words on the internet

i'm will dennis. these are my movie reviews and thoughts. i don't proofread before publishing so forgive the editing or lack thereof

Month: September, 2013

How to Talk About Design

I watched a talk yesterday by Ryan Singer, design guru of 37 Signals. The talk has a bunch of great points, but one struck me in particular – his description of how to qualify effective design.

Effective design is a lack of friction.

I love this definition because it fully captures the iterative process of design and the trade offs that come with iteration. The best part is that it doesn’t rely on “designery” language.

It’s not just a great definition, but it’s a great way to tackle design problems and opportunities.

Designs can always be better if there is friction in the system. That’s why iteration is necessary. Finding the best design is often a process of designing then using then designing then using. Using your product allows you to find friction. Design allows you to eliminate it. It’s tricky because eliminating friction in one area can introduce it in another. That is what makes design so fun and challenging.

If you’re able to kill friction without introducing it elsewhere in the system then you’re on your way to a great design.

“Friction” is just so much more tangible and human than terms like simplicity, aesthetic, design, feel, or ux. Simplicity and aesthetic result from an absence of friction – I don’t think they drive effective design in and of themselves.

Our understanding of friction as a word and a feeling is basic, it’s human. Your mom can feel friction just like a designer can feel friction.

We have frequent field tests at Hollerback where the entire team goes out and uses the app for a few hours. When we come back, we discuss bugs and potential UX improvements. The UX part of the discussion was good, but hard to nail down exactly what UX was.

From now on we’ll be using points of friction as the focus of our discussion. I look forward to seeing if it pushes our design and product in a more effective, delightful direction.

Social Media Road Rage

RoadRage

Louis CK has a great bit in his new HBO special about road rage. His take: It’s amazing how hateful and angry we can become when we’re separated from people by a glass window and a bit of road.

Louis goes on to make the analogy about what road rage would look like if you were in an elevator — how ridiculous and disproportionate your rage would seem if someone gently bumped you.

It’s a fascinated comment on our situational criticism of others. For some reason we’re ok with judging those who we don’t know. The more detached we are, the more extreme the lack of empathy. I think this also shows up in our observation of celebrities as public objects and how their misfortune becomes lively cocktail fodder.

Creators Beware

I worry about the degree to which this behavior is expressed in social. We’re each still hiding behind the safety of a consequence-proof window — but now it’s a computer monitor and a browser window. It’s easy to criticize and judge others online. Perhaps YouTube comments are the best example of this internet rage in action. Reddit is also a great example of where usernames give you a license to say anything you want.

People who tweet or blog on a regular basis come to terms with this over time. You will be judged from afar, you will be called stupid or incorrect on occasion. People will disagree with you online in the comments or offline to their friends.

I believe that’s why you rarely see creators criticizing another creator’s work — they know how hard it is to put yourself out there and to be vulnerable. They’ve been criticized and know it doesn’t result in the creator feeling very positive.

A New Social Contract

I think there is an opportunity to create social networks where empathy — rather than judgement — is the norm. Sounds cheesy, but it doesn’t have to be. And it doesn’t have to be about happiness or personal growth or achievement or puppies. It can still be about the same type of content we all love consuming online: photos, videos, written posts, and creative works in general.

If we require the consumers and the creators to play by the same rules, then we get closer to an empathetic online network.What would a social network look like where content itself was the price to admission?

From a product perspective, it would strictly embrace a club house or exclusivity model.

For example: I take a photo then I get to see a photo. I write a blog post then I get to read a blog post. I upload a new song I wrote and then listen to a song.

What if we put the creators and the consumers of content in the exact same shoes by forcing all consumers to be creators. From a product perspective, there is no empty room problem because content is created and consumed at an equal rate.

In addition, I’d bet the quality of the content is actually be higher than for a broadcast model beuase there is a definite, specific audience (even if it’s a stranger). You’re truly the part of a like minded community that is participating and exchanging. There is literal empathy for the content creation process.

It’s About Relationships

The downside of this sort of content-exchange model is the reach. You don’t have thousands of followers or friends to influence. You just get one other person as your audience for each time you post. Some may see that as silencing, I see it as intimately social. By pairing the content of two creators, you form a bond between the two people that can form foundation for a relationship.

