People Buy the App Icon, Not Just the App

You and your team worked tirelessly for over six months to bring your mobile app to life. Long nights of coding, hours of design, brainstorming, meetings to refine your vision, and page after page of wireframe revisions have finally ended. You are now ready to take that final step and submit your app to the online app store.

But have you done everything you can to make sure your app will be a success? If you haven’t carefully considered how the design of your app icon plays a role in communicating your app to the consumer, you are putting your app downloads at risk.

Very few consumers are connoisseurs, although we all think we are
Let’s take a step back and observe the online mobile app market and how it appears to the consumer. It looks and functions like a grocery store with different sections and organized rows of products lining the shelves, prices all marked at some value ending in 99 cents. Some products are packaged in bright colors; some have stickers that scream “FREE” or “NEW”. They are all trying to compete for your attention and, ultimately, your transaction.

In a brick and mortar store, looking for a bottle of wine, you witness this visual enticement en masse. Each wine label is trying to differentiate itself from its neighbor. Some showcase beautiful paintings or cute animals, others feature scenic French countryside and elegant typography, or the popular and obvious, grapes on a vine.

In a 2003 paper, People Buy the Wine Label, Not the Wine. Don’t They?, Ortrun Reidick concludes that consumers are highly influenced by package design as an isolated element, but that many external and internal factors—such as culture, time and motivation—are often contributors to the final product choice.

With the exception of “connoisseurs,” most consumers are drawn to visuals within the packaging that reinforce their preconceptions about the product. If the consumer is looking for a wine to impress important guests, the wine label with the chateau may have more impact than the wine label with the children playing.

This same behavior is happening in online app stores. As consumers, we migrate towards visually appealing imagery over explanatory text, and to some extent, we even weigh this factor higher than price. Like it or not, we are visual shoppers offline and online.

More than just a pretty digital face
App icons play the critical role of introducing the consumer to the app, acting in a similar manner to traditional product packaging. An app icon that misrepresents or ignores the consumer has a lower chance of enticing clicks and ultimately transactions. An app icon that speaks coherently and honestly to consumers helps to reinforce the app and the brand.

Once the download has occurred and the app is on a mobile device, the app icon takes on the additional role of brand and product reinforcement. A well-designed icon does more than look pretty on a mobile device, it communicates the brand promise, what the app does, and the level of quality the consumer should expect.

Just as in creating a valued mobile app, there are no shortcuts in creating great mobile app icons. Apple’s iOS suggests these human interface guidelines:

  1. For the best results, enlist the help of a professional graphic designer. An experienced graphic designer can help you develop an overall visual style for your app and apply that style to all the icons and images in it.
  2. Use universal imagery that people will easily recognize. Avoid focusing on a secondary or obscure aspect of an element.
  3. Embrace simplicity. In particular, avoid cramming lots of different images into your icon. Try to use a single object that expresses the essence of your app.

Quality in equals quality out
You wouldn’t submit your mobile app without spellchecking copy, testing the functionality on a device, or choosing a name. How you treat the design and concept of your app icon will go a long way to communicating your brand and app story to consumers, ultimately contributing to the overall success of your product.

For further reading on mobile interface guidelines, please read the following: