Interviews

Yunning Liu and the Neo-Punk Movement of Handcrafted App Design

TechSling has spoken with countless tech industry innovators, and the resulting tendency for our readers and our staff is to think of app design as an ultra-slick profession that takes place in beautiful glass-walled buildings with techno music playing in the background. We have seen the campuses of leading tech firms and the futuristic vehicles sprinkled across those campuses, and the well-dressed people who ride them.

And while these details are largely accurate representations of what app design looks like in 2018, there is a wholly different side to this work as well. In the case of many talented design teams, the process of assembling an app looks much more like the inside of a craftsman’s workshop, where patience and skill are valued above hasty work and trend-tracking.

Yunning Liu (Hilary Liu to friends, coworkers, and friendly journalists like myself) has all the trappings of a highly-skilled app and web designer, but her artistic philosophy is more inline with that of the late-2000s street art movement. From 2005 to around 2012, artists like Shepard Fairey, Space Invader, Andre, and of course the renowned and elusive Banksy. Their primary goal was to make city streets more colorful, more visually compelling. Fame and financial success was simply an offshoot.

Liu’s path to industry acclaim has been quite similar. Her first and most significant goal at all times is to make something beautiful. The many awards, Best New App of 2016, the IDA Design Award, the Silver prize at ADDF San Francisco in 2015, they’re all just an unintended byproduct of working tirelessly to achieve that goal. So much so that when we spoke with Liu last week, she was quick to mention that she was grateful for each of those honors and all the others she’s acquired over the years, then swiftly went back to discussing the finer details of her redesign of the Achievement app for Evidation Health, which collects voluntary user data for the advancement of medical research.

It’s a project that she’s very proud of, and with good reason. The app not only looks great and performs without kinks, but it also contributes positively to tangible progress in the area of daily health and disease prevention. And when we asked her how exactly it came to be, she took us on a journey through her checklist for successful app design. The first: the app or site needs to be able to adapt.

“Responsive design is key. There are so many mobile devices being released each year. It is very important to optimize sites for many landscapes of desktop and mobile browsers since each has its own supported technologies and screen resolutions.”

Next up is the need for pre-planning. When it comes to apps, in particular, this translates to a fair amount of market research before design even begins, then an in-depth analysis of the collected data.

“It is important to study our data before moving into design and development, understanding which devices and browsers users access the site through. Which image get the most views and likes? How easy is it for users to complete their task?”

Then there’s the physical element of an app, something that websites typically don’t need to concern themselves with. But as smartphone and tablet screens only become more accurate and responsive to a variety of gestures, it’s necessary to make absolutely certain that the app makes use of these advances in a very positive way.

“We are using the touch of our fingers to interact with our mobile devices. Different hand gestures have different tasks. Designers should understand each of the gestures before applying them to their design.”

And while each of these basic principles will continue to be relevant as apps and the internet continue to morph, Liu is already working on getting a headstart on accommodating the technologies of the near future. One of her recent topics of interest has been Augmented Reality or AR. It’s still waddling through its early stages, often in the form of games and advertising tools like the mobile game Pokémon Go! and the Star Wars Jedi Challenge. Even in their somewhat clumsy current form, they have the ability to wow users. As far as Liu is concerned, they will only become more impressive and dynamic as we forge further into the 21st century.

“10 years from now, Augmented Reality app design will no longer have technical limitations. Over the last 10 years, we have seen content migrate from newspapers to desktop computers, to laptops, then onto mobile phones. I think the future of app design will have no devices. Users will have an immersive experience through Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality.”

And the potential of AR lines up perfectly with Liu’s love for making colorful, pleasing app experiences. AR could project the tone and a specific app into the real world, potentially transforming a bedroom, and office, or a backyard. In a way it’s the ultimate technological extension of those street art ideals, helping people make their daily lives more colorful and better designed.

Liu’s mission goes well beyond the visuals of her app projects, although visuals remain important to the overall vision. She also takes great care to ensure that the core function behind the apps she designs are genuinely original concepts, often altruistic concepts. The Backyard app, for example, was created as a collaboration with friends in 2015 during a hackathon.

“The goal of this mobile app is to connect local farmers with consumers through purchasing food, keeping track of farmers’ supply and cooperating with Uber and Lyft to deliver food. We want to empower local farmers and local businesses as well as enabling users to eat fresh and organic food.”

It’s yet another one of Liu’s attempts to help provide users with the tools they need to make a habit of healthy life choices. And her ideas don’t stop there. Liu has ideas for potential fixes to existing apps and the ways in which they could contribute positively to the wellbeing of users.

“If I was in charge of redesigning Snapchat, I would differentiate its offerings from similar  Facebook features and develop sub-features using AR. For example, we could use AR to help a student learn about animals, history, or any number of subjects. Or we could enable a parent to cook a simple dish through tools in the app. Many businesses are using AR now, and I think that Snapchat could expand their business by helping users accomplish everyday tasks.”

The potential here is incredible. Through modifications of existing technologies, we could soon draw much nearer to a future in which a device, whether it’s a phone, tablet, or enhanced tech glasses, could identify objects in a room, or keep a running list of needed items, or even transport the user to an environment in which they are given instructions, or simply an environment in which users could observe recreations of any phenomenon they could think of.

The only question, then, would be whether the public would appreciate such a massive advance in design capabilities. After all, smartphones and apps have risen to prominence over such a short period of time that many of the technological wonders we experience today are taken for granted. Mainstream design has in fact improved greatly over the past 10 years. Nowadays, users notice right away when a site doesn’t feel quite comfortable or doesn’t provide them with the tools and resources they need to accomplish XYZ. But is that new knowledge indicative of a broader societal understanding of the importance of design? Liu thinks so.

“I do think that people have a better understanding of design in 2018. Interactive design has been improved with all the latest technology, such as face recognition, AR, and immersive experiences with full-screen devices. For example, Apple now lets you purchase products through face recognition, without typing in a password. This is not only visually appealing but also very easy to use.”

All of this wonderful work that Liu has completed or hopes to complete in the coming years, none of it would be possible without the lines of communication she keeps open with the rest of her team. And when it comes to apps, that typically means speaking with developers almost constantly.

“One major aspect of my workflow is to collaborate with developers. We brainstorm design, discuss features, technical feasibility, timelines, and feedback on our mockups. We have weekly design critiques where I share my designs with developers and project managers and they leave feedbacks. That feedback enables me to make fast changes and come up with new and efficient design solutions.”

And that was the sentiment that Liu wanted to leave us with, that these projects are ultimately collaborative. It’s not just about having great ideas, it’s about having a team that’s open to those ideas, that possesses the intricate skills needed to take them from the whiteboard to the touchscreen. It’s only after time, development, and hard work that these life-improving changes can be offered to all of us. Instead of literally making the streets a little brighter, work like Liu’s makes lives brighter, one positive change at a time.

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I'm a long time fan of tech innovation, especially its capacity to cross over into the realms of art and social justice. The paradigms are constantly changing, and we need to change with them.

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