A in-depth study into ADA winners and what they have in common.

apple-app-design-awards

Firstly, let me just state that I have personally never won an Apple Design Award (ADA). Not many people have. In fact, the highly prestigious award is only presented to a handful of app designers and developers from around the world at Apple’s WWDC event each year. For a mobile designer, winning an ADA trophy with its crisp aluminium body and touch-activated glowing Apple logo represents the pinnacle of design achievement. In Apple’s own words, the ADA’s recognise the “creative artistry and technical achievements of developers who reflect the best in design, innovation and technology on Apple platforms.” So what does it take to end up on the receiving end of one of these coveted accolades? As the creative director and co-founder of a successful app development agency, I was more than a little bit curious to find out. When the 2018 ADAs were recently announced, I decided to stop puzzling over Apple’s picks and look for answers in the data.

By analyzing all of the winning apps over the last five years perhaps I could uncover the secret recipe for designing an ADA-winning app.

So, after downloading every one of the twenty-six award winning apps since 2014, I set forth mapping out the design characteristics of each app, looking for patterns and clues, and indeed I found many. But before I get into what I found, first let me explain a bit more about my study.

The Apps

Any WWDC fans will be aware that over the last five years there have been fifty-nine ADA award winning apps, not twenty-six. I decided to eliminate thirty-three of them from my study and focus purely on iOS apps rather than Mac OS apps or games. This resulted in a very small sample size of just twenty-six apps remaining which wasn’t ideal but to me it was preferable to including apps that weren’t really relevant to me and my mobile app focus.

Apple Design Awards Winners 2018
In the end, the twenty-six apps that made the cut were as follows:

 2018

Agenda – A new take on notes By Momenta BV
Bandimal By Yatatoy
Calzy By Waplestuff
iTranslate Converse By iTransalte
Triton Sponge By Guass Surgical, Inc

 2017

Lake – Coloring Book By Lake Coloring
Bear By Elegant writing 
Kitchen Stories By AJNS New Media
Things 3 By Cultured Code GmbH 
Elk By Clean Shaven Apps
Enlight By Lighticks Ltd
Airmail 3 By Bloop SRL

 2016

Complete anatomy By 3D4Medical.com, LLC
Streaks By Crunchy Bagel
Zova By Zova
Ulysses Mobile By Ulysses GmbH & Co, KG
Auxy By Auxy AB
Djay Pro By Algoriddim GmbH

 2015

Metamorphabet By Vectorpark Inc.
Robinhood By Robinhood Markets
Workflow / Shortcuts Acquired by Apple
Pacemaker Pacemaker Music AB

 2014

Panoperfect By Halfpeeled LLC
Yahoo News Digest By Yahoo
Storehouse – Visual Storytelling By Storehouse
Skyguide By Fifth Star Labs LLC
It’s worth noting that Storehouse and Yahoo News Digest no longer exist and could therefore not be downloaded. In these cases I has to resort to reading reviews of the apps and studying screenshots and videos. It’s also worth pointing out that after winning an ADA in 2015, Workflow was acquired by Apple and was renamed Shortcuts.
Shortcuts App

The Characteristics

At Apple’s WWDC event the ADA presenters throw around words like ‘creativity’, ‘originality’ and ‘innovation’ when describing what they look for. I was keen to use each app and see just how many of these catch words really applied to actual ADA winners. I decided to measure each app based on five key characteristics

  1. App Store Main Category
  2. App Purpose
  3. Interface Design Style
  4. Level of innovation
  5. Color Scheme

By analysing each app and rating them using these criteria I would hopefully start to notice some common themes and trends.

The Results

The characteristics I chose to measure are admittedly not all 100% quantitative and some may disagree with some of my assessments but I’ll do my best to explain any ratings that could stand out as controversial.

APP STORE MAIN CATEGORY

This characteristic is completely objective and the results are as follows:

Productivity 6
Music 3
Photo & Video 3
Education 2
Travel 2
Medical 2
Health & Fitness 2
Other 6
Apple Design Awards - Most popular categories
Of the App Store categories, Productivity is the clear winner with over 23% of ADA winning apps listed on the App Store in that category. Music and Photo & Video came in equal second place at 11.5% while Education, Medical, Health & Fitness and Travel all performed better than average with 7.7%. Productivity apps have featured in four out of the last five ADA ceremonies with a whopping three Productivity apps taking out awards in 2017.

