About mobile apps

Apps. Even Jolla CEO acknowledges that apps are an essential part of a mobile ecosystem. But what I think is that apps are also confusing the user a lot (yeah, I know that I love topics about users being confused).

Disclaimer : these opinions are my own, and are based on my usage of a smartphone, as well as on observations of other people. Since all of my “subjects” are Europeans, their usage may differ from American or Asian people.

There is an app for that !

Thanks to Steve Jobs, a lot of consumers are formatted to think about apps, about lot of apps. Indeed, some apps really make life easier, like the GPS, or some news readers. Games also brings a lot of fun, especially when commuting in the train. But when I play with a friend’s iPhone, I always found something like this :

An iPhone with a lot of apps

Something like 7 or 8 pages of icons. And I don’t mention Android. Since a lot of Android apps are free + ads, there are even more apps to be downloaded, so sometimes, it is worse, and I have to scroll endlessly to find the app I want to use.

(BTW, this is a subliminal message for two Turkish girl about creating folders in their phones)

And then, I ask them : “do you really need that much apps ?”. Sometimes it turns into “Oh nice ! You have that <some museum> app, did you visit it ?” and the other one just replied to me “No … I installed it because it is free, and I did not planned to visit it yet.” And I’m sure that it is quite common to install some apps that will never be used.

The application screen problem

Having a lot of apps isn’t a bad thing. There are countless usages for a smartphone, from tracking sport activities, to shoot panorama, taking notes or simply acting as a torch. What is wrong with having a lot of apps is that the application screen will quickly get crowded.

Neither the iPhone, nor Android, and actually any smartphone OS succeeded in finding a way to display a hundred applications in an fair way. Because it is actually impossible. It is impossible to give the same importance to a hundred apps at the same time. For example, in the iPhone, applications are stored in pages. When the iPhone is turned on, the first page is displayed, so apps in the first page are visible first. This give them more visibility. If an iPhone user have something like 8 pages of apps, I guess it will mostly use the apps in the first, the second, and maybe the third page. Having to swipe four time to find an app is already quite tedious and will quickly discourage the user, so basically there are five pages that are rarely used.

In these apps, we can find those that were installed because they seems to be fun / useful, and are indeed OK, so the user won’t uninstall it immediately, but will forget it very quickly since it is hidden deeply in the 6th or 7th page.

Folders may increase the number of apps that will be in the first few pages, so more applications will be emphasized, but still, it is only a sort of workaround about the problem, it do not fix it.

Apps or the big split

We can see that a lot of apps deliver the same feature, or at least, similar features. The most famous example is messengers. SMS, instant messengers (AIM, Jabber, QQ, WLM), Skype, Whatsapp and co, all deliver the same functionnalities : helping two people to communicate, through a network connection. Users may expect similar features from all these apps, but actually, since each editor creates its own app, there might be very different design, and features. While switching from an app to another, users might feel confused on how to send a message with a different app etc.

Basically, one feature, that is communication, is splitted into many pieces, like communication with A, B and C is done with app Foo, while communication with A, D, E and F with Bar. That is just beyond counter-intuitiveness, let’s say it is super-über-counter-intuitive.

Another example is navigation. Why I need an app for public transportation in Lausanne, another in Geneva, and another in Paris ? Once again, big split, and a lot of time searching in the different pages where the hell I put some app.

At the end, the user will finish using a few apps that suits him well. If the user lives in Paris, the Lausanne transportation app will be ignored, and even if it suddenly goes on a trip in Lausanne, he / she won’t remember that the Lausanne transportation app is installed, and will simply go on the mobile website (more on this later). Same thing about a reader, a messaging app (“you use Viber ? Sorry I prefer Whatsapp”) etc.

Apps are useless, what I have is enough

New OS, or non competitive one (hello Bada, Symbian, Meego and co) users may have a very different behaviour about apps. In these platforms, apps tend to be a bit better, and OS editors also try to make the built-in apps better. They also understand the problem of the great split and tries to minimize it as much as possible.

Unifying this, unifying that

Phone manufacturers are trying to deliver some very good applications that should be used every day. These apps includes the dialer, contacts, messenging, calendar … All core features. And recently, many companies, including Nokia, Samsung, Microsoft, and also Apple, are trying to reduce the mess related to some domains in apps. For example, Nokia tried (and succeded) in reducing the number of messenging apps, merging in it’s Maemo and Meego phones, instant messenging and SMS. Microsoft also succeded in merging social feeds and contacts.

This is inteed a very nice thing. Companies are aware of the confusion that too many apps may create, and are trying to integrate some features into the core of the OS. Even Apple is trying to built-in Twitter in iOS. But there are at least two drawbacks.

  • It is impossible to unify everything
  • Merged apps are slightly confusing to use

Unifying everything is of cause impossible. Many companies develop, for example, instant messengers, like Viber, Whatsapp, EBuddy XMS etc. If a phone manufacturer wants to release an unified messenger, it has to collaborate with all these editors, that is a very difficult task. Another way of getting an unified app is to provide an API, and to filter the apps, and see if they are using the corresponding API, preventing messenging apps that do not use the API to go in the store. This is an Apple way of doing things, and may not be suited for other, non marker dominant phones companies if they want apps. Indeed, these barriers will discourage editors to push software in their stores.

