How Do You Design a Better App? Make it Personal

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Earlier this summer, Youth Radio’s Mobile Action Lab met with co-founder of 955 Dreams TJ Zark, who sat down with our young app developers to share her thoughts on user engagement.

955 Dreams is the company responsible for developing apps such as Band of the Day , History of Jazz, and On the Way to Woodstock. History of Jazz and On the Way to Woodstock were designed specifically for the iPad. They take the user through a musical timeline of these periods. Band of the Day was the 2011 runner up for Best App of the Year (second only to Instagram).

During her talk, Zark discussed the difference between the way users interact with smart phones versus computers, and the challenges the new devices present for app designers.”[Smart phones] are different than anything I’ve ever developed for,” Zark said. “People feel ownership [over their phones.] Your app lives next to photos of their baby.”

Here she shares a story that speaks to our growing attachment to our phones:

In this next clip, TJ Zark explains how creating an app is like throwing a party for the user. In other words, designing an app is all about creating an experience tailored to your audience. If I made an app targeted towards teens who listen to underground hip hop music, for example, I definitely wouldn’t play Justin Bieber during the intro!

One of the biggest challenges app designers face is how to get users to engage on a daily basis. Zark believes the biggest driver is content. “There’s a difference between fast food and a real meal,” she said. “If your app is serving a quality meal then people will come to your app.”

Here, Zark lays out the master plan that will make or break an app, “The success of an app depends on the balancing of three main ideas: content, design, and technology,” she said, “all for the benefit of the user.”

Zark’s advice made me think of a restaurant — you have to have good food, great service, and a pleasant eating environment to keep your guests coming back. A restaurant where you love the food but the waiters are really rude will make your customers think about other options.

Getting the chance to hear TJ Zark speak was very motivating for me and the other app lab team members. Her words of wisdom made me think about how apps are seen through the eyes of the user. She also changed the way I think about the app development process. Now I ask myself, “What is it going to take to make the user want to come back to this app daily?” and “How can we make the experience of going through the app simpler?” Thanks to TJ Zark for helping us design better apps at Youth Radio!


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