Darkroom is the Apple design award (2020) winner. Today we will dissect their application design to figure out the best way to design a subscription based application in 2020.

Here are 10 UX best practices I noticed in their design to maximize the conversion rate of free users to paying customers.

Apple Design Awards - Apple Developer
Meet the 2020 Apple Design Award Winners

1. Explain the value proposition and help the user understand the features.

In free to use products it is important to make the user understand how they can benefit from the product. If a user does not know how to use the product or does not understand how it is adding value there is no chance that they will pay for it.

Darkroom uses a single screen onboarding which a very unique way to onboard a new user. A single screen onboarding is not too aggressive and doesn't keep users engaged when the product cannot meet their needs but still does a great job of explaining the core value proposition. Which is simply "a new way to edit your photos".

This is a very balanced way of onboarding new users and it does exactly what it is supposed to do.

2. Make the user invest in the product.

Since free users haven't spent money they need to feel invested in the product by other means. The kinds of investments can be anything from adding a friend to spending time/effort to uploading data.

Relevant investments increase the perceived value of the product and make the user closer tied to the product, which both increases engagement and retention and ultimately increase the chances for conversion.

Darkroom makes the users invest in many different ways. One of the ways a user feels more invested in Darkroom is by backing up custom filters in the cloud to later use these filters in other settings.

Darkroom also prompts the user to upload their photos inside the application.

A user can also change the appearance of the app and has tons of extras like an About page, Social media pages, Version history, Help center, Contact us form, which increases the trust in the company and the user becomes more invested.

3. Clearly explain what differentiates the different tiers and what is included in each of them.

Free to use products need to differentiate between what is free and what is premium and must present all the features clearly from the start.

Kumar discusses this in Making “Freemium” Work and highlights the fact that too many free features will never make users convert or that too few features will make the users churn early.


It is of great importance to be sincere and inform users of limitations and possibilities with the different tiers before they start using the product.

Darkroom has one of the simplest ways of informing users of what they get out of a subscription. This can be seen inside the application but also on the App Store page which makes it clear what the user gets with In-App Purchases.

4. Have the product available cross-platform.

By having a product that is runnable on many platforms, the probability of reaching out to a broader customer base is higher.

The cross-platform concept will make the work much easier for the end user. They will have the possibility to seamlessly move from one device to another, which enables for increased retention.

Darkroom has applications for iPhone and iPad but also for the Android devices. One way Darkroom can improve the experience of their users is to have a desktop version of the application.

5. Integrate with third-party services.

Having a product that has an integration with services needed by the customer will hook the users and is likely to increase the level of engagement.

Having customers with higher engagement will potentially result in higher levels of retention as the user gets more dependent on the product.

Using Dark room a user can export and edit directly to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and many other applications.

6. Make the user dependent on the product

In free to use products the users are not committed to the product and it is important to think about the incentives for the user to stay.

The best way to make the user dependent on the product is to aim for high usability, then the users get dependent on the mere functionality of the product. This reduces the risk of the user churning but also the user will be more willing to pay.

Darkroom besides being extremely usable and having tons of functionality makes the user depend on the product in a number of other ways, for example, using Darkroom you can edit the photo/video format, edit the metadata, copyrights, watermark and the associated hashtags all from one app.

Darkroom also lets users import the photos inside the app and make it primary photo storage. All this makes the users depend on the product thus increasing the possibility of converting.

7. Turn users into advanced users.

A way of increasing the probability of becoming a premium user is to make the average users advanced since they are more engaged in the product.

The way Darkroom does this is to provide many features for free that a user can learn without spending any money. A user can learn the never ending combinations of filters, edit a different kind of media, and batch copy all their edits to create a library and use these filters on other assets.

This gives the ability to the user to turn into an advanced user with a deeper understanding of the features available. These users use the products more frequently and therefore will understand the valve in premium offers.

8. Introduce premium features in a setting where the user can relate to them.

To make the user aware of the premium value it is important to introduce the premium feature in the right setting where the user can better understand the functionality.

Darkroom informs the user about the premium feature in the most subtle way. For example, when editing a video you can see the "Try Darkroom + for free" banner which informs the user of a premium feature and it helps the user understand the full potential of the service and how it can add value.

Also, note the fact that you can use the premium features even if you haven't subscribed and only when you are exporting the asset is when you get prompted to upgrade which helps the user relate to these features on a personal level.

9. Make the purchase process frictionless.

If the purchase process is too complicated the users might ignore the actual benefits of the premium functionality and ignore it completely or exit the process when prompted.

In Darkroom the option to upgrade the subscription is displayed in the header which is always there to see and very easy to approach.

Usually, this is where the logo of the app resides and it is interesting to note that upgrading a user for Darkroom is more important than their own branding.

When you press the "Try Darkroom +" button in the header, it opens a simple slider that has all the information that you need to upgrade on one page. This reduces the friction of the subscribing process.

10. Include features in the premium version that increases the user’s perceived value of the product.

It is important that the perceived value of the product when a user makes a purchase increase substantially. The way Darkroom does it is by clearly showcasing what the user will get when they subscribe. For example, a subscribed user can

  1. Edit video
  2. Selective colors
  3. Use curve tools
  4. Use premium filters
  5. Add watermark, etc

Having knowledge of all these features before making a purchase increases the user’s perceived value of the product and they are more willing to upgrade.

Also noteworthy is the way Darkroom showcases the extra features in the subscription slider. The slider creates a sense of a never ending list, which subconsciously delivers a message that the valve you get after subscribing has no limits.


Congratulation to Darkroom for winning the Apple design award 2020 and building a great application for filtering photos! There are surely tons of other things to learn from this great app and I would love to hear your feedback!

PS I am conducting research to find the impact of modern UI on user conversions in apps using the freemium business model.

If you can spare a few minutes please participate in this survey https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSd_C7u0U-0cI01P0ATON7SBdXZUknp7OSSAdq7BQMhpjGdRaQ/viewform?usp=sf_link