The appropriate commitment to design varies widely, but there is a discernible pattern. The right answer depends largely on the role design plays in your app’s differentiation. Overspending on design, especially on your initial release, lowers your ability to execute and your ability to iterate. Underspending increases the risk that you will miss product market fit and increases the risk of losing users too quickly to iterate toward tighter fit.

One way to break down the problem is to look at what type of design effect you need to complement the app functionality. Four levels of effect are listed below:

Four Levels of Design Effect

Reading the Chart

We plot benefit against effort. For example, if your app requires a natural level of design, you will reach maximum benefit expending 10–20% of your initial budget on UI/UX design and research. Think of user loyalty, sometimes measured as Net Promoter Score, as a relevant design benefit.



The lightest level is best described as functional. You may find that the app’s screen flow and layout closely map to the underlying database tables. You may devote little care or attention to usability and polish. Succeeding with such an app requires a captive audience. An audience might be captive because of:

· An internal app — Users are employees of the app publisher.

· A small audience — The app solves an important problem that relatively few people experience.

· A high enclosure — The app is not the user’s chief motivation for giving this company his custom.


If you are determined to zero in on the true value proposition for your users, you may allocate more research effort. When you care about retention, you will devote effort to designing the user’s simplest path from beginning to end. When you apply this level of design, the resulting app will be:

· Simple — For example, such an app might not require first run tutorials as the UI itself provides clear, well-reasoned defaults and limits the number of choices available on any one screen.

· Thoughtful — Designers of such apps frequently devote considerable thought to how the app will react when the users task-switch back and forth, to and from other apps.

· Familiar — The designer will pay close attention to platform-specific controls, gestures, layout and navigation conventions. Leveraging such idioms avoids placing the user under heavy cognitive load and allows them to focus on the app-specific task versus learning new conventions.


Some apps make it possible to do things that seem like magic. At this level, your users may see your app as:

· Omniscient — Using new sources of data (e.g. crowd-sourced data) to provide insights into questions that previously seemed intractable to your users.

· Effortless — Completing tasks in one step (or a few) that previously required your users to perform multiple steps across multiple systems (often depends on integration of back-end systems).

· Proprioceptive — Capturing ambient data through onboard sensors to discern location, proximity, movement, environmental factors, etc.

· Hyper-observant — Recording your user’s previous choices and behaviors in order to anticipate their needs and create deft personal defaults.

High Gloss

Other apps are differentiated based on beauty and level of polish. They are frequently:

· Skeuomorphic — Possessing an interface that mimics real-world counterparts in appearance and/or interaction

· Photogenic — Emphasizing the use of photographic elements.

· Heavily customized — Requiring invention of new user interface conventions or components.

This level of finish seldom makes sense for a first-mover, as finding product-market fit is difficult by itself and frequently requires several iterations. This is particularly true as such iterations are much slower and more expensive, since each new direction has to be re-polished to a high gloss. This level of finish is more appropriate in a high-value, hotly contested market where the user is extra sensitive to aesthetics (e.g. cosmetics or fashion).

Choosing the right level

Once you recognize which level of design finish suits your app, you will be better equipped to prepare a budget for the product build. It is crucial to do so early, as the wrong decision is always a costly one. Some of the factors that affect your choice of design finish are:

· Subject Matter

· Audience

· Market Maturity

· Value Proposition

· Budget

In our next post on this topic we will consider how some of these factors affect your choice of design finish level.


Blue Rocket is a mobile product development company based in San Francisco. Through strategy, design, and engineering, we help great companies built powerful digital experiences—the right way. Email us at