Where once there was "an app for that," there are now several. Obviously, not all were created equal. So, what is it exactly that’s different about apps like Instapaper and Camera+? Why do they make the cut onto people’s home screens instead of other apps? And how can we as designers help foster a world where most of the apps people download don’t just get forgotten? Here’s our advice to the brands and developers entering the apps foray:
1// Make it essential, make it addictive.
The average smartphone has only 22 apps and chances are most of them won’t last longer than two weeks. With that kind of turnover, it’s clear apps have to better communicate their value from the very first use, and provide incremental value over time. How do they do that? At their core, the best apps address the notion that people are beginning to think not in terms of phones and tablets but in terms of what they can accomplish. After laying this behavioral foundation, an app should integrate with a user's ecosystem of data, apps and social networks so it can inherently structure itself around repetitive behaviors. This strategy is not limited to productivity apps — even the least practical apps can find ways of fitting into everyday micro-moments or piggy-backing on core daily interactions. Nike+ provides an excellent example. It uses personal motivational messages to bring people back routinely and leverages social networks to support how users track and achieve goals. Overall, its rich tools and visualizations give quick, on-the-go value all while helping people envision holistic changes to their life. Apps that can strike this balance have much greater chance of success.
2// Go native.
Seize the opportunity for apps to delight people with specialized and empowered experiences. Native features like the camera, gyroscope and magnetometer can go a long way toward interpreting the world in ways the web alone could not. While HTML5 holds the promise of one day doing the same, too many companies are still making the mistake of simply molding their current web experience into an app framework, resulting in a poorly defined, shapeless service that ignores important opportunities unique to mobile contexts and devices. Instead of straining to cut development costs, developers should target the right platform and build to fit naturally with users’ lives. With a native approach, apps can help make gestures, physical metaphors, and mental maps feel more familiar and the learning curve for new technologies seem manageable.
3// Right-size the experience.
Research shows that the average app session less than 10 minutes. Design accordingly. Competing for people’s attention by revealing the right things at the right times, on the right devices. Cramming everything available on the web onto a handset device or stretching a smartphone app to fit the resolution of a tablet ignores the need to fit within the bounds of the user’s focus and context. Getting it right often means knowing what to leave out. Consider what is appropriate for micro-moments as opposed to lean-back interactions, and surface the most important information immediately.
4// Two screens are better than one.
With users engaging with an estimated six screens a day, apps have an opportunity to uncover the synergy of companion devices. For simultaneous use, different iterations of an app can offload parallel activities onto multiple devices. This not only empowers people to multi-task but also eliminates their need for "pogo interactions," jumping back and forth between tasks within the same device.
For seamless, cross-device use, apps are contained vessels that can deliver on the cloud’s promise of consistency and uninterrupted access. Perhaps no service executes this better than Netflix. Through their apps, users can queue up something on their handheld device, start watching on their living room TV, and then pick up where they left off in their bedroom on their tablet as they go to sleep. But why stop at seamless? Cross-device services like Netflix also have an opportunity to adapt to changes in context. For instance, a video service might share awareness between handheld, TV and tablet apps so the handheld controls the main screen while the tablet is used to rate, share, discover and queue up new content. In this way, cross-device app systems can bring the cloud down to earth, giving users a tangible, cohesive sense of digital space.
5// Consider multiple apps to target different users.
Apps are driven by curated content. Yet because disparate audiences want different things, sometimes services warrant separate apps. For example, the New York Times created individual apps for puzzles, real estate, news and travel. This approach allows users to engage piecemeal, downloading only the aspects of a brand or service they want. However, it also mandates that each component not only stays contained to its topic but also maintains the aesthetic and patterns of the brand consistently across the suite of apps. Which brings us to our next point: the importance of building frameworks.
6// Use frameworks to extend the experience.
Whether designing across platforms, devices or individual apps, frameworks and their repeated deployment magnify the impact of a service and bring critical design efficiencies. Our clients engage with us to help them grapple with the splintered requirements of different platforms and find economies of scale. By establishing a top-level interaction and visual design core, frameworks balance the adaptability of content with the need for OS integration. With frameworks, it’s no longer a matter of "either-or" — either Android or iOS, either native or HTML5 — it’s both.
7// Sharing is bigger than social.
There’s more to encouraging sharing than dropping in "tweet this" or "like on Facebook". The apps that are best in their class facilitate conversations by anticipating when users will expect to have one. Digital conversations have their root in real world conversations, and apps should proactively seek opportunities for sharing at natural endpoints where it feels second nature, not just include social functionality as an afterthought.
Apps ought to enable three distinct types of sharing: one-to-many, one-to-one and many-to-many. There will be times where someone chooses to broadcast their status or media to a wide network, and others when they just want to pass along a private thought to one person. Additionally, apps can mine the collective knowledge of social networks to filter, sort and surface relevant content to its users. The best apps support all three of these behaviors so users can share in a manner fitting of the moment.
In a splintered market, apps must continue to find new ways to delight their users. Engaging with Punchcut, companies look to spark innovation and realize improvements that uniquely tap into people’s lives. This most often requires a two-pronged approach. First, we focus on understanding the role an app or a concept plays in context of the overall service offering. Then, by studying and uncovering real-world user behaviors, we prioritize features that add utility for users and will become a consistent touch point with a brand or service. For us, and for our clients, it is that grounded perspective that separates success from a market cluttered with apps lacking a clear point of view.