Spare Thoughts on App Design

Spare Thoughts on App Design

SEPTEMBER 20, 2023

Design is first determining and then communicating hierarchies of information: separating fore from background from what's kept off-stage entirely. In graphic design, the hierarchy is fixed. But with app design, it can shift over time and between contexts.

A spreadsheet-like UI is not design, but an admission of defeat. The task of determining information hierarchy has been abandoned. If all information is equally important, then yes, a tabular dump is the logical conclusion. But this is rarely the case.

It's also unfortunate, because designing the information hierarchy itself is one of the most satisfying and powerful aspects of design. It's discovered by paying close attention. Asking at every moment:

What do I want?

What do I expect?

What is relevant?

What is not?

This is why small apps, designed by 1 or 2 people Scratching Their Own Itch, are often so good. The bigger the team, the more "general" (i.e., unopinionated) an app becomes, the more noise will enter the subtle signal of ground-truth hierarchy.

And you end up being just OK. ☠️

The best example of this is probably Things. There's this specific feeling when you try something on a whim—unsure of why you'd even expect it to work—but somehow it does. As though the design has anticipated this very moment. Which it of course has.

It's slightly embarrassing to talk about app design with such reverence. But it's something I've enjoyed for a very long time, and since watching that How To With John Wilson episode about the people obsessed with vacuum cleaners, I'm feeling motivated.

To obsess is human 🤠👍