You lose the reach of Twitter’s broadcast model but I’d wager the benefits are made up in the strength of your relationships on the network. These relationships would be safe, powerful, and empathetic. They’d be honest, surprising, and fun.

There is an opportunity to create systems and products where empathy is the norm and truly social networks can from them. There is an opportunity to shun the follower count and embrace meaning. There is an opportunity for new online relationships and more enjoyable content.

We need to start building more elevators and less freeways.

If you want to see our take on the future of social media, check out Hollerback.

Let me know if I can be helpful. will@hollerback.co

My Favorite Design Links of the Last 6 Months

Over the past 6 months I’ve been actively working to improve my design chops. Visual design, interaction design, ux, design thinking — you name it. When I find a helpful resource (ie asset, article, definition, process) I save it to a bookmark folder in Chrome.

Below you’ll find an unordered list of design focused links I came across over the last 6 months.

Instead of writing descriptions or trying to cull the list, I thought I’d share it in its raw form. Click around. Explore. Hopefully you’ll find some of them helpful.

If you know of a resource I’ve missed, add it in the comments!

Why good storytelling helps you design great products.

The Kano Model

What is Product Love?

Dribbble Mock Up Resources

Starter’s Guide to iOS Design

The iOS Design Cheat Sheet

Upping Your Type Game

Wilson Miner — When We Build

The Mental Model of Verbs in App Design

Getting to Signature Moments with Microinteractions

Improving UX with Customer Journey Maps

How to become a designer without going to design school

Creating Successful Product Flows

How Designers Can Help Developers

Required Reading For Product Designers

Learning to See

Dieter Rams: ten principles for good design

Final Designs are Always the Simplest and Most Practical

New in Android

Android Design Guidelines

inVision Mobile Prototyping

From Google Ventures: How to Hire The Best Designer for Your Team

Your App Makes Me Fat

Warm Gun: Lightning-Fast Mobile Design

Butterick’s Practical Typography

C.R.A.P.

Why Whitespace Matters

Glyphish Icons

Digital Design — GUI, Layout Interfact on Pinterest

Adobe Kuler Color Wheel

A Rare Look At the Graphic Design Guidelines at Google

Google Visual Assets Guidelines

10 Rules for Making Good Design

PlaceIt — Generate Product Shots in Realistic Environments

Designer News

Review: The Design of Everyday Things

First Principles of Interaction Design

Gestalt laws of grouping

Forget All the Rules About Graphic Design

Design Better and Faster With Rapid Prototyping

Creating Prototypes with Keynote

Fake It. Trash It. Build It.

Balsamiq

Mobile Design Details: Performing Actions Optimistically

My Six Rules for Mobile App Design

Design By Numbers: Typography

52 Weeks of UX

Learning from “bad” UI

Cognitive Overhead, Or Why Your Product Isn’t As Simple As You Think

Portkit: UX Metaphor Equivalents for iOS & Android

An Event Apart: 10 Commandments of Web Design

BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model

Type Hunting

What To Do When You’re The Only Designer They’ve Got

Best Logo Designs of All Time

Trade Marks and Symbols by Stefan Kanchev

Great Products Focus on A Motif

Thirteen Tenets of User Experience

Five Ways to Prevent Bad Microcopy

If you see a UI walkthrough, they blew it

Touch Gesture Reference Guide

Taste for Makers

Beyond Flat

A Brief Rant On The Future Of Interaction Design

There is no place for just shitting all over other people’s work

Felt Presence — Ryan Singer

An Insider’s View of Mobile-First Design: Don’t Make These Mistakes

If you’re interested in seeing if any of this pays off, you should check out Hollerback

Let me know if I can be helpful: will@hollerback.co

 

Growth vs Engagement – Start Up Metrics

growth versus engagement

For every consumer internet start up, the conversation of growth vs engagement has come up. (If it hasn’t, then it should). They can take many shapes, but they’re widely regarding as the “rule-of-thumb” metrics for success. Either or both should be “up and to the right.”

Read any press release or listen to any founder and they’ll probably site one of the two as an indicator of success — likely that which is most impressive — in the form of user numbers (aka growth) or something like pictures sent (engagement).

There is a lot of nuance around these two keystone start up metrics — such as how to exactly measure them and what needs measuring— but the more important issue for young companies to tackle: these two metrics are at odds, organizationally.

