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Why simple apps do well

by Adelynne Chao , 29.10.2013

The rising popularity of apps

We are doing much more on our smartphones than ever before. In the past, our mobile devices were used simply to make calls or send texts, but today with our smartphones, we’re more likely to be doing anything but these activities. From checking the weather, posting a tweet, playing a game, reading the news and beyond, our smartphones have become invaluable hubs of information that we can access on the move.

This is where apps play a crucial role; they broaden the capabilities of our smartphones, provide new experiences and simplify tasks. They also allow us to personalise our phones to meet our specific needs. In the same way that you could learn a lot about someone based on their bookshelf, you can learn a lot about someone based on their apps. We also tend to prefer niche apps that are expertly designed for a simple task to those apps with deeply nested features [1].

The one-button approach

Our smartphones are always to hand and are becoming increasingly context-aware, with the ability to track our location, preferences and more. This makes them particularly useful for looking up information quickly when on the go. The relatively small screen size however, means they are much less suited to passive web browsing or intensive multi-tasking.

That’s why some of the best and most popular apps are also some of the most simple, or as Matt Cohler aptly put it, they are ‘a remote control for life’ [2]. At the push of a button you can access Facebook without the need to log in, find nearby restaurants without typing an address and keep an eye on the football scores without having to search the web. Instagram is another great example; by simplifying the process of editing and sharing photos it has succeeded in attracting a user base of 150 million in just 3 years [3].

Tellingly, the success of apps focussed on single, specific use-cases has driven even multi-services companies such as Google to build separate standalone apps for each of their services; e.g. Google Maps, YouTube, Gmail, Chrome and so on. Twitter adopted the same approach when they launched their video sharing service ‘Vine’ and music sharing service ‘Twitter Music’ earlier this year; they didn’t build either of these into the original Twitter app.

The importance of app design

“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak”
- Hans Hofmann, abstract expressionist painter.

Consumers’ evident preference for the one-button approach means that mobile app design can be a challenge, and companies looking to create mobile apps from existing websites need to keep this in mind. Rather than shrinking the full desktop version of a website into a mobile-friendly format, they will need to evaluate the way consumers currently access content via a mobile, prioritise a set of needs, and build the app accordingly.

The eBay app, for example, is focused around the core needs of a mobile user. It provides an easy way to buy, sell and keep track of current activity and is one of the most popular mobile shopping apps today, with over 100 million downloads [4]. Making use of the smartphone’s GPS, built-in camera and notifications it minimises the steps a user has to take to get something done. Via the eBay website you are unable to search using current location, scan a product barcode or receive notifications on bidding activity, but consumers are familiar with using many of these features on their phone.

Smartphones are gradually becoming our first choice device for accessing information instantly, and apps are a huge part of this trend. As technology evolves, we’ll be able to do even more using our phones; fingerprint sensors to simplify payment authorisation or motion sensors to track our daily activity. It only leaves us wondering what else we will be able to do with nothing more than the touch of a button.

[1] http://abovethecrowd.com/2013/07/17/transitioning-to-a-mobile-centric-world/
[2] http://techcrunch.com/2012/09/21/great-mobile-apps-are-remote-controls-for-real-life/
[3] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/10355980/How-Instagram-took-over-the-world-in-just-three-years.html
[4] http://sellersphere.ebay.co.uk/post/341

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