 

APP PURPOSE

Instead of going into a detailed explanation of every app, I have summarised the purposes of the ADA winners. The most common app purposes among ADA winners are as follows:

 

App Purpose App Name App Name #
Note taking Agenda (2018) Bear (2017) 2
To-do lists Things 3 (2017) Streaks (2016) 2
DJ Tools Djay Pro (2016) Pacemaker (2015) 2
Music Creation Bandimal (2018) Auxy (2016) 2

 

If we lump note taking and to-do list apps together they represent 15.3% of the total winners. If we lump DJ tools and music creation apps together they also represent 15.3% of the total winners. No other app purpose is shared by more than 3.8% of total winners.

Agenda (2018 winner)

INTERFACE DESIGN STYLE

Interface design style is a bit more subjective than the previous two characteristics. There may be some contention around the terminology I’ve used to classify these but hopefully most readers will agree at least broadly with the descriptions I’ve used.

When classifying the UI style I’ve used the following tags. Please note that multiple style tags are sometimes used to describe an app.

 

Clean white

A very clean and basic design style based around text, icons and imagery over a flat white background. Most social networks use this design style.

 

Flat design

A common, modern style of interface design emphasizing minimum use of stylistic elements that give the illusion of three dimensions (such as the use of drop shadows, gradients or textures).

 

Simple

A style focused on efficiency rather than visual appeal. Non-cluttered and extremely user-friendly.

 

Minimalist

A strong emphasis on maintaining a large amount of empty space on any given page and only presenting the bare minimum controls required at any given time.

 

Vector

The use of vector graphics and illustrations.

 

Skeuomorphism

A design style that takes cues from and mimics real world objects to give the user a sense of familiarity. Steve Jobs was particularly fond of this style.

 

Photo-based

Designs that focus heavily on the use of photographic imagery.

 

Line graphics

The use of line art and fine lines in general to form either the structure of the interface or simply to decorate it.

 

3D Renderings

Designs that focus heavily on the use of 3D computer renderings.

 

Cutesy

The use of cute characters and other illustrated elements.

 

After analysing each app, the final tally is as follows:

All time TOTAL 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
Clean white 11 3 1 2 4 1
Flat design 12 1 4 3 4
Simple 4 1 3
Minimalist 1 1
Vector 2 1 1
Skeuomorphism 1 1
Photo-based 6 2 2 2
Line graphics 2 2
3D Renderings 2 1 1
Cutesy 1 1

 

It comes as no surprise that flat design emerges as the most common design style among ADA winners. Since Apple’s iOS went flat design in 2013 (or Microsoft before them) the style has gone from strength to strength and shows no signs of slowing down.

For me the popularity of clean white designs is the biggest surprise among my findings. Popular with social networks, word processors and mail clients, to me clean white design represents an absence of creativity, innovation or originality. The fact that Apple use these kinds of catch words to describe what they look for in an ADA winner seems like a contradiction to me.

All I can conclude is that the overall user experience and technical innovation must have outweighed the lack of visual appeal in those clean white apps. It was encouraging to see that in 2018 only one of the ADA winners was clean white.

The heavy use of photography was also popular among winners in previous years but non-existent among 2018’s winners. It’s interesting to note that the two apps on this list that are now defunct (Yahoo News Digest and Storehouse Visual Storytelling) both had photo-heavy interface designs.

After the passing of it’s biggest evangelist, Steve Jobs in 2011, the once glorious Skeuomorphism appears to have suffered a similar fate, appearing only once among recent ADA winners in 2006’s Dj mixer simulator Djay Pro.

Djay Pro (2016 winner)
Apple Design Awards Most popular UI design styles
Because design trends are constantly changing I thought it would be worth also breaking down just the 2018 winners in order to have a sense of what is currently trending among ADA winners.

The results (below) show that flat design still reigns supreme. Thankfully, the clean white interface style that dominated in previous years has taken a back seat in 2018 with flat design and simple design the big winners totaling 70% of the winning interface design tags.

2018 Apple Design Award Winners - Most popular UI design styles

LEVEL OF INNOVATION

 This characteristic will also be a point of contention for some readers. In order to rate an app on it’s level of innovation I am looking at three different areas of innovation; Interface design innovation, user experience innovation and technical innovation. My score will be an average of these different ratings.

