There’s a System for That

If you’re having organizational trouble or find yourself doing the same mundane task over and over, chances are pretty high that someone else out there shares your pain. With a little bit of research, you may even find someone who has already conquered your problem. At any rate, it’s worth a look. The internet is a pretty big place these days. There are apps for everything.

As times change, brand new problems crop up all the time that may not yet have structured solutions. Depending on the complexity of your problem and processes, other people’s solutions may not serve your own. If you cannot find a solution, it’s up to you to build one. Given the challenges and material complexity of designing solutions (be they software, logistical or cost), most people opt out and choose to continue suffering. Don’t do that. Don’t settle for the mundane. You should never have to do the same thing more than once – unless you want to.

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Would You Use Your Own App?

Before launching your app into any application marketplace, you should test for demand. That’s business 101. But before doing that, there is an easy way to pre-test the market for interest: honestly ask yourself, “Would I use my own product?” It amazes me how few people ask this question. We are all parents of our creations, so of course we’d say yes. But like parents raising children, we can’t all realistically say our children are physically fit and attractive. Some can. Others would have to make a case. It’s the same thing for products and services. We can’t all say that our tools are useful, amazing or accessible. If that were always the case, failure wouldn’t exist.

When designing a piece of software, put yourself in a user’s shoes. How hard is it to get started using the app? How much privacy must I compromise? Is it fun to use? Will my friends think I’m cool if I use it? Is it better than another app I use that does the same thing? If you don’t like the answers to your own questions, your users won’t either. Do not be afraid to return to the drawing board, especially when you cannot completely endorse your own product. Save yourself the time and shame if, deep down, you know the truth.

Mobile Should Not Port Web (Or Vice Versa)

Cramming the web experience into a smartphone is naïve. Any person with a shred of user interface appreciation should understand that we interact with desktop or laptop computers in very different ways than our phones or tablets. The devices are not directly interchangeable. It amazes me how many designers and companies forget it. Many hop on the mobile bandwagon and try to squeeze every feature into a claustrophobic mess. What’s the point?

I loath Facebook’s latest mobile app. It overwhelms the user with every possible feature from the suite (a collection of nonsense that makes it the slowest and most cumbersome app on my Galaxy Nexus). I do not need access to my pages or Facebook apps; I do not want to curate user groups or manage my friend list. Even events should live outside of the app – preferably in my calendar where they belong. I just need my messages, wall and news feed while I’m on the go. That’s it. Save my processing for something else.

While by no means an elegant app, Wells Fargo keeps things focused by opening with only two options – mobile banking or find an ATM. No offers for loans. No investing or insurance. Just simple tools to manage my money on the go. That’s it. Straightforward, simple and relevant.

On the flip, many mobile-first applications forget that they can approach their mission from a completely different angle via the browser. Instagram, with the mission to “share your life with friends through a series of pictures,” has an irrefutable opportunity to expand photo consumption onto a larger palette. Right now, their website is an embarrassing static splash page. Imagine a stunning and immersive fullscreen browser magazine ripe with friends’ photos, updating live as their world evolves around you. A powerful experience you will never have on a 3.5 inch screen.

Mobile and web can help you approach your core mission from two different angles. The mobile experience should feel immediate, focused, actionable and succinct. The web experience should feel expansive, explorable, comprehensive and open.

Before you port your experience to one device or another, first ask yourself two (rather obvious) questions: (1) What tools do people absolutely need on their phones versus their computers and (2) how would user interaction differ with the same tools on different devices?

Mobile could let you explore all the comprehensive offerings of a cross-platform application if you want to, but the unique-to-mobile (U2M) experience should come first. The Foursquare check-in is a perfect example of a U2M tool that adds to the unique-to-browser (U2B) experience of exploring a map of your data.

More platforms should debate U2M versus U2B and not try to cram a square block into a round hole.

The Difference Between Apps and Applications

The market is completely saturated with programs. Competition is thick, discoverability low, and redundancy rampant. Every fool and his grandmother are “building an app.” Companies scribble code together just to say they have one, too. I mean, seriously, why the flying hell would I need a Quiznos app?

The joke? “There is an app for that.” Not funny anymore. Why? Because apps like Virtual Lighter cramp valuable shelf space and bury applications that could otherwise have a profound impact on our culture and way of life. As a user and developer, I want to differentiate between “apps” and “applications” in hopes of quelling the former and promoting the latter:
 

  • Apps have narrow vision. Applications have boundless vision.
  • Apps tackle singular functions. Applications tackle multiple related functions.
  • Apps debug. Applications scale.
  • Apps live on devices. Applications live beyond devices.
  • Apps breathe task-based missions. Applications breathe mission-based tasks.
  • Apps are features in disguise. Applications are platforms for numerous integrated features.
  • App has three letters. Application has eleven.
  • Apps code quickly and can be completed. Applications continue to adapt and evolve.
  • Apps are popularized by mass use. Applications are commoditized by mass use.
  • Apps eat free time for breakfast. Applications eat apps for breakfast.
  • Apps are useful in defined use cases. Applications are useful in undefined use cases.
  • Apps are built by programmers and designers. Applications are built by communities.


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