Mobile application design is hard. For websites, we have well-established graphic rules. For PC screens, the tolerance for interface mishaps is fairly broad. Mobile apps are the opposite: space is much scarcer, every pixel counts. Try shrinking a tablet app screen down an to a smartphone size: homothecy (linear reduction) rarely works. This is the reason why we often see fine iPad applications turn into flunked smartphone ones. It sometimes takes a while for a successful iPad app turn in to a well-adapted iPhone one: Flipboard, Zite and Bloomberg BusinessWeek were wise enough to take as much time as needed to roll-out great apps for the small screen.
When designers (and marketeers) perform user tests for a small screen app, they realize their design will have to adjust to many new circumstances and constraints. Reading time and general use conditions change substantially from a tablet to a smartphone: while the former is definitely a lean-back device, the latter will be used in many different ways, often including uncomfortable settings — I glance at my phone in a lobby, a waiting line, in the subway, etc. All this deserves thoughtful consideration when designing an application. The same applies to advertisers: they can’t expect to capture the same level of attention when moving from tablets to the smartphones.
With this in mind, I made a quick list of mandatory features for mobile applications.
Social vs. “Related”. Today’s hype leaves no other option but making an application as “social” as possible. This being the certitude du jour, allow me to think differently.
True, some apps are inherently social: when it comes to rating a product or a service, the “crowd factor” is critical. Beyond that, it should be a matter of personal choice — an antinomic notion to today’s the “Social” diktat. When you enroll into Spotify, the default setting is to share your musical taste with your Facebook friends and to suffer theirs in return. I personally can’t stand such obligation: I quickly dumped the application and cancelled my account.
The social idea’s biggest mistake is the belief in a universal and monolithic concept everyone is supposed to be willing to embrace with a similar degree of scope and enthusiasm. That’s a geeky, super-cartesian, Zuckerberg-esque view of society. Among my friends, some like opera (the singing, not the browser), others prefer heavy metal and I’m more into jazz tunes; some are tech-minded like me, others are more inclined towards literature. When it comes to sharing news, I tend to be naturally selective about the people I send a link to: I don’t want to swamp everyone with stuff they don’t care about. I might be wrong, but this is the way I see the social cyberspace: segmented and respectful of each other.
Where am I getting with this: When I read news online, I care about what is related (i.e. recommended by editors) as much as what is social (recommended by the crowd). Of course, Trending, is a good indicator of what’s hot. Here is a good example on TechCrunch iPad app, by any measure a thoughtfully designed one. Its Trending sidebar cleverly displays what’s hot and how it evolves:
Even better: when you dive into a story, the app will give you a better-focused “Trending” indicator on a particular company, in this example Buddy Media….
… will send you to the Crunch Base repository of people and companies:
TechCrunch’s social treatment is mostly Twitter-based. Subjects are connected to relevant tweets with the underlying story shown in a web view:
Related contents come in different flavors. Take the Bloomberg way shown in its remarkable BusinessWeek application. Companies mentioned in a stories can pop-up in a black sidebar drawn from the Bloomberg financial app.
Similarly, ProPublica’s application uses a lateral “drawer” to display related contents in an efficient way:
These features are by no means secondary. Providing related contents or a supplement of data, such as financial of biographical information, is the best proven way to retain users.
Finally, a word about graphics. Apple and the iPad have set the bar pretty high and very few apps takes fully advantage of their graphics power. One company rises way above the crowd: Roambi, in a class in itself when it comes to visualizing information. My take is, someday, most business sites will borrow from Roambi’s spectacular way of displaying graphics (part explanation of its design sophistication: the core of Roambi’s designers comes from the video game industry).
One last world about the ongoing debate between open web-apps and proprietary ones such as iOS or Android: The gap is narrowing. The FT.com, which pioneered the genre two years ago, made tremendous progress in its app. Periodically, a new release comes up with slight improvements in fluidity and ease of use. The iOS system and its software development kit remain a must for games and 3D intensive applications, but for news and data apps, HTML5 is getting closer.
One feature, though, is missing in most of these apps: the ability to use them offline. 3G coverage and cellular data transfers are more unstable than developers tend to believe; users should have more leeway in configuring their apps to download content in the background, ready for later offline use.