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.
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?
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.