 

Name Level of Innovation
2018
Agenda – A new take on notes 2
Bandimal 4.5
Calzy 2.5
iTranslate Converse 5
Triton Sponge 5
2017
Lake – Coloring Book 2.5
Bear 2
Kitchen Stories 1.5
Things 3 2
Elk 3
Enlight 3.5
Airmail 3 4
2016
Complete anatomy 5
Streaks 3.5
Zova 1.5
Ulysses Mobile 2.5
Auxy 3
djay Pro 2
2015
Metamorphabet 5
Robinhood 2.5
Workflow / Now Shortcuts 5
Pacemaker 4
2014
Panoperfect 2.5
Yahoo News Digest 5
Storehouse-Visual Storytelling 3.5
Skyguide 5

 As the data shows, I relatively high level of innovation in at least one area seems to be a requirement of ADA winners. While complete originality isn’t crucial, an advancement on the apps that came before is an extremely important factor.

Whether it be technically or in the visual design or user experience, Apple is looking for apps that push the art form forward. It’s interesting to note that the requirement of innovation looks to have dipped off slightly in 2016/2017 but is back up in 2018 (See chart below).

2018 Apple Design Award Winners - Avg. level of innovation
Bandimal (2018 Winner)

COLOR SCHEME

The final characteristic I looked at was the color palette used in ADA winning designs. While the palette may not seem like an important trait, I was keen to see if Apple favoured any particular colors over others. A larger sample size would have been really beneficial here but even across the twenty-six apps I evaluated, some patterns were revealed. For the sake of the exercise i have merged the results of colours that are very similar to each other. For example bright greens, no matter what shade have all been listed as bright green. When an app uses so much photographic content that the photos themselves become a key component of the app’s palette i have included it as a color. As you’ll see in the chart below black and white are obviously very popular colors which is no surprise. Interestingly, the use of a high level of photographic content in comparison to block colors has dropped off significantly since all four ADA winners in 2014 featured heavy use of photos. In 2018 none of the winning apps used a high level photographic content in their color palettes.

Apple Design Awards - Most popular colour palettes
In 2014 photographs were more popular in ADA winning apps than white or black were. In 2015 and 2017 white backgrounds were more popular and in 2016 and 2018 black backgrounds won out so I don’t really see any bias towards one or the other in the eyes of Apple’s judges.
iTranslate Converse (2018 winner)
As far as feature colours, orange and yellow were the big winners in 2018, mainly due to their dominant use in iTranslate Converse. Before 2018 though, blues were bar the the most common feature colour among winners. While blues were also present in 2018’s winners, they were typically more subdued and less saturated.
Apple Design Award Winners - Most common colour schemes
Overall, the most popular colours used in ADA winning apps over the last five years are as follows:

The Verdict

In order to determine what it takes to design an Apple Design Award winning app we have to take a holistic look at at the data. By examining the results of the analysis of each criteria we should get a better picture of what the key ingredients of an ADA winning app are.

CATEGORY

  • Productivity

Productivity apps represent 23% of all ADA winners, making it the most likely category to win an ADA. Music and Photography apps are the equal second most likely.

PURPOSE

  • Note taking

Apps for note taking, to-do lists, DJ tools and music creation are the more likely to win an ADA than other purposes.

DESIGN STYLE

  • Flat Design

Accounting for current trends, flat design is definitely the most likely UI design style to win you an ADA.

LEVEL OF INNOVATION

  • 4 / 5 +

A high level of innovation in at least one area of your app is almost a requirement of ADA winners, whether it be technical, UX or visual design.

COLOR PALETTE

Accounting for current trends, my assessment of what colour palette is most likely to win an ADA is black as a background colour, orange and white as secondary block colors with yellow and light blue and highlight colours.

Summary

So, there it is. Based purely on the data, I predict that a flat design note-taking app in the Productivity category with a high level of innovation and a black, white and orange colour scheme is the most likely app to win an Apple Design Award in 2019.

Whether those specific ingredients actually help give an app the edge it needs to win an ADA is impossible to confirm with the limited dataset available. Being equipped with a broad understanding of what traits the ADA gatekeepers have favoured in the past can only be a good thing though. Given the tall odds against winning one of these unicorn accolades, we as app designers can all use as much help and insight as we can get.

About the author: Joseph Russell is the co-founder and director of Australian app development agency DreamWalk. He is a mobile app strategist and creative director with 33 No. 1 App Store chart rankings to his name.