Although merged apps put everything related to one task (like messenging) in one place, sometimes it is quite confusing. Let’s take Nokia Meego messenger application.

Messages app in Nokia Meego

(For the friend that may read this blog, sorry about your nice squirrel avatar being publicly shown on my blog)

Let’s take, for example, this squirrel. While I want to message to my friend, I usually don’t take time to read the small details, and only cares the most important ones, like the name, and the avatar. But here, there are nearly two identical entries : two squirrels, twice the same name, and pay attention to those little words like “skype” or “other”.

As I have said before, the brain have an associative memory. A stimuli is associated to one unique behaviour. Of cause it is not exactly the truth, but the brain is not really good at managing clash between associations. Here is a blatant clash. The input stimuli is the same, but not the output : the first one brings me the Skype conversation, and the second, SMS.

Of cause, this problem can be easily solved (unlike the first one). Here are some hints :

  • Use a big icon to indicate the current IM
  • Use categories to separate IM
  • Use tabs to separate IM

Web browser, the master app engine

In these OS, but also in the big players like iOS and Android, the web browser, and web technologies tend to have a more important place. Editors who are lazy, or do not want to invest a lot of resources, tend to build some web apps that can run on all phones.

Facebook, for instance, provides a web page for touch phones that behave nearly exactly the same as on iPhone. Many website, including mine, have a mobile version, so that there is no need of creating an app for it on all platforms. Some SDK like PhoneGap are trying to profit from that, and develop an unified toolkit for all phones, that basically wraps a web browser.

But web-apps have also their drawback. First, they will always feel fake. Most mobile web design mimic the iPhone style. On a WP or Nokia Meego device, the difference is really huge, since these two platforms are quite minimalistic, while the iPhone uses a lot of gradient. The app is also opened in a web browser, with a toolbar on top displaying the url of the page, not very “app-ish”. Second, they are awfully slow, and their performances depends on the web browser. They might be also waste CPU cycle to interpret all these code, although recent web-browser integrates some JIT to speed up a web site.

Since the performance of HTML5 + JS code cannot match some compiled code, web engines are also unable to manage heavy apps such as games or heavy processing.

One last point is the integration (or absence of integration) in the app launcher. Web-apps are, most of the time, bookmarked, while apps appears in the launcher. This creates a split between web-apps and apps, as if there were two apps launchers. But web-apps are apps. On Nokia Meego (and maybe on other platforms too), there is an option to create a launcher from a web page, but the process is not really nice, since a thumbnail of the web-page appears as icon (I would have preferred the favicon).

Conclusion

For what I have seen, I have found that apps usage are not really different in iOS / Android, and in smaller platforms. There are some mainstream apps that are used a lot (many times per day), and others that are never used (= never ever). But annoyances are different. In small platforms, you are constrained because you don’t have the app that big platforms have, and there is a lack of interoperability, but in big platforms, you are overwhelmed with millions of apps, and it is hard to find great apps.

I’m dreaming of a phone that is more “task oriented” than app oriented. This will match better most of the user’s usage. Indeed, we primarily want our smartphone to do some tasks, like communicating, guidance, taking pictures, providing news, and entertainment. It should be great if there were only one app for each usage :

  • Unified IM center, as on Nokia Meego
  • Unified mail center, that might include facebook messages as well
  • Contacts / social center, with Twitter, Facebook, Google + feeds as on WP
  • Game portal, that is used to access all the games, like in iOS
  • Guide / coatch, which can help you find your way as a GPS, or track your sports activities.
  • Universal camera, with pluggable interfaces to take videos, panoramas, and provide fancy effects.
  • News center, that aggregate google reader, RSS, twitter articles into some kind of flipboard.

Of cause, these apps should be able to communicate between each other. The camera or the game portal might want to post in the social center for example, or the social center opening the news center to display an article. This will split our current applications into two kind of components :

  • Task plugin : a plugin that is able add services in one of these tasks, like a new source for news, or a new guide for navigating in one city’s public transportation
  • Transversal link : a application that is able to create links between tasks, like share features for example.
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5 thoughts on “About mobile apps

  1. this is a really good article and I like your thoughts in the conclusion :
    “I’m dreaming of a phone that is more “task oriented” than app oriented. This will match better most of the user’s usage. Indeed, we primarily want our smartphone to do some tasks, like communicating, guidance, taking pictures, providing news, and entertainment. It should be great if there were only one app for each usage”

    I totaly agree. Send your thoughts to JollaMobile, they might bi interested.

  2. About “On Nokia Meego (and maybe on other platforms too), there is an option to create a launcher from a web page, but the process is not really nice, since a thumbnail of the web-page appears as icon (I would have preferred the favicon).” Lots of my bookmarks’icon are indeed favicon so as beautifull as any other “real” App ! Examples are Pocket (former Read it later), UK National Rail, etc. If the other are displying web page’s screenshot as icon in the launcher instead of favicon is the fault of the editor 😦

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