Wherefore app thou? NZ’s dearth of digital designers

While iPhones and the like have burst onto the mobile scene, there hasn’t been an associated explosion of app designers to create the apps that make the smartphone world turn. This shortage is particularly noticeable in New Zealand and finding designers has proved a real struggle for Brett Hancock, founder of digital design company Born Digital. In fact, pickings are so slim that when the company recently put an ad on Seek for a full-time iPhone app developer, only one lonesome response was received over an entire month.

“Because the space is so hot right now, thousands of people want apps done. It was either train up people internally, or look externally. So we’re doing both,” says Hancock. The problem, he says, is that apps are relatively new on the scene, so there aren’t many people out there doing it.

While Born Digital started out as a web design company in 2005, it only began working on mobile apps earlier this year. Hancock made the move because he knew the market “was going to go nuts”. He likens the app revolution to the rebirth of the internet, back when everyone was realising they needed a website.

“People are realising—if not now, then by next year—that they’ll all need something on mobile.”

The company’s first venture into the “apposphere” was for Allpress espresso. The successful app allows coffee-cravers to find the closest cafe serving Allpress espresso. Since then, the company has also developed an app for VoucherMob, with a number of “secret” apps currently under development.

So how exactly do you go about designing an app? You can learn yourself by downloading a few tidbits from Apple’s website. It will set you back a couple of hundred of dollars but will give you access to resources like training videos. If you haven’t done anything like it before, Hancock says it can be quite a steep learning curve.

“They say you can learn it in about 10-15 days. But it’s like anything, to get really good at it and understand all the pitfalls—the ins and outs—can take months and months of trial and error.”

And while you can master the technical aspects, mastering the design aesthetics is another matter all together. With the explosion of smartphones and apps, Hancock says the biggest challenge is in designing something that stands out in the crowded app space.

He describes a lot of the current app designs as “crap”, citing a hey-day a couple of years back when loads of one man bands from home saw the app domain as an opportunity to make money.

“These people came up with their ideas for apps, put them on the app store, and sold them for $1.99. And because these guys were just developers working from home and not designers, what they put up into the app store got approved and went live. It was very poor from a design point of view.”

But no more. Apple has since taken steps to tighten its policy and has released new user interface developer guidelines.

“The key to making a successful design is using a high contrast colour scheme that’s easy on the eye,” says Hancock. People often view apps when they’re outdoors and the natural light makes it even more important to use contrast. “For example, red on white would work well. Whereas if you have bright red and dark red side by side, it makes it harder for the user to see.”

You also need to think carefully about how much you’re going to fit into each screen. “Some people try to get their whole website to work as an app when you should be picking the key features that are interesting to a mobile experience—not everything.”

And don’t forget the sausage fingered folk: “When you have areas that have to be pressed, you want to make sure they’re not too close to each other for people with bigger fingers.”

For Hancock, the point where design often goes wrong is when people try to reinvent the wheel about the way you operate an app.

“Don’t try to deviate too far from the native iPhone experience. The whole point is if you know how you use an iPhone, you should know how to use any app in the store.”

His advice for those wishing to enter the app space, but who don’t necessarily have the design prowess? “Hire a designer. Just like a website, there’s the user experience to take into account. There’s the graphic design—the colours and fonts. And there’s the technical architecture: does it work? How does it work?”

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