Stop Making Apps and Start Making Magical Experiences

Think of an app you used recently that felt like magic. Maybe you were out with friends, pressed a button, and an Uber showed up. Maybe you were talking to a friend on Facebook Messenger and sent over an emoji to start an addictive game of basketball. Maybe you had just gotten back from a vacation and Google notified you that it had automatically created a story of your trip with all of the places you visited and photos you took. In any of these instances, the user most likely didn’t think about all of the events going on behind the scenes to bring that experience to life. They just pushed a button, sent an emoji, or arrived home and something happened that made them feel great.

There are millions of apps in the Apple App Store and Google Play Store alone, not to mention the countless web apps out there. Most of them involve developers or teams that poured their hearts and souls into them with the hope that users would love it and they’d have mainstream success. But we know that’s rarely the case. What’s sets apart the top apps from the many that go barely noticed?

Look at any of the top apps right now and you’ll uncover many events like the ones I just mentioned. Apps in which the user has a such a great experience that technology fades away. It becomes magic.

During a sessions at SXSW 2016, Make Magic, Not Mobile Apps, design and product leads from several major companies came together to discuss this very topic. They started by answering one simple question:

What does making magic mean to you?

“Understanding the larger context.”
Thomas Stovicek, Head of Design at OpenTable

“Anticipating what the user needs, knowing when to appear and disappear.”
Angel Steger, Product Design Lead for Virality & Collaboration at Pinterest

“Making complexity of your product invisible to your user.”
Rahul Bijor, Head of API & Strategic Partnerships at Uber

Let’s look at some ways you can incorporate this way of thinking into your product design and development process, turning your app into one that’s truly a magical experience for your users.

Creating a Magical Experience With Your App

Design a Natural Experience

Start by making the experience flow of your app so natural that the user barely has to think about it. Ensure you abstract away all of the complexities; you don’t need to show proof of your hard work to them. When you click play on Pandora, they don’t show you the algorithms and contract negotiations that went into the song that’s selected for you. As stated by Authur C. Clark, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

I recommend enhancing your experience by first creating a customer journey map, a visual model that shows major touch points between the system and the people using the system. You’ll find many resources online that walk you through the process of creating these maps. Check out this presentation on customer journey maps I found from The Austin Center for Design.

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explor

Incorporate Contextual Feedback

First, if you aren’t collecting data and talking to your users – start there.

Once you have that process on a loop, ensure that you are utilizing feedback the correct way. Qualitative data points are great for figuring out what your user are doing, but you must literally talk to them to find out why they are taking those actions.

The more you embed your team into the lives of your users, the more they can anticipate their needs. Ensure that all roles within your company are involved in activities such as usability testing. Involve them in activities where they can see first-hand actual users using the product. Pinterest uses something refereed to as radical empathy exercises, where designers will actually go into the homes of their users around the world and watch them use the platform. Uber involves all roles in the design process, from legal to operations, to ensure they get a wide range of perspectives.

Build in Reflection Points

If you finish a level in a game and nothing happens, would you even bother going to the next level? Users need reflection points and to be rewarded for their actions because they are human.

After being focused on the speed of their app for years, Pinterest has switched gears to actually adding in delays where the user can reflect on actions they completed. This gives them time to digest what has occurred or celebrate a small achievement. It keeps them coming back for more, the same way a game keeps you glued until the very end.

What if I’m just starting out?

Should you be concerned with creating a magical experience from the get-go? That answer varies greatly depending on your situation:

  • Fully Inclusive – If a seamless user experience is a critical component of your unique value proposition, then you must create if from the very first version of your product. If you are limited on resources, you should use some sort of Wizard of Oz approach – where you abstract away the complexity for your users while manually fulfilling requests behind the curtain.
  • Partially Inclusive – If you can isolate pieces of your solution, start with the most painful areas for your user and begin optimizing the experience there. Then you can expand your coverage as your solution evolves.
  • Hold Off – If your solution doesn’t require magic, don’t bother with it until you prove the concept. I personally believe this to be a rare case, but it may work for certain situations such as creating scientific or development tools.

As soon as it makes sense for your problem space, begin creating a magical experience throughout the entire customer journey.


Building an app won’t automatically create a magical experience. Technology without empathetic design is just an assortment of buttons, text, and graphics. If you want your app to stand out among the millions out there, you must ensure you are creating an experience for your users that they won’t forget.

You don’t have to be a magician; you don’t have to be Walt Disney. In order to achieve an app that your users love in their life, make sure you design a natural user experience, constantly seek out and contextually incorporate feedback, and build in reflection points along their journey. That’s your recipe for creating a magical experience.

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