Why all your apps feel the same

July 29, 2013

Himanshu Sareen is CEO of Icreon Tech.

You’ve probably realized deep down inside that while our smartphones are capable of providing amazing experiences, dozens of our most-used apps are beginning to feel like clones of each other.

With 100 billion downloads and 1.6 million apps available in the Google Play and Apple App Store, you’d think this homogenization of app features wouldn’t be an issue. Yet, anyone who follows the mobile market will admit that a plethora of popular apps liberally ‘borrow’ cues from others. And that trend’s not slowing down. A growing number of developers are producing near identical core functionalities, save for slight nuances in aesthetics and branding. A few guilty parties:

• Overkill #1: “Pull down to Refresh” — Main Perpetrators: News Apps

• Overkill #2: “Swipe to Reveal” — Main Perpetrators: Social Networking Apps

• Overkill #3: “Slide to Delete” — Main Perpetrators: Mail Apps

Where does it come from?

So what has caused this? Have developers become bored with the design process? Is there no further need to explore mobile interfaces? Have we gotten to a point where we’ve reached the pinnacle of app design and user experience? Probably not, but here are some key causes to consider:

1. Timing: Unlike the desktop market, which had close to 30 years to create, evolve, and refine user experience on PCs and laptops, the mobile app market has existed for essentially five years. Developers haven’t had the luxury of taking chances with non-proven UI methods for fear of becoming quickly obsolete in the rapidly evolving industry.

Platform UI Kits: Google and Apple have done well to create stock interface components and experiences, enabling developers to ride on the shoulders of their IDEs of choice rather than venture out further into the unknown.

Screen size: The ability to create new modes of interaction is consistently hampered by the fact that developers only have a 3” x 4.5” area to play around with, making it tough to alter information density, layouts, and the like. 

But, by and large, these are relatively external-facing issues, ones that developers and app design firms aren’t in control of. So, what is it that they can control to create fresh experiences for mobile app users? The answer is touch.

A (touch) friendly gesture

The lack of touch and multi-touch innovation have created a stagnant state in app design. More specifically, the lack of experimentation with custom touch gestures contributes to a confined, limiting experiences on mobile.

Android and iOS depend on taps, flicks, drags, and pinches to artificially create more real estate within their environments. And judging from the early days of PalmOS and Windows Mobile, apps would admittedly be nowhere near as revolutionary without these interaction models. Yet, recently there has been little to no change in how we articulate with our fingers. It seems that every once in a while, a new gem, like Pull to Refresh comes along, only to be adopted by everyone else that can find a way to apply it. But they come along far too infrequently.

True touch and gesture-based improvements create revolutionary experiences, and oftentimes, the evidence lies in consumer adoption. Take an outstanding example of touch innovation, Paper, which has become a best seller by reimagining what can be done with a touch interface. The iOS sketchpad app incorporates a custom gesture that replaces the traditional ‘undo’ button with a two-finger counter-clockwise rotation, a unique take that makes the need for the extraneous and cumbersome button completely obsolete. Today, Paper has raised millions in funding and aims to reinvent mobile productivity on a much larger scale.

In a rapidly evolving industry like the mobile market, while design innovation is admittedly difficult, it’s not impossible. And while there are clear examples of companies inventing new ways of human computer interaction, they just don’t seem to happen often enough.

Himanshu Sareen is CEO of Icreon Tech, a global IT consultancy delivering business solutions and custom applications to customers including National Geographic Channel, Fox, PepsiCo, and Nokia Siemens Networks. He is responsible for the strategic and overall business development of Icreon. He founded Icreon in 2000 and grew the company through a mix of acquisitions and organic growth. 

Copyright 2013, VentureBeat

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