App conceptualization for Windows Phone

[ This article is for Windows Phone 8 developers. If you’re developing for Windows 10, see the latest documentation. ]

This section will help you conceptualize your app. Before you dive in, ask yourself some general questions about your app, and write down the answers. This will help you remember important details later and keep track of the origins of your ideas in case you need to retrace your steps. Using this section as an exercise before you begin building will help you to more quickly assemble a useful, beautiful app later.

After you’ve written down your answers, briefly visualize your app’s key screens or functions and make a quick sketch of how it should look. Remember that this isn’t the design phase, just the quick brainstorming phase where you conceptualize your app.

Here are some questions to consider before planning and drawing:

  • What will your app do?

  • Who is your app for?

  • How does your app fit in?

  • Where and when will your app be used?

  • What kind of content will be displayed?

This topic contains the following sections.

What will your app do?

Try answering this question in a single sentence; it will help you distill what kind of functionality will be central to your app. Think in fairly general terms at first, and don’t get into specific features just yet, but do be clear about the purpose of the app and why people will find it useful.

List tasks or operations that the app will perform, or list the controls you imagine on the screen. Alternatively, make a list of a hypothetical user’s goals: what are they trying to accomplish with your app? (For example, “send an e-card” or “take a panoramic photo.”) Try to arrange this list in order of importance, so that if you need to pare down your feature list later, you’ll know what to cut.

When an app is well-focused on a certain task or group of tasks, and those tasks are clear and valuable, the value of the app to the user becomes immediately apparent. It also makes it easier to assign your app a meaningful name, and choose a genre in Windows Phone Store.

Concentrating on a few important tasks will also allow you to support them more thoroughly. Make a quick list of the options or attendant functions you’ll want to enable in each screen of your app. Does the user have access to everything he or she needs inside your app?

Users may not stick around to learn the ins and outs of a complex app. Extend your app’s clarity of purpose to the title, description, and app Tile.

Who is your app for?

It’s important to imagine who will use your app to better tailor it to their tastes. While there are plenty of Windows Phone devices in the hands of all types of people, keep in mind that apps that appeal to a narrow audience are more likely to go unnoticed in the competitive market for apps. At this stage, keep an open mind about who might like your app; don’t focus your app for a specific audience until later in the design process. You may choose to take your idea in a different direction once you begin creating prototypes, and your project will be more flexible if you’re inclusive when you imagine your ideal user early in the process.

How does your app fit in?

Write down some similar apps you find in the Store and compare and contrast them with yours. Reading about competing apps may lead you to make changes to your approach, or spark new ideas the Store hasn’t yet seen.

Think about the genre in which you’d list your app, and whether it builds on any other apps or services. The Windows Phone OS connects with Facebook, Google, Outlook, and Yahoo! accounts to sync contacts, status updates, and other streams of info. Connecting to outside software and services is part of what makes Windows Phone apps personal.

If applicable, consider using third-party services, especially social networking and enterprise software services, to help users get friends and content in and out of their phone to the wider web. This allows them to share work and media they’ve created and consumed on their phone with their network of friends and associates.

Where and when will your app be used?

For example, say your app will be used “at the gym” or “in the car.” Evaluate these scenarios for common distractions, and note ways that your app can prevent users from making simple mistakes. The highest-quality Windows Phone apps use design to anticipate user error and compensate for it, even in simple ways; for example, making buttons large and easy to tap, or positioning controls under the user’s thumb for more comfortable single-handed use.

What kind of content will you display?

Content deserves center stage in your app, so consider what content your app will highlight, and how users will want to see it presented on a mobile device. For example, a weather app might want to present on-screen animations that show the current meteorological conditions in the region.

Interesting and dynamic content can help bring users back to your app time and again. Don’t distract them with too many controls in a given screen. When users are first learning your app, they’ll probably have the impulse to operate most of the controls out of curiosity. There should be few enough controls on the screen that to learn the function and effect of each doesn’t require more than a few moments.

Follow the design advice of making the content the control whenever possible. This means that you don't have separate controls that manipulate content when a gesture can accomplish the same thing. For example, if you have an image of a musical album, you don't need a separate control button to play it. Just a tap on the album image should play it. Look at how images are grabbed and expanded all without the need for any space-wasting controls.

Don’t leave users with the impression that your app has wide areas of functionality that they’ll never explore. Examine navigation, interactions, and controls of other apps. Are there lessons you can learn from their designs? How can you improve upon or revise them to fit your purposes? Sometimes it’s strategically advantageous to ship a simplified version of your app to see how it fares in the market before investing more time and effort in extra features.

How can your app use the hardware?

Familiarize yourself with the capabilities of Windows Phone devices, and remember that apps should add value above and beyond a web app viewed in the browser. Users will appreciate and in some cases expect your app to make clever and appropriate use of the phone’s accelerometer, camera, GPS, light sensor, microphone, and speakers.

The four touch points

Look at the following four critical presentation opportunities to inform and grab the user’s attention:

  • The home screen

  • Salient controls

  • Beautiful bits

  • The Start page Tile

The home screen

Start thinking about what users will want to see when they first launch your app. Review the user goals and tasks you listed earlier. Will your app surface new info when it opens?

Key controls

Sketch some of the controls you’d want on the app’s most important screens. What kinds of tasks should be represented graphically? What should be represented with type? If your app asks for frequent taps, consider if the position of the controls you imagine will be comfortable for hands.

Beautiful bits

Users expect visually pleasing and carefully considered layouts in modern mobile apps. Your app may make use of intentional open space, typography, or animation to attract the eye; alternatively, you can make your designs minimalistic and let the content be the central attraction. Whatever you decide, make a play for users’ attention.

Start page Tile

If the user has pinned your app to the Start Page, you have the opportunity to use a Live Tile. Live Tiles can auto-update and present new info using animations. Think about your icon as a small billboard on the screen of the phone: what should it tell the user? How can you use iconography and color to convey the purpose of your app succinctly?

For more info about making great looking Tiles, see Tile design guidelines for Windows Phone.

Simplify and design

Simplifying your concepts isn’t a formal process, and even the term “simplicity” is hard to define. But after you’ve written out some of the ideas that will encapsulate your app, you should review them for ways to reduce complexity (either to make programming easier, or to make your app more usable). Take time to go over all your ideas. Are there efficiencies to be gained? Can some features be eliminated or combined with others?

Now that you’ve conceived of some preliminary designs, review the next topic, Implementing Windows Phone app design, about how to turn your ideas into actual, testable prototypes.