In a start up, with your limited resources, you need to be focused on as few things as possible. Whatever you decide to focus on has implications for your product, your users, and your organization. Whatever you make the goal, the entire organization needs to be aligned.

So should you be focusing on growth or focusing on engagement?

Why Growth and Engagement are Important

If you’re Paul Graham of YC lore, then the very definition of a start up is growth. I don’t disagree. If your start up generates revenue from day one, whatever makes revenue grow the fastest is probably the best course of action.

There is, however, a whole genre of apps and sites that don’t make revenue from day one. Most of these start ups have to reach a large user base in order to turn on a significant revenue generating engine. Twitter, Pinterest, even Google falls into this category in my opinion — they wouldn’t be able to sell ads if they didn’t have a significant user base. Growing quickly and achieving scale are clearly necessary for revenue.

But what if your users don’t come back after their first visit? It’d be pretty difficult to serve ads or create a business if you don’t have users regularly visiting your product or service. That’s some of the problem with start ups that “hack” growth in unsustainable ways. It looks great as user numbers rise, but there’s no telling if those users will come back. No return users, no business.

So there are two pieces to the revenue generation puzzle — scale and engagement. Both are absolutely necessary. Accordingly, both get a lot of attention as key metrics for start up success.

But They’re Mutually Exclusive

Start ups have to ruthlessly prioritize their objectives. What is the one thing the start up is going to accomplish in the next week, month, year? By necessity, other objectives take the back seat.

This is why growth and engagement are tricky. They’re both necessary for success but young can’t companies can’t really focus on both.

Some practical examples of their exclusivity:

Should your designer be working on the “time to Aha moment” flow or on the “Invite your friends” flow?

Should your engineer add Facebook post functionality or improve the app’s responsiveness and load time?

Should your marketer be focused on community management or strategic partnerships?

It’s a tough call.

Enter the VCs

To add to the difficulty of the decision, many start ups are dependent on VC or angel funding for their first few years or longer. A VC has to believe your company is worth taking a bet on so they look to some tangible, quantifiable statistic to justify their risk (they are finance folks after all). Enter the conversation about growth and engagement.

While all VCs need a compelling story about growth or engagement in order to invest, that story can take a lot of different forms. Here are a few that have popped up in conversation.

Growth:

  • Week over week growth of users/revenue (10% is great)
  • Month over month growth of users/revenue (40% is great)
  • Total users (A bajillion is great — this bar keeps rising)

Engagement

  • Daily active users (40% is great)
  • Monthly active users (50% is great)
  • “5 out of 7″ — what percent of weekly active users are active 5 out of 7 days a week. (60% is great)

VCs see a lot of companies so they tend to form opinions about what metrics are healthy. The above metrics are very important, but in reality they’re symptoms of success rather than leading indicators.

VC ears tend to perk a little more when they hear growth numbers rather than engagement numbers. If your growth numbers are phenomenal, you should have an easier time raising. Once again, this isn’t indicative of your company’s potential success, but growth is an easier story for them to tell in a partner meeting. It’s fair because it’s also more closely correlated to a large addressable market and a large potential return.

Find Your Effectiveness Metric

I was speaking with a founder of a launched mobile app that isn’t generating revenue. He just raised a great seed round from top-tier investors.

In his pitch, he didn’t discuss user numbers and he didn’t discuss daily actives either.

The story he told was based on a metric he defined internally. It followed the rough model of:

If a user is exposed to A, what percentage of the time do they successfully complete B.

Step A was the social onboarding process of the app and step B was the key desired action. The founder created a metric that measured the core value exchange and effectiveness of his app. That was the metric he explained and that was the metric that proved his app was working. The conversation of his funnel was 85%.

This is an amazing example of someone framing and executing on a key metric that is business specific. While it alludes to engagement, it really measures the app on how effective it is at delivering value.

Because the market the app is addressing is proven and large, then he can tell a really compelling story to VCs, employees, the press, and stakeholders:

I’ve built an app that is proven to work that is addressing a large market.

The key is to find a metric that measures the effectiveness of your solution for a given market. If it’s truly effective, your engagement numbers should be solid and your growth should be happening somewhat organically.

Tell the Story

When someone asks about growth or engagement of your product, don’t be afraid to be a politician — answer the question they should have asked.

