Why does there have to be an app for that?

February 22, 2016

So many apps seem pretty pointless. Especially with apps produced by publicly-funded bodies, all too often it feels like the main reason that these apps exist is that some digital agency salesperson has successfully milked a cash cow. Perhaps the marketing department feel the need to keep up with the Joneses. In a lot of cases, money is being spent to build apps, with no apparent evidence that the people involved have given much thought to the reasons.

Before any project starts, questions should be asked. Why does this need to exist? Who wants it, and what problem will it solve? If you can’t come up with satisfactory answers to those questions, why would you go ahead with the project? As Jeff Atwood put it, Why the hell are we building an app in the first place?

Perhaps I should declare an interest. I build websites. I believe in the principles on which the web was founded. I want to see us avoid walled gardens, and stay in a world of discoverability and shareability.

Perhaps more to the point, I don’t actually use many apps. My attitude could be summed up by paraphrasing William Morris: you should have no app on your device that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be delightful. These are the apps that I use fairly frequently:

  • Evernote
  • Strava
  • Spotify
  • GReader and Feedly
  • Twitter and Facebook
  • Slack

All of them have a valid answer to the question I ask before installing any app, namely “what does this app offer me that I can’t get from the web?” In most cases, that answer relates to one of the following:

  • Offline functionality
  • Access to device features such as location, camera, microphone
  • Ease of use
  • Speed - but how long does it take to install, and will my device become slower because of the extra junk installed on it?
  • Persistent login

More and more, the web is becoming capable of these things, and I welcome that. For most online tasks, it shouldn’t be necessary to install additional software, and it’s possible to do everything on the web that is being done in a lot of apps. Sometimes, the app isn’t even as useful as the website, but I think that’s generally not a technology issue as much as it is a design issue.

In some apps, the main purpose of the app seems to be to fulfil an ambition to create “stickiness”, rather than creating a good user experience - as if the user stories were along the lines of “as the product owner, I want the user to look at the app as often as possible”. This often results in attention-seeking behaviour - a kind of notification neediness - Twitter and LinkedIn seem to be particularly bad for this, although at least Twitter lets you choose your notifications.

Incidentally, I generally use Evernote to write this blog, switching between laptop and phone and tablet to add bits as and when I think of them, but almost never using the web version of Evernote.

What does the future hold? Will apps be interim solutions, short-lived technologies like Blu-Ray, destined to be condemned to the dustbin? Probably not, but looking back at the mobile technology of the last few years, even a device as successful as the iPod now feels like a stopgap.

Mobile phones are going beyond being just general-purpose computers, and are replacing all kinds of devices. My own iPod, at least, has been made obsolete by Spotify on my phone, and compact camera sales seem to be in terminal decline.

At the same time, however, more and more software for mobile devices is in the form of single-purpose applications, rather than working with the general-purpose computer that is the browser. To me, that’s a shame, although I suppose it does create more jobs for developers.

Just because there’s an app for that, it doesn’t mean we need to install it, and just because we could build an app for something, it doesn’t mean that we should.