Can We Please Stop Making Worthless Apps Now?

How the tech industry collectively wastes its intelligence.


Podcast Version

Remember when everything looked like this?

If you’re about 30+, you should also remember the Dark Ages of the command prompt:

I think we’re all happy that mainstream software design now caters to the sensibilities of regular humans instead of computer nerds. Over the years we’ve moved from utility, to usability, to user experience. It’s not just about what people can do with an application, but also how the software can help them enjoy doing it. It often comes down to the details of interaction design, like giving the user satisfying feedback to their actions:

Tumblr’s animation when you add or remove a post to your favorites.

Or easing the pain of error messages with something ridiculous:

Reddit error screen concept by illustrator Marie-Judith (mariejudith.com)

No longer are apps expected to dress in Windows 95 business formal and speak in technical jargon. They can be colorful, playful, even delightfully absurd. The tech industry has finally embraced the sage advice of Willy Wonka:

A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.

A little, yes, but in the past few years things have really gotten out of hand. For young designers and developers, it seems nonsense is becoming the default career path. Levity and originality are great things, but chasing them at the expense of meaningful goals is quite another. Unfortunately, that’s what we have done. If you work in tech, you probably spend most of your time creating glorified advertisements and contrived novelty experiences that will have little to no positive impact on society, ever.

In The Best Interface is No Interface, Designer Golden Krishna captures our predicament well:

Forget that 780 million people in the world, give or take, don’t have access to clean drinking water, or that more than half a million people are homeless in the wealthy United States. We moved way past “mundane” social issues and collectively propelled the technology field — where disruption and innovation have a proven track record of changing everyday lives — to giving the world what it really needs: more mobile apps.

He goes on to explain how our blind love for touch screens caused BMW to create a smartphone app that unlocks your car door — in 13 easy steps. Yes, thirteen, and I hope you have some battery life left. I wonder if the designers stopped trifling with rounded corners long enough to ask how the app in any way aided the user. I suspect they did, but BMW created it anyway because it was flashy, it was modern, it was a new experience. Plain old car keys are easier, you say? Users don’t need to be served, they need to be seduced. Tits or GTFO.

Let’s return for a moment to the command prompt, aka the Terminal. Plain text and a blinking cursor. It’s neither pretty nor friendly. But compared to a 13-step door opener, there is something noble in its guileless utility. What it lacks in charisma, it makes up for in brains. So much so that it’s a lifelong companion to every skilled developer I know. It is a bit like a finely honed chef’s knife: at first glance it’s unwieldy and intimidating, but in skilled hands, its efficiency and versatility are unrivaled.

A kitchen tool on the opposite end of the design spectrum is this plastic thingy that cracks eggs.

Let’s not be too disparaging here. It’s not completely useless. The design is kind of clever. But it addresses an insignificant “problem” with an over-engineered solution nobody asked for. The market for such products relies on eliciting a sense of wonder from gullible, impulsive consumers. So I have to wonder, don’t the designers feel bad about what they’re making? Did the creator of the EZ Cracker ever have a sinking feeling… that he was squandering his talent, even if it sold well?

Now imagine a kitchen cluttered with infomercial contraptions: an avocado slicer, a mango corer, a garlic zoom, an onion chopper. A huge collection of marginally useful, ultra-specialized impulse buys. That’s basically the tech industry today.

Oscar Wilde said the only possible excuse for creating something useless is that one admires it intensely. At some point, the tech community subscribed to a different design ethos: the only excuse not to create a useless thing is lack of funding.

That ethos has extended beyond the fringes of the industry and now comprises its core. It seems every business and website has an annoying app that offers nothing to the user beyond being advertised to, probably because their marketing team reads too many Forbes articles. The paragons of the industry are the companies that find unnecessary ways to appify and brand normal social interaction. And the tech community worships Apple devoutly as ever, even as the once proud innovator steadily devolves into a fashion company pedaling gold watches and shitty headphones.

That’s not to mention the recent eruption of companies like Yo, a deliberately pointless app currently valued at $10 million. Apparently now you don’t even have to pretend to innovate or make something useful in order to get investment. And why was Titstare (yes it’s for staring at tits) even allowed on the stage at TechCrunch Disrupt? Disruption is supposed to be about innovation rendering old business models obsolete. Is it just another vacuous buzzword already?

I can’t help but suspect designers and developers have lost their desire to contribute to society. They float like driftwood upon market trends, unconcerned with the objective humanitarian merits of their work. We’ve created an environment where a tech company is admired not for the significance of its purpose but only for the size of its user base.

Is it really a surprise, then, when tech founders act as juvenile as the products they create? Like when the CEO of Snapchat, a man who built his wealth on teens sending each other jokes and dick pics, turned out to be a douchey fratboy? Or when a co-founder of Tinder, an app mostly for getting laid by strangers, was sued for his relentless sexual harassment? Again, these companies are not outliers; they have become the status quo, the so-called innovators for our community to blog about, celebrate and envy.

As entertaining as it is to be in an industry where useless products with no business model get millions in VC money, the rest of the world needs the tech community to re-center on a more benevolent design ethos.

If that sounds quixotic, look at what software creators are doing outside of the first-world’s limelight. Hear Toby Shapshak explain how Africans use their phones to verify medications and run dairy farms. See how PulsePoint is crowdsourcing emergency response. Watch the American Red Cross churn out life-saving smartphone apps one after another.

And this is just the beginning. Software design is still a young discipline, and there are numberless real-world problems awaiting an elegant answer like only software can provide. So can we not waste our careers on our industry’s equivalents of infomercial gadgets and novelty toys? There is too much real work yet to be done.