Talk about the effectiveness metric that is at the heart of your product. It’s really the only metric that explains how well you’re doing.

The most valuable insight on metrics that I’ve received in the last few years of asking these questions was the following:

Don’t worry about the metrics you think VCs or the press want, worry about the metrics that prove to you and your team that you’re getting out of bed in the morning to work on the right thing.

Such good advice.

Tell the story of why you’re building what you’re building. You’re rational, you’re smart,and you’re passionate about the problem and you care about your users. Don’t bullshit yourself. Find a metric that is core to your business and accurately represents whether or not your long hours at the office are justified.

Find that one metric that accurately represents your business’ health and make sure you believe the story it tells. Focus on aligning your organization, product decisions, and investors behind improving your one metric.

That’s when up and to the right actually means something.

Why We’re Not Hyping Our Launch

We’re launching our app Hollerback in a few weeks and with any new app or site launch there’s an interesting question: To hype or not to hype?

By hype I mean launching with press, tweets from influencers, marketing, promotion, getting featured on the app store, etc. The full-on “our app is the next big thing” hustle out of the gate. Of course, the goal of launch hype is to get people so excited about your app that there will be a rush to download it and you’ll shoot up the app store charts. Hell, maybe even buy some downloads and juice the charts and make it seem legit?

From there, users will be in love with the app, the thinking goes. It will live up to the hype. All will be grand. “Bring me a goblet of wine and the head of a pig!” we’ll say. Valuations will rise. Riches will follow. Universes will be dented.

If we time everything just so and the product and viral loops hit just right, we’ll just take off! All we need is some launch press and buzz.

It’s tempting. But we’ve decided not to do it. Here’s why.

Growth vs Engagement

Some might think hype increases user numbers and therefore makes fundraising easier. While hype does lead to larger early user numbers, it will hurt your percentage of daily and monthly active users because people are just checking it out rather than sticking around. Savvy investors look to more than raw user or download numbers.

You can raise a seed round with either of two metrics: user engagement or user growth. Engagement is a factor of the product while growth is a factor of time and money. Products are hard to get people to use. Contrastingly, time and money are just resources (and what investors are good at providing). If either metric is looking great, you can make a strong case for your product’s viability and future promise.

Growth can accelerate with time (and marketing) if real engagement is there. While there are varying schools of thought, our perspective is that engagement can promote growth but growth itself does little for an individual user’s engagement.

Accordingly, we’re optimizing for early engagement over early growth.

Hype only has downside 

The unfortunate truth is that hype doesn’t make products succeed. We all know that. Too much hype makes great products seem good and average products seem terrible. There are graveyards full of companies because press and friends exclaim the product “didn’t live up to the hype” and was correspondingly discarded.

And therein lies the true problem with hype: Hype kills evangelists. Hype turns product-loving early adopters into jaded skeptics. It turns users from curious explorers to jurors deciding a verdict.

This app raised how much money? Pssh. It’s not that well designed.

Their investors are who? Hmm. It’s kind of buggy.

Their cofounder is who? Huh. Idea seems played out.

Really, the last thing a start up needs to do is set a bar of expectation too high for itself. Start ups are already under-resourced and in most cases under executing on one or several fronts. Even the best new companies have to simplify the user experience considerably for their first version.

Hedge your product bet

Here’s the argument for going hype-less for initial release:

If your product hits with your demographic out of the gate, phenomenal! Start marketing it. Start spreading the word as aggressively as possible. Start running.

However, if it turns out there are a few kinks to work out, you’ve saved some public scrutiny and avoided bad user experiences. No one knows about your app. No one cares about your app. You still have a largely fresh slate with the early adopter community. It’s all (relatively) still good.

When you don’t impress your early users with the product, you can impress them with your customer service and feature improvements. You can build relationships with your early users (because there will only be a few) and turn them into future evangelists.

The beauty of waiting for your product to gain some traction before marketing is that you already have a core user base. Not only is this important for word of mouth, it’s important for your company to internally know that you’re building the right thing. It can set your direction. It’s honest usage that’s not diluted by drive-by downloads.

