An App for That

Anniversaries are a cheap way of finding an excuse to talk about something.  Nonetheless, the 5-year anniversary of the iPhone is as good a time as any to talk about how mobile app design has evolved over the past five years.

The slogan, “there’s an app for that” is cliche today, almost quaint: for every task, an appropriate app.  Before the iPhone, one might have been tempted to say “there’s a google search for that” or “there’s an AOL keyword for that.”  But now: apps.  They are how we do things.

But not everything, of course…

Implicit in the “there’s an app for that” slogan is the idea that “that” is a single thing, an atomic task: reading the news, doing a crossword, booking a flight.  Whether designing an app for Android, iOS, or Windows Phone, the mantra has been the same: do one thing and do it well.

This laser-like focus has generally served app designers well. When the App Store launched, the conventional wisdom was that one should design for quick, easy-to-consume experiences that relied on a mobile user who might only be using one thumb, one eye, and a jacked-up AT&T Edge connection.  And so we designed fairly shallow, low-information-density apps.

Over the past five years, though, the constraints have slowly but inexorably changed.  We now have:

  • GPS standard in every phone
  • Fast mobile processors
  • Better, smarter back-end data services that can provide only the most relevant content
  • high-resolution screens
  • faster, more stable LTE connections (in some places, anyway)
  • More mobile use at home and in the office, where data connections and attention spans are pretty decent
  • a wider array of “mobile” devices, including large-screen tablets
  • more sophisticated users who better understand mobile conventions and gestures
  • authentication services like Facebook that allow for richer customization

All of this means re-thinking how we design apps.  Today’s apps can – and should – aim to do more than they did 5 years ago.  Functionality that we might have spread across two or three apps can now be consolidated in one. Apps can be more ambitious.

In the past, my advice to clients asking about app strategy has generally been to be super-specific and focused. But I might be starting to re-think that.  My 2013 resolution is to be more ambitious about these sorts of things.