trouble because they haven't been able to figure out minimal app design." "Build the features that 80% of your users will actually use and you should kill the features that 20% of your users will use," Arbel suggested, citing the Pareto principle. "Just don't put them in the app."