Focus on getting your product to level “Wow”

It’s incredibly difficult to make products that make people say “wow.” It takes time, feedback, and tweaking. Doing all that behind closed doors, or even with a group of testers, is extremely risky. Instead, focus on getting something shipped that early adopters (for your market) are going to use and potentially love.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t be pushing to make great product from day one, it just may take some time. By the time it tips past early adopters, it should be surprisingly great. When something is surprisingly great, people will talk about it. They will become advocates for the experience and the product. They will be your evangelists.

Most importantly, they’ll explain to their normal friends why they should use the app. That’s when your product had potential to go from tech app to cultural force. That’s when you can demand your goblet of wine!

Focus on getting your product to “wow” and hopefully your users will be all the hype you need.

As I mentioned, we’re releasing Hollerback in a few weeks. 

When we do, we won’t be buying downloads to climb the charts and we won’t be announcing it on Techcrunch. You probably won’t see any “influencers” tweeting about it for awhile. 

We do think it’s an experience that will make you say “wow.” But before we market it, we want to prove people are excited about what we’ve built first.

So if you’re a lover of technology and experimental new apps, we’d love to have you try Hollerback when it’s ready. It’s like a party on your phone. 

Leave us your email here: www.hollerback.co 

 

Don’t Forget to Talk

When working on a technology start up, much of your day is comprised in silence, clicking away at a computer. Whether you’re an engineer writing code, a designer working in Photoshop, or a marketer firing off emails, it’s easy to go hours, or even an entire day, without having a business-focused conversation with your peers.

Especially with the “meetings are a waste of time” stigma floating around, it’s easy for start ups to become companies that only consist of two actions: deciding and implementing.

Decide. Execute. Repeat.

A crucial component to the creative process of product creation can be overlooked. Talking about the problem you’re solving in a free-flowing, organic discourse is often strewn by the wayside. It’s discarded as inefficient.

In our experience building Hollerback, some of the best ideas have come out of impromptu discussions. These discussions weren’t spawned out of a need for a decision. They were  one person electing to talk to another about a problem or idea. Whether it was pertaining to code, branding, distribution, or design,  speaking out loud to someone often brings new ideas into the mix.

Some of our best product decisions, and perhaps those that truly matter, have come out of healthy spoken discourse.

I’m now conscious of the power of spontaneous conversations and careful not to dismiss them as inefficient.

Embrace the unguided train of thought – sometimes it can lead to a creative opportunity or solution that can’t be found in silence.

Burn Your [Product] Ships

burn your product ships

When the Spanish explorer Cortez landed on the shores of modern Mexico, story has it that he burned his ships to ensure they were “All In” on their conquest. This is a beautiful metaphor for building software products.

Many tout the benefits of both iteration and simplicity. The problem is that to iterate and preserve simplicity, features have to be cut. You have to burn your ships that got you to where you are. There is no turning back.

This can be tricky.  You have to kill the features that individual developers and designers had personal relationships with, features that took careful planning and months to develop. They have to be swiftly killed.

It’s the right choice. If they’re not on the critical path to your best user experience, they have no business seeing the light of day.

It’s tempting to keep that one cool feature, to leave that one option in the settings, to leave a little bit of product flexibility in case users want to do Y and Z in addition to X.

But remember – users will actually use the features you give them. If you include features that are “good” but not “great,” some percentage of your users will experience your product as good and not great. Only great products survive.

Make bold and specific user experience choices, let them ripple though your product, and kill the features that are tangential.

By focusing on only one core experience, you have no choice but to make that the best in its class.

You have no choice because there’s no going back. You’ve burned your ships.

 

The Unexpected Reason Apple’s iWatch will Win

Apple will launch the iPhone 5S and it will contain a biometric sensor in the home screen button. The sensor will allow for the creation of novel applications that rely on fingerprint, heart rate, and body temperature.

While the biometric sensor is interesting on the iPhone, it makes perfect sense in a device you wear 24/7 like the iWatch. It can track your body’ signals in perpetuity and much more accurately than your iPhone.

By introducing the sensor on the iPhone first, Apple will have third party developers creating a suite  of apps to capitalize on the new tech. These apps will be uniquely suited to the iWatch before it ever comes out.

Apple can launch the iWatch hardware later than competitors, even with a similar form factor, and be winning in the software front from day 0.

While there is a lot of hype around the hardware and form factor of the pending wearable releases, Apple will once again win due to the quality of the apps on the device.

Just like the launch of the original iPhone – to consumers it’s all about apps.

