A lot is being said about the good and the bad of the current app-ecosystem. Much of the discussion centers around viable business-models (how to make money from app) and technical issues (how fair are the app charts), but I think there is a more fundamental problem with apps that has to do with the general user experience (UX).
Don’t get me wrong, I’m an app developer and I like using apps, but from a strict user perspective I find the whole app experience often very unsatisfying. Or to put it in other words; the UX is disappointing. When we consider the UX we often limit ourself to the experience people have actually using the app itself, but I think we should look at it in a much broader perspective, starting from choosing an app and ending with saying goodbye to it.
In this series of blogs I will guide you through some of the negative UX when dealing with apps, starting with the first step: choosing an app in the iOS app store.
July 2015 the number of apps in the Apple App Store reached a staggering 1.5 million, and it’s still growing. How can you ever find the app you want in this huge amount of available apps? Things might still be relatively easy if you’re looking for a specific niche app, but what if your looking for a common category like a note taking apps?
The most obvious thing to do is start by searching for it in the App Store. Search for note taking and as a result you will get a very large list of apps related to taking notes. The most natural thing to do is to start browsing the apps (default the apps are sorted on relevance). It soon becomes clear -not surprisingly- they all do roughly the same thing, and you can’t look at all of them in detail. So you somehow have to narrow down the list. But how?
Price would be an obvious choice but the App Store only has a filter for free apps or any price. You probably will start by going for free -sounds attractive, and who wants to pay if you can get it for free- . When you look at the new list you notice some of the free apps offer In-App Purchases, things which you can buy from within the app. So the free apps may be not so free after all. This is part of a more general pricing confusion. App developers have become very creative in their pricing models – often with the best intentions – which makes it difficult for you as a customer to make a choice purely based on price. You have free apps, free apps with advertising, subscription based apps (free or paid), pay-once apps, apps with in-app purchases and probably a number of other creative models. Which one is right for you is something only you can decide en depends on the situation you’re in, your planned use of the app etcetera. And then you still need to know what you get for your (free) money. So how about looking at the rating or popularity of apps?
The App Store offers the possibility to sort the results on rating or popularity. I’m not sure how the underlying algorithm works (no one does: https://moz.com/blog/app-store-rankings-formula-deconstructed-in-5-mad-science-experiments ) but the result is a list based on app rating or popularity. This may give you a reasonable indication of the quality of the apps. But no guarantees; it could well be the same mechanism as for visiting restaurants also holds up for apps (when you’re in a strange city and don’t know anything about the quality of the restaurants you tend to choose the one with the most people in it. More people = better food, but what if almost everyone in the restaurant have made their choice based on that thought?). Unless you’re a strong believer in wisdom of the crowd, you can’t make a choice based solely on ranking or popularity. What about the wisdom the newer the better?
Sure you can sort your results on this one, but not so sure about the helpfulness. You get a list sorted latest release first, but unless you’re only interested in getting the newest one (not a good strategy in the case of apps) this won’t be any help.
What would be more interesting than release date, would be the update frequency of the app which is a good indication of how actively the app is supported by the developer. Even if you argue that if an app is that good it doesn’t need updates, there is still the frequent iOS updates which make it necessary for apps to conform to the latest standards or use the newest features. You should have serious doubts about the quality and stability of apps that haven’t been updated since 2013 (they are out there!). Which brings us to the next question, who made and supports the app.
For most of the good old tangible products (cars, electronics, even food) people have strong opinions about their value and reliability based on the producer or brand they belong to. As apps are a relatively new class of products usually not a lot can be said about the app based on the developer behind it. But facing a choice between apps it would be nice to have some idea about who developed the app, as this could give you some idea about its quality, support etcetera. Do they have a website, how many apps did they make, what about the quality of these apps etcetera. It would be wise to invest some time looking into this and get at least some idea about the people behind it.
And there’s always the internet: Even if you are able to narrow down the choice to a small selection of apps, you probably will end up looking on the internet for some detailed advice (if I would have gotten money for every time a search for “iOS xxxx app review” I would be rich by now). The first thing you will notice is that you’re not the first one looking for app advice and that there’s a whole website industry around it. Instead of getting some well substantiated advice straightaway you now have to struggle through a large number of -sometimes questionable- websites. Don’t worry, in the end you’ll still end up finding what your looking for, but it will take time and perseverance to do so.
All in all this doesn’t feel like a very satisfying user experience. We started out with a very simple wish; a good note taking app, nothing out of the ordinary, nothing exotic, just an app that’s good enough for what you want. You just had to make a choice. Chances are you have to spend way to much time and trouble making it. and/or at best with a -hopefully small- selection of apps to install and try out, which will be the subject of my next blog.