4 Surprising App-Design Principles, From The Instagram Of Quick Quizzes

Designer Luke Wroblewski describes the sometimes counterintuitive tactics he used to make Polar stand out from the crowd.

4 Surprising App-Design Principles, From The Instagram Of Quick Quizzes

When we first wrote about Polar, an addictive app that invites you to make and take “this or that”-style quizzes, we called it “an object lesson in mobile design done very, very right.” Luke Wroblewski, the mobile-first design evangelist behind Polar, tells us four winning strategies he used to supercharge Polar’s user experience. If you want people to actually engage with your mobile app, not just download it and forget it, read on and take notes.


1. Design for distraction

No one is paying full attention to your mobile app. The sooner you swallow your pride and start designing for this fact instead of against it, the better off you’ll be. “Effective mobile designs not only account for these one thumb/one eyeball experiences but aim to optimize for them as well,” Wroblewski writes.

Wroblewski wanted to streamline Polar’s interactions so that a user could take 10 polls in less than a minute using just one hand. As you can see from the demo video above, they achieved that goal. The big pictures and huge tap targets create a user experience that you barely have to be paying attention to in order to successfully engage with. But these “micro mobile interactions” add up: two months after launch, Polar was averaging 55 votes per day, per user. (Another popular mobile opinion-sharing app, Thumb, averages about 6 votes per day.)

2. Kill Your Sign-Up Form

How often do you download an intriguing-sounding app, only to be confronted with a screen full of boxes to fill out before you can even launch it? We’ve learned to expect this, but it’s fundamentally bad UX. “With Polar, we take the opposite approach: from the moment you download and open the app, we let you get in and start using it,” says Wroblewski. The result? Instant engagement: “88% of people who downloaded Polar used it to vote,” he says. Polar holds onto your voting activity so that if you do decide to go back through the registration process, your votes carry over into your account. “61% of people take this next step and sign up,” Wroblewski adds.

This process, called “gradual engagement,” “is kind of controversial,” Wroblewski admits. If you don’t force users to jump through registration hoops, many of them won’t—and the metric of those registrations will go down. But consider, says Wroblewski, which kind of user you really want: someone who fills out a form once and then never uses your app again, or someone who uses your app a lot, and then fills out a form because they actually want to?


“Signed-up users that don’t care about, understand, or use your service aren’t as valuable as people who not only get what you do but, actively use your service,” Wroblewski says. “The gradual engagement approach is aimed at creating more of these [latter] kinds of users.”

3. Don’t hide passwords

It’s another controversial move: instead of obscuring passwords behind asterisks as you type them in, Polar leaves them visible. Is it a crime against the security gods? “There is a lot of baggage and expectations about what a ‘secure’ login form looks like,” Wroblewski says. “But what happened was the exact opposite. I heard from a lot of people that they loved the approach.” Polar isn’t alone: Yahoo and Sprint have experimented with visible passwords in their login forms with no detrimental security effects—and happier users.

“To me, this is a great example of how designing for mobile allows and forces us to rethink even our most established conventions,” Wroblewski says. “It turns out that masking passwords on mobile is really painful for people and they make mistakes logging in all the time. Anytime you are dealing with people’s personal information—no matter what it happens to be—you need to respectful of it and keep it safe for them. But there are more humane ways of doing this.”

4. Repeat yourself

Polar has one core interaction (voting on a binary choice), and one primary pattern for delivering it (splitting the screen in half to represent each choice, and separating them with a big round “OR” in between). It’s a simple enough interaction to learn. But the point, Wroblewski says, is that users still do have to learn it—so once you’ve gotten the user past that energy barrier, you might as well let them keep using what they’ve learned as often as possible.


“We reuse our core interaction for logging in, for tips and help dialogs, for responding to error messages and more,” Wroblewski explains. “The idea is to use this pattern all over the app, to get people to features and functions that would otherwise be hidden several layers deep.” Apps that echo core interactions feel more “intuitive”—that mushy placeholder word that usually just means “familiar.” If you make something easy to learn once, and then let users use it over and over again to do other things, the “language” of your app will feel familiar and legible—fast.


“Pretty much all our attention and effort [for building Polar] went into these interactions because they are at the heart of collecting and sharing opinions,” Wroblewski says. “If we didn’t do a good job with them or if nobody cared enough to vote or make polls, the whole concept I just outlined would fall apart.” But the beauty of these strategies, he says, is that they can be implemented no matter what your mobile app is or does. Will they turn a terrible app into a successful one? Probably not. But if you’ve got a mobile design that you believe in, putting these ideas into practice could go a long way towards making your users believe, too.

Download Polar here, and read Luke Wroblewski’s blog here


About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.