Apple will have the best apps for wearables before they even launch one.

Beautiful strategy.

The Problem with Today’s Social Networks

Traditionally, if someone at a party spent all their time talking about themselves, they would be considered an asshole.

But with current social networks,that’s exactly the state of affairs. Everyone is broadcasting what they’re doing or thinking. Everyone is the asshole at the party.

And it makes for a shitty party.

We’ve all become guilty of sending out our own mini press releases to our friends. But it’s not our fault. It’s the way social networks are structured.

They’re flawed and I think we can do better.

Where did social go wrong?

The whole reason social networks are powerful and exist is because humans are naturally social. It’s our evolutionary disposition.

So social networks seem like a great thing. They should be satisfying our itch, our need for socializing. While entertaining and well-intentioned products, they are far from replicating the feeling you get after catching up with friends over coffee.

They lack the social exchange necessary to maintain actual relationships. Real life relationships are based on a somewhat equitable, 2-sided trade.

Let’s look at a relationship:

Bob and Susan meet for coffee.

Susan: “Hey Bob. How are you? What’s the latest?”

Bob discusses the new fondu maker he refurbished. Susan mentions she loves fondu. Bob invites her over for dinner next week.

Bob: “So that’s what’s up with me. How are you? Are you still seeing that guy Greg?”

She says Greg was allergic to her cat and it didn’t work out. She loves her new apartment though.

There you have it. A social interaction. A conversation. An exchange. An activity, though while simple, preserves relationships.

As products, current social networks are only offering one part of the necessary social interaction — the part where you say “I’m good, thanks.”

They fill the other half with a text box.

Facebook is the ultimate example.

Facebook, exemplified by the ever-present update box, has made us all the asshole at the party. The hope of course, is that our friends will interact with our post so we don’t feel like the asshole at the party.

The problem is that we’re terrified no one is listening. Or maybe worse, that no one cares.

So we’ve all become broadcasters.

When staring at the status box, the very lifeblood of services like twitter and facebook, the question is:

Is my life worthy of sharing? Will my post get a response? Do people give a shit about me and what I have to say? Am I wasting my friends’ time?

It’s a somewhat unfortunate realization when you realize nobody other than the Facebook status box is actually asking you how you are. Accordingly, you have to self-define the moments in your life you think others want to know about. The way you hedge this risk is to make your post as goddamn-interesting as possible.

Vacation pics? Fuck yeah.

Selfie with a celebrity? Jackpot.

Beautiful view with a cappuccino in the foreground? Facebook gold!

The content we post to social networks can’t be humble. It can’t be truly honest or vulnerable. It sure as hell better not be boring. The entertainment of our friends — and our validation — depends on it.

Facebook has become that moment on the first day of class when everyone has to stand up, say where they’re from and say one interesting thing about themselves. It’s fine if you don’t know the people in your class, but you know your friends better than that. It’s a watering down, rosy-colored glasses version.

That’s great for getting life updates. That sucks for maintaing true relationships.

For my good friends, I want to know how their girlfriend is, how their shitty job is still shitty, how their family is doing, and what they think of Breaking Bad. I’m not particularly interested in seeing them smiling on vacation — it’s simply not part of what defines our relationship. It’s social noise.

I want to interact with my friends, not consume their “content.”

We’re all broadcasting. But who’s listening?

What social can be.

Current social networks are built around the broadcast model. They’re built to have users say “Here’s what I’m doing. Here’s what I think.”

That’s only half of a human relationship. It’s not truly social. It sure doesn’t advance relationships. At best, it puts them in cruise control.

A huge opportunity lies in products built around a more equitable social interaction. Imagine a social network where you as a user can ask the question: “What are you doing?” to a specific friend or group of friends.

That interaction — the exchange itself — is what drives relationships.

The next big social network will be built on an idea more fundamental and natural than broadcast. An idea more central to human relationships. It will embrace a social mechanic above and beyond the follower/following model.

It’s time we built a better party.

If you’re interested in trying a fun, exciting new way to interact with friends, sign up for our private beta of Hollerback. I don’t think you’re going to have seen anything like it.

Let me know if I can be helpful: will@hollerback.co

An Homage to Stupid Weather Apps

I’ve often heard a gripe among early adopters whenever they see buzz about a utility app coming out. “Who needs another alarm clock, weather app, or todo list?” they say. Hell, I’ve been guilty of it myself.

