This phenomenon is a result of people getting tired of eating the same app pill for every issue they have. The five year old marketing punchline "There's an app for that" really explains the dominant mentality. And with enough repetition, it was rooted deep into our minds. The emerged "app evolution" debate is just an indication, that people have finally become aware of the indoctrination. This post is my contribution to the topic.
Naturally, there's a gray area in between both extremes of the debate. To me, an application is just one of many ways to solve a user problem. When smartphones really kicked off the mobile app business, everyone wanted a piece of that pie. As a result, it became difficult to jump out from the app bandwagon. In addition to the "me too" factor, what makes an app so attractive option, is the degrees of freedom it offers to both the user and developer. However, it comes with a price tag.
Mobile operating systems have grown a lot since those days. They offer much wider range of tools to build engaging experiences. The common mistake is to think you need to implement everything yourself. Below, is my rough categorization of different methods a user problem can be solved; and how "less control" can in some cases increase the value compared to "more control". It's a matter of identifying the problem before finding a fitting solution for it.
- A background process takes care of performing the task in behalf of the user. It makes the solution feel like magic because user didn't do anything. As this requires an intimate knowledge of the lower software layers and contextual awareness, it's not really trivial to do. Not to mention being forbidden in many systems.
- A notification uses existing mechanisms in an operating system to promote a functionality or a piece of information based on its relevancy. This can result in genius solutions, since the needed functionality can be conveniently offered regardless of the context user is in. Even if there's not much interface work involved, a reliable context engine is hard to get right.
- A system integration takes a frequently used functionality and makes it an integral part of the operating system. This makes interacting with such a features much faster compared to an application counterpart. The result is a smarter and more holistic experience. However, this either requires rooting or OS ownership to do, so it's not an option for many.
- An application is the last step in the scale. Almost everything is possible here. It's very powerful and can be tailored to fit very specific tasks. Using an application as a solution easily adds more steps to achieving a desired result. Repeating these steps frequently to do something feels dumb. Due to the amount freedom it gives, and the amount of work is needed, the application experience is the most vulnerable to mistakes. Everyone can make an app, and it shows.
At the end of the day, it's about thoughtfully choosing and combining methods available to you. It's the next step in building mobile experiences. All these methods have their places in our daily throughput of tasks. So, even if apps are important, sticking with just them is a sure way to forfeit the experience game. Same goes for denying the application as a viable solution. Having a meaningful combination of variety is the key.
Because people are not binary by nature, so therefore solutions we use to respond to their needs must reflect that. There's no silver bullet, or a size that fits all. Using interaction variety in your user experience will make it more natural and approachable. Transitioning from app-focused model to user-focused model will give a reliable foothold in the market strongly profiled by features, hardware specifications and price competition. Finding other ways to create value is essential to differentiate and stay competitive.
The more you understand the platform you're designing for, the easier it is to deliver more natural and smarter experiences for its users.
Apps alone will definitely not be enough.
Thanks for reading and see you in the next post. In the meantime, agree or disagree, debate or shout. Bring it on and spread the word.