App Design Guidelines

Before diving into code, you need to take the time to properly design your app, both from an interface and experience point of view. It is important to take the time to define an app’s feature set and intended audience to help guide the design process. This must be done while keeping in mind the features and limitations of the platform this app will run on. Tailoring the experience to the function, to the user, and to the platform are all necessary to the development of a successful app.

  1. Determine what the app’s main purpose is.
  2. List all the features you think are important for this purpose.
  3. Determine who your users are.
  4. Filter the feature list for your audience.
  5. Filter the feature list for the target platform.

Platform Characteristics

The display is at the heart of the user experience as it is both the main input and output interface. The content is viewed on screen and the experience is driven by touching that same screen.

Users must be able to “grab” a control without seeing it. All controls should therefore be large enough and spaced apart enough so that there is no confusion when they are being selected. A good rule of thumb is to have controls of at least 44 x 44 points in size.

The device being handheld, it is often rotated in different orientations. This can happen for a variety of reasons, from the user being tired to feeling that some tasks are more natural in specific orientations. This is something that must be taken into account and accommodated in the app design if it makes sense.

Finally, it is important to remember that apps respond to gestures, as opposed to mouse clicks and keyboard typing on desktop devices. Furthermore, a gestural language has been established over the last few years because it has been adopted by many apps, and should be considered when designing interactions. For example, dragging to scroll or pan, and pinching to zoom in and out.

Human Interface Principles

A great user interface does not focus on the device capabilities but on the way users think and work. It must be inviting, simple, and intuitive.

Aesthetic Integrity – How well does the appearance of the app integrate with its function? For example, a game should be immersive and take over the entire screen, while a to-do list should be more subtle and sober.

Consistency – This includes both consistency with other apps and within the app itself. Does the app take advantage of established standards users are comfortable with? Does the app maintain its visual identity throughout the experience? Do UI elements mean the same thing and are used the same way all the time?

Direct Manipulation – The multi-touch screen allows users to directly manipulate elements instead of going through a separate interface. For example, instead of having buttons for zooming in and out of an image, use a pinch gesture.

Feedback – Users expect immediate feedback when interacting with an interface. If an operation takes a long time, like a network request for example, let them know that the system is “thinking”. If an operation takes longer than expected, offer a status update reassuring them that everything is under control.

Metaphors – References to real life objects allow users to quickly understand how to use an interface. For example, a switch can be flicked to toggle a setting, or a rotary dial can be turned to fine tune a value.

User Control – The user should always initiate any action and feel in control while using the app. Users also expect to be able to undo or cancel an action that is underway.

User Experience Guidelines

Focus on the primary task – If a feature does not relate to the main purpose of the app, it is unnecessary. This also works on a feature basis. You should analyze what information is needed in each screen, and get rid of anything extra (either including it in a different context or removing it altogether).

Emphasize the content users care about – Decrease the weight of the UI by minimizing the number of controls and their prominence on screen. For example, you can fade away navigation controls in a slideshow if the user has not interacted with them for a few seconds.

Think top down – The top of the screen is most visible to users as they tend to hold the device in their hand, interacting with the screen using their thumb. The most important and frequently used information should be placed at the top.

Make usage easy and logical – Navigation through the app should be predictable. Users should immediately understand how to use the app and where to find information they are looking for. For example, clicking on a person’s name in the address book reveals their contact information.

Use user-centric language – You want to avoid technical terms and keep terminology simple yet accurate. For example, “load a webpage” instead of “perform an HTTP request”.

Keep file-handling in the background – Users do not expect to have to deal with files and folders on a handheld device. Information about file paths, saving, loading are usually irrelevant to the experience and should happen silently.

Start instantly – Users tend to interact with apps for only a few minutes at a time. Avoid splash screens, only display about screens on user request, and delay login screens as much as possible.

Always be prepared to stop – Save data reasonably often and save the app state when it moves to the background to allow the user to continue where they left off.

Make it pretty – Use beautiful graphics and subtle animations to make your app attractive and enjoyable to use.


It is often useful to start thinking about an app outside of Xcode and even completely offscreen. Although a napkin and a pen are good enough to sketch out an initial idea, some tools can come in handy when moving forward into more concrete interface and experience design.

Pen and Paper

iPhone Application Sketch Template (Oliver Waters) – Printable iPhone template with grid squares at every 10 pixels, and tick marks indicating the position of the status bar, navigation bar, and tab bar.

App Sketchbook (Square Position, LLC) – Booklet with iPhone or iPad stencils for sketching mockups, with a notes section at the bottom of the page.

Stencil Kit (UI Stencils) – Stencils for commonly used iPhone and iPad controls and icons. A sketchpad and PDFs at the same scale are also available.


iPhone Mockup (Lukas Mathis) – Online stylized design tool including standard component library. Designs can be collaborated on by sharing the URL.

MockFlow – Online wireframing tool with a large library of user-generated content.

OmniGraffle (OmniGroup) – Diagramming application that can be used for creating wireframes and flowcharts. Many free iPhone and iPad stencils can be downloaded from Graffletopia (and various other places on the web) for interface design.


iOS 6 GUI PSD (iPhone 5) (Geoff Teehan) – Photoshop document containing a complete and well-organized collection of standard UI elements for iOS.

iOS Photoshop Actions & Workflows (Bjango) – Photoshop actions for performing common iOS design tasks.

DevRocket (Ui Parade) – Photoshop plugin for performing common iOS design tasks.


Cocoa Controls – Collection of user submitted interface elements for iOS apps.

  1. iOS Human Interface Guidelines. Apple, Sep 19 2012.

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