What makes good apps great? – Part 2: The type of app

Disclaimer: at the moment the blog is serving a dual purpose of allowing me to share my ideas and undertake a brain-dump in preparation for a seminar I am going to present in a month on apps. So please forgive me if its a bit rough (ok I know its rough) but I promise at the end of this I will publish the final paper AND the reviews of the good, bad and ugly of 50 apps. 


So what actions on the part of the user turn a good app into a great one? Sometimes you just get lucky and find an app that slips into your life but most of the time unlocking the potential of an app requires changing your practices. This includes changing where and how you work, how you record thoughts, take notes, read your documents, and where you research. These are can be small or large behavioral and process changes which result, depending upon your choice of app and your methods of adoption, in a positive or negative affect. Before you consider what and how to best adopt/adapt to an app you need to consider the type of app your looking at – because very few are going to have the capacity or even pretend to have any impact advantageous or otherwise upon your life outside of a few buzz words begging you to press the purchase button.

Type 1

Some apps are just a bookmark – enabling quick access to resources that are available via your browser. They’ve got the same information it’s simply been reformatted and repackaged for your mobile device. These devices are rarely going to result in a wow moment…they might (if lucky) elicit a ‘thats cool’ from their user. This brief and generally mediocre moment of enlightenment is created usually not from because of the opportunities presented by the app or it’s design rather the fact that the information is available.

Type two apps

Type two apps don’t simply reproduce the same content but hint at the possibility that they may have recognized that the new format/medium presents innovative opportunities to users. Whilst I would argue against McLuhan’s proposition that the “medium is the message” you can’t not take advantage of the opportunities of the medium when it arises. It may be a subtle difference to the website, a different navigation option, an expansion upon the utility previously available.

On first blush, the vast majority of apps can fall into the type two category because logically the app is going to appear different to the existing manifestation of the content  however there’s a difference between redesigning for a new mediums audience and simply transporting the same material /structure and content into a new medium. An example of a simple app which embraces some of the opportunities presented by the medium is the facebook app. When you use the app it requests permission to broadcast your location to highlight the fact that your updating your Facebook not from a desk but from a location and when your using the app on your phone it provides you the opportunity to use a different messaging system and to integrate your Facebook contacts with your phone contacts. the functionality and purpose of the product hasn’t been dramatically transformed (you don’t want it too) but it’s presented some new opportunities to you – to match Facebook profiles with numbers and direct links to connect with friends over Facebook via your contacts list. So what does it do? Firstly and most importantly it does what you expect and want it to do but it also does some new unexpected things which take advantage of the nature of the medium you are using. 

Type three 

And finally there’s the third type of app. The best way to describe this type of app is that it could not have existed but for mobile technology. It is a rare find but the type three app have taken full advantage of the opportunities afforded by the medium embracing the unique characteristics of the technology. This may include:

  • digitising and/or mobilising something that was previously incapable of digitisation
  • creating something new 
  • a new opportunity to create or develop information

Now often these type three apps only have a brief sparkling moment because the new ability created is very quickly normalised, adopted and integrated into other apps and seamlessly coming to you through the updates. So whats an example for a type three app? The answer is what is regarded as a type three app is highly subjective. That oh my god! moment varies from person to person, its comparable to what people find striking in photography. Roland Barthes argued that there are the elements of a photograph are striking to the individual were striking because of the background or personal meaning enlivened by the image – the memory it evokes, the familiarity of the subject etc. Apps attain their spark for the user in a similar manner however there is more serendipity associated with the discovery because of the “newness” of type three apps. The apps wow factor can be attributed to it filling a gap – be it realised or unrealised. This gap varies from user to user. This dependence on the user only proves to show just how much the perceived value of the app is contingent upon the individual actions and perspectives of the user.

To be continued – the perspectives/behaviours of the user that make good apps great. 


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