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App Development
7 minutes read

Complex Apps: How to Build One

By Jose Gomez
By Jose Gomez
App Development
7 minutes read

Building complex apps can present challenges to developers who are not aware of what complex apps are. These apps are built following most of the same app development principles and best practices found in consumer-centric mobile app development projects. However, many of the design considerations a developer needs to account for will be more focused. 

In this post, we’ll explore what complex apps are, the important design considerations developers need to account for, and a few tips for creating a good complex app. 

What are Complex Apps?

If you’re unfamiliar with the term complex apps, you’re likely wondering what makes an app complex? Is it intricate functionality, heavy graphics, large file sizes, or something else entirely? When the term complex app is used, it is referring to an application that supports broad, unstructured goals or nonlinear workflows

These apps are typically used by users with a high degree of training or knowledge in a very specialized field. Complex apps come in many different shapes and sizes. They could be enterprise software, rich Internet applications, or even domain-specific software like cell tracking apps. These apps generally handle large data sets and are critical tools used to complete high-end tasks or missions. 

Complex apps are used in a variety of different industries, and the functionality of these apps can vary wildly based on the users they support. A number of different professionals use complex apps to do their jobs, from financial analysts and research scientists to military personnel. 

While there are many different complex apps, most of these applications share a few common traits, including:

  • Support for users with specialized knowledge and training 
  • Manage large data sets 
  • Aid in risk mitigation while executing high-impact tasks that carry the potential for high loss (in some cases even human life)
  • Help solve problems with complex, unknown underlying tasks

An example of a real-world complex app would be a geographic information system. This tool can be used by scientists and researchers to analyze and predict different geographic features such as sea levels and how they will rise or fall over time. 

Not only do scientists need to be educated about sea-level change and the various factors that affect this, but they also need to know how to use the specialized complex app that makes their job easier.

As you can see, complex apps are quite nuanced. Developing these apps will differ from standard iOS and Android app development. However, just because these apps are more complex doesn’t mean that basic design principles have to be forgotten. In fact, a good User Experience is arguably more important in an app that could potentially save a human life.

How to Design a Complex App 

The biggest challenge app developers will face when it comes to building a complex app is design. How can an app developer build a highly specialized app that is both functional and useful to an expert when the developer has little to no expertise in the field they are building the app for? 

This is quite a quandary. It takes years to become an expert in any subject or field, and, as much as development teams would love the extra time, there will never be enough time to become an expert before the complex app must be built and delivered. 

Instead of focusing on understanding the subject, developers must focus on understanding their users and the needs that drive them. The best way to design a complex app is to use a design philosophy called usefulness testing. 

Usefulness Testing

Usefulness testing is kind of like usability testing, but instead of asking, “does this work?,” it asks, “is this useful?” When you design a complex app, you need to weigh the value of your app’s features over existing tools

For example, if you are creating an application for a business, what does your app do that can’t be done with existing tools like Google Docs or Microsoft Office? This is a simple example, but it illustrates the point. 

You are building an app for an expert. Whatever functions your app has, they need to be new or an improvement to a current process or tool. The sooner you can get your app idea in front of your target users to get their input, the more focused and effective the development process will be. 

Tips for Creating a Good Complex App

Complex apps take on many shapes and forms. Still, there are a few good tips that can be applied to all complex applications, including:

  • Trial and error learning 
  • Encourage efficiency 
  • Integrate 

Trial and Error Learning 

When confronted by or introduced to a new app or system, people tend to want to use it immediately despite its level of complexity. While including tutorials in a complex app is a good idea, you should not lock your users into them when they use your app.  

Trial and error is the best way to learn something, but support for this method of learning should not jeopardize the work being done. You can encourage learning through trial by including features that show users the results of their actions before long-form tasks are completed. This way, users can see if their results match their intentions as they use the app. 

If they are having difficulty, there are tutorials and other help documentation that can help guide them to the outcome they desire. This design gives help when asked for but does not make tutorial completion a requirement. 

Encourage Efficiency 

Even experts who use complex apps to complete difficult tasks tend to miss the optimal efficiency that the app can provide. Most users, similarly to the way that people will skip tutorials, will stick with satisfactory methods of app use even if they are not the most efficient.

Use in-context learning tools in your app design to help show users the most efficient ways to complete tasks. Efficiency tips should only be presented regarding the task at hand for a user. These context clues can make workflows more efficient and your complex app more useful to end-users.

Integrate 

When users need a complex app, they are typically using other tools and apps as well. This is known as tool switching, and it is quite common. When designing your complex app, seek to minimize the difficulties and ease the friction of tool switching

The best way to accomplish this is to design your app with integration in mind so that data and other information can easily be shared and moved across tools and apps. Work that requires the use of a complex app likely has reporting requirements that must be met as well. 

A simple way to ease the friction of tool switching is to make data sets easily exportable to a number of common tools and programs. 

Final Thoughts 

Complex apps might seem like complicated things to build. However, if you focus on the user and the task, you will find that building a complex app is not that different from building any other mobile app.

If you’re looking for help building a complex app to meet your needs, speak with an app development partner. Industry experience and technical expertise are two valuable assets to have on any development project.

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