Wireframing for SanDisk’s iXpand was a unique challenge. One that provided our team with the chance to really flex our creative problem solving muscles.

Working against an aggressive deadline from the start, we had to design, test, build, and launch both the iPhone and iPad apps (for Japan and the U.S.) in just six months. On top of it all, the time line ran through the last months of the year — a.k.a the holiday season.

It was a short amount of time to get a thorough understanding of the nuances of the technology. We had to develop a comprehensive view of the competitive landscape, and nail down conceptual recommendations before beginning the process of designing, testing, building, and launching.

But we did it. How? We broke the wireframing process into a two-part, macro/micro goal approach: To improve the overall user experience of the app, and systematically improve the architecture of each feature.

The iXpand is a complex product — one that is rich with multiple levels of experience.

That this product launched successfully in both countries. It found its way into the hands of four million users. That is immensely satisfying, but getting there was no easy journey.

Embracing tech novices

We wanted people to feel like it was within their ability to use the app regardless of their experience level with technology. In order to make that happen, we had to understand how our users felt every step of the way.

This can be tricky with even the most straightforward designs, but with the iXpand, we had the added challenge of building for two very different users. We had to understand how two very different kinds of people would be feeling at each juncture and design an app around both experiences at once.

Adjusting the homescreen menu was part of achieving this, the other was carefully planning the welcome screen. One of the things that makes this app different from other apps out there is that it’s a piece of software (the app) that works in conjunction with a second piece of hardware (the drive). So users have to connect the iXpand drive to an iPhone or iPad and load up the app in order to be able to use the product. This might seem obvious to someone with experience using smartphones, flash drives, and apps, but for tech novices, it isn’t.

We never wanted any user to feel like the app wasn’t working or that they were doing something wrong. An earlier version of the app warned users “drive not detected” when their drive wasn’t connected to the device the moment the app loaded up. For users already a bit nervous around new technology, this was a discouraging way to start out the experience. Instead, we swapped out the implication that there was a problem and replaced it with a welcome screen that tells users to plug in their drive. Suddenly, instead of encountering what looked to be like an error screen, the user was told how to get started with the product.

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These are the small differences that can make or break a product’s success. Especially when building for a demographic that is often uncomfortable or impatient with software. We never wanted novice tech users to feel lost, so we always prompted them with clear, friendly instructions on what actions they could take at that moment to move forward.

Capabilities and features

There’s a lot that can be done with this tiny drive, and part of our job was to make sure people understood all the different features. A large part of that was communicated through the interface structure.

On a micro level, we had to break the app down into features and define what we wanted users to be able to do. We settled on nine core features:

  • Sign-up for the app
  • Browse and watch video without an internet connection
  • Browse and listen to music without an internet connection
  • Transfer and/or copy files from one device to another
  • Automatically backup an entire camera roll
  • Automatically backup social media photos
  • Free up space on an iPhone or iPad
  • Experience 3D touch
  • Easily review the app in iTunes

But in order to make all of those features accessible and easy to understand, we had to do a lot of careful design. The feedback SanDisk received on V1 was that expert users had no issues in understanding capabilities, but that novice users were confused by what they could do with the app.

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One of the ways we addressed this was by shifting from using a hamburger menu with hidden actions, to using a full screen menu that helped people navigate the app more intuitively. The result was a more simple and clear path for users. One that helped them understand what was possible with the product, and invited them to tap selections based on the action they hoped to achieve.

We also opted for a card-based feed so that there would always be fresh content for users to experience. We created a card-system that could essentially tap a user on the shoulder. Thus would give them tips on getting more out of the app.

Building user trust

When you’re building a product that will be handling important information, you have to put in a lot more effort to gain and keep user trust. For iXpand, a product that would be responsible for securing users memories in the form of digital media, trust was the key to success.

It is easy to mistrust a machine’s intentions. So we went to great lengths to help users understand how the app works. In the wireframes, we planned out a few different ways to encourage understanding of permissions and build trust in the technology to do good on its promise. Our goal was to help users enjoy the product, make the experience a seamless blend, and build trust and knowledge simultaneously.

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One of the ways we went about that was with pre-permissions. Every time iOS needed to ask the user for some form of permission, we preempted the operating system’s message with one of our own, warning users that iOS was about to ask for access to some part of their information. For example, “We need access to your camera roll if you want us to safely backup your photos.”

At every step of the process, we carefully combed through the user experience to ensure that anyone who picked up an iXpand would get their money’s worth. The software had to hit just the right tone. It had to boast a complex and powerful set of features without intimidating users, the steps had to be thorough but not boring or condescending. It was a high wire act, and a great puzzle to solve.

About Tricina Elliker

Tricina Elliker is a regular contributing writer to Mokriya, based in Portland, Oregon. She's been writing about science and tech since 2008 and received her MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University in 2013.