Upon closer inspection, however, these utility apps are in fact the trojan horses of app innovation. They’re the unsung heroes. They’re the badass vigilantes that fight for the common man even though the common man doesn’t know they’re name or really give much of a shit.

This is an homage to the weather apps.

You can’t innovate on everything at once.

There are new social networks, services, and business models launched into the app store daily. They correctly set out to innovate on one thing: the shiny new service they provide to the user. It’s novel, it’s unique, it fills a user need. They do one thing and they try their darnest to do it well.

Praise innovation!

Unfortunately, these services rarely, if ever, innovate on the UI and interaction model of the app experience itself. Save for a few signature moments, apps stick to things users have seen before and know how to interact with. It makes sense. When you’re trying to get a user to order their groceries via smartphone the last thing you want is for them to be confused about how to drag and drop groceries into their shopping cart (though that would be cool).

There is simply no opportunity for experimental UI in apps that are already busy teaching a new consumer behavior in the service they’re providing.

However unfortunate it may be, it’s difficult if not impossible to educate a user on a new service and a new interaction model simultaneously. You’re either sacrificing user experience, threatening business goals, or both. Most often it takes much less time to use standard UI than teach a user something new.

There are exceptions in consumer/social applications where the app is the product itself. For example, the “hold-to-record” video affordance in Instagram, Vine, and Snapchat is now bordering on convention. It’s a great example of how challenging it is to teach users new things. It has taken 3 of the app store behemoths to even suggest a possible new norm for mobile video recording.

And despite this consumer video trifecta, we’re still beholden to operating systems’ reinforcement of traditional camera interactions for the foreseeable future. Until Apple and Android decide to embrace a new interaction model, like Apple finally has with drawers in iOS7, it’s tough going on the UI innovation front.

So where does this leave us? Are we trapped in our current UI paradigm of nested list views and ever-present settings buttons?

Nay.

Enter the innovation trojan horse

This is where apps that give you the weather, wake you up, or organize your tasks can shine and impress.

By focusing on a user problem so familiar, so singular, and so ubiquitous, utilities can paint a clean canvas colorful with new interaction models. These conceptually-simple apps don’t burden users with the cognitive load that comes along with a new service. Developers of utilities can explore how users might interact with apps in ways that are faster, simpler, less traditional, and potential way better.

By focusing on a simple, borderline-trivial user problem, developers and designers can create apps that are designed for the sake of design. They’re designed for the sole purpose of answering the question: “What if it worked like this?”

Utility apps that use unconventional UI in general are borderline pieces of art. I’d equate them to a modern day self portrait: The concept has been done to death but you never know exactly how it will be executed.

Therein lies the fun. Therein lies the opportunity to stumble upon new interactions, new gestures, and new workflows. Therein lies the opportunity and the freedom to innovate.

So keep the alarm clocks coming

Without simple utility apps that take risks with interaction and UI design, we’d be constrained to using apps that are so focused on accomplishing a business task that they necessarily limit the UI.

While games push the boundaries of UI and interaction design, games are a different beast entirely. The UIs are fragmented on an almost game-by-game basis. They’re far from ever establishing a new UI convention, let alone one that works well in general consumer apps. We need interaction innovation from consumer apps themselves.

In time, it’s the apps that take UI risks that truly push user experience in the right direction (even if they occasionally fail). As users become more and more challenged over time, they’ll be more comfortable going button-less and fully gestural. (<- unintended sexual innuendo!).

And so I plead.

Weather apps, keep coming hard with the animated snow.

Alarm apps, keep giving me new ways to set the time.

Todo list apps, fuck yeah lets rearrange some lists in clever ways.

I know that for every super trivial knock-off that is submitted to that app store, it’s this genre of apps that can unlock the future of app experience on a fundamental level.

While a lot of the hype goes to innovative business models and shiny new services, lets not forget to give it up for the unsung heroes. The developers and designers who are pushing the limits of how an app on your phone can actually work.

Hopefully they keep busting their asses to create better interactions that slowly bleed into the mainstream. The end result is a better user experience for all.

I’ll keep downloading your alarm clocks. No matter how many times I wake up late because I didn’t quite get how your app worked, I know your intentions are righteous.