Written by Javier Soltero, June 11, 2014
When Apple introduced the world to the iPhone in 2007, it launched a revolution around the concept of an app. They spent hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising to educate consumers that “there’s an app for that.” It wrote the iOS Human Interface Guidelines (HIG) to steer developers toward designing apps that were streamlined, simple and did one thing exceptionally well. It raised the bar for better design on mobile around a philosophy of “one app, one purpose.” Through this, Apple took a stance toward unbundled app design.
Last week, at WWDC 2014, Apple previewed iOS 8, which introduces the concept of “Extensions” as a way to enable apps to interact with each other in ways previous versions of iOS did not allow. We’ll get into more of that later. But to understand why this is significant, we first have to look at how just how much Apple’s design philosophy from its mobile platform has had on all digital platforms, especially the Web.
On the Web, There’s Still a Bundle for That
On the web, tabbed, multi-mode applications still exist but feel noisy by contrast to the more single-purpose design trend on mobile. Just visit United’s site to book airfare for a reminder of classic web app design. Hello car rentals, hotels, vacation planning and a million other things. This type of bundled approach arguably doesn’t work well on the web, but competing business goals coupled with generous screen real estate have led web designers to pack the screen with as much content as possible. On the mobile side, the exact opposite has become true. Limited screen space forced companies like United Airlines to build a simple mobile interface designed around one thing: getting you on an airplane. The HIG worked.
This disciplined approach to mobile app design has helped bring new levels of visual polish to apps. It has also introduced completely different ways for us to interact with massive amounts of information. One of the best examples of this is Tinder, the popular social dating app.
Blending Form and Function on Mobile
Tinder’s sole purpose is to help you meet people (what you do after that is beyond the scope of any app). The beauty of Tinder’s design is how it makes browsing large numbers of people easy and fun. Rather than displaying a scrolling list, the designers combined navigating a list with expressing interest in someone by using intuitive swipe gestures. The result is a more engaging experience for users. It’s a well-executed single purpose app with the right mobile gesture interface. The success of mobile-first apps like Tinder and Snapchat, among others, has led many brands (including our friends at United) to refine their functionality for mobile.
Facebook, one of the most used mobile apps, is caught in the middle of this debate as it tries to reconcile core functionality like the News Feed with additional functionality from its messaging platform, as well as various other apps it has acquired over the years. At the heart of this dilemma is Facebook’s core mobile app. Today, it combines a raft of features, including many that users may not know about, since they’re buried inside the “More” menu. And those features were likely placed there in the first place, because they’re secondary to the core experience. Facebook’s recent efforts to introduce and promote dedicated apps like Messenger and Paper suggest they too believe Facebook functionality merits a series of apps versus the previous all-in-one approach. It won’t be a surprise to see Facebook use iOS 8 to guide users between its various single-purpose apps, with the goal of keeping people within the Facebook ecosystem as much as possible. Additionally, Facebook’s tremendous reach has enabled it to get iOS level integration that few other developers will ever get.
To Bundle or Not to Bundle?
Does Facebook’s potential unbundling or the success of focused apps like Tinder and Instagram mean there’s no room for multi-function apps in a mobile world? No. In fact, as our team at Acompli looked at this problem from the perspective of building the ideal mobile email app, we found the best example of why some apps need to be multi-function experiences. See if you recognize it. It’s on every iPhone.
The current built-in iOS Apple phone app is actually a combination of many applications packed together into a single experience — Call Dialer, FaceTime, Contacts, Visual Voicemail, Call Log and VIP list — all accessible behind one app icon. Why? Because unbundling these components would make using the telephone functionality of the iPhone extremely painful. Sure, the Contacts app is separate from the phone app, but ask yourself: how often do you go to the contacts app from outside of the phone? Almost never. Why? Because the two main reasons you’d go there would be to find someone’s phone number or email address. Both of those operations are best accessed by going to either the phone app or the email app. And this is where the biggest contradiction exists in Apple’s argument that apps should be unbundled. While iOS 8 may begin to address some of this, unwinding this position must be done delicately.
Bundle What People Need
This inconsistency in the otherwise unbundled design of iOS 7 stands out. The folks who designed iOS 7 and its core apps have remained largely devoted to their single-purpose religion save for this specific but glaring case where they opted to have the ‘phone’ part of the iPhone remain a bundled app experience. iOS 8 appears to remedy some of the problematic legacy decisions Apple made along the way by making it easier to access functionality between apps.
Among the new features of iOS 8 revealed at WWDC, Apple introduced app extensions and interactive notifications. These two features aim to reduce the need for app switching. Extensions are designed to allow 3rd party apps to interact with each other (though as Ars Technica covers in their great writeup, technically apps still cant talk directly to one another). Interactive notifications allow you to handle a limited action related to a different app without leaving the app you’re in. For example, borrowing from Android, as a message appears in the notification bar overlaid on top of the current app, you can tap out a message right there and send it without leaving your app. This eliminates the jarring experience of having to close the app, open the other, and then return to the app you left. Similar quick actions can be taken related to accepting calendar invites and snoozing meetings. Interactive notifications are handled at the OS level and third party developers can leverage interactive notifications.
This push toward a more seamless, selectively bundled experience makes sense. And with this move, Apple reveals its position within the broader “bundling versus unbundling” industry debate. It’s clear that their desire for design consistency, security and streamlined experiences continues to define how they expect people to interact with their phones. In most cases, like the ones mentioned above, this is the right call. However, as Apple itself proves with its still-very-bundled phone app, sometimes people want to get things done without jumping around all over the place. Acompli faced this question a year ago when we began building our own email and calendar application for iOS7. Our approach started with understanding desired workflows on the phone. This revealed that especially calendar management and file sharing have to be intertwined into the email experience. With some of the ways iOS 8 allows quick responses (e.g., accepting a calendar invite) while in another app, this will help Acompli accelerate its ability to better enable work flows for professionals from within our app. Extensions will also allow us to deliver better integrations with apps that enable people to extend the integrated email/calendar/files experience we provide with other powerful features. There’s also a broad range of other things in iOS 8 and Yosemite that will help Acompli continue to push the envelope of professional productivity on the iPhone. We’re excited to explore the possibilities afforded by iOS 8, and look forward to getting those into the hands of consumers when iOS becomes available this Fall.
Latest posts by Javier Soltero (see all)
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