Design trend: Micro-apps

The debate about should apps be native or hybrid seems to go on, but design-wise there seems to be a trend to limit the scope of mobile apps. Google recently released Allo and Duo, its messenger and videochat apps. Google Photos app is a widely popular around the globe. Adobe has launched at least four apps with the Photoshop tag (Photoshop Express, Photoshop Fix, Photoshop Mix and Photoshop Sketch). Several other companies are following suite, dissecting their monolithic core applications to smaller more digestible bits.

These apps have a very limited set of features and they focus on doing one thing well. These are micro-apps.

One of biggest and best moves Facebook has done is severing its messenger app from its core app. There is a good article about the subject on medium called “This is the smartest thing Facebook ever did” (link). Streamlining message sending allowed a larger user base and a better user experience.

The Photoshop desktop client is massive. It’s impossible to do a mobile app that has all the same features and retains the usability and experience of the desktop client. That’s why Adobe has picked use-cases and sliced the experience into micro-apps that answer important use cases.

Google Photos answers one simple need; to have your photos always available. The interface is simple and most importantly the purpose of the app is very easy to understand and explain. Google Photos is Google+ taken to its simplest core. A micro-app created from a larger thing.

Duo is a video chat app that was recently followed by Google’s messenger app Allo. When the two apps were announced a lot of people were puzzled why Google was making two apps instead of one. One answer to that question is: to lower complexity. The user interface can be streamlined and made simple, easy to understand and uncluttered. Duo is in fact the first video chat app on Android that I can give to my father which he can actually use.

Duo’s clutter-free UI

What we as designers many times take for granted is the level of knowledge a basic user has. Assuming users understand more than they do is a trap I’ve fallen for myself as well. One way to remind oneself of the skill set of the average user is to go and watch usability tests. Something tech savvy people find easy to use can be overwhelming to a normal user. (like pinch-zooming)

I’ve personally witnessed Angry Birds Rio being tested. It was impossible for some users to realize that in one level you actually had to shoot the birds in a different angle downwards. The moderator had to interfere with the test after a user had been shooting the same rock for around 10 minutes.

Technology is difficult. Turning on the TV in my home can be difficult, because you might have to do the following operation:

  1. Turn on TV, speakers and set top-box(three different switches)
  2. Choose from 2 different remote controls the right one and then switch the input to the correct HDMI.
  3. Use the OTHER remote to change channels and control the TV.

Turning on the TV used to be simple, like a micro-app; turn on the power and you can watch TV. Easy and intuitive. Something apps should aim for as well. Adding features shouldn’t come with a cost of added complexity, even though that will eventually happen if you keep on adding features.

Old TVs had pretty intuitive user interfaces (pic by Pawel Kadysz)

Why micro-apps are getting the spotlight?

  1. Usability and efficiency. Apps are getting too complicated, doing too much. People don’t know how to use them and have little patience to learn. If an app seems to difficult to use, it will get removed from the phone.
  2. The rise of AI and natural language interfaces. I wouldn’t see it as an implausible future that apps as we know them will be moved into the background. Android could evolve into an OS with Google Assistant in the center that will be able to fetch any needed interface on request. Want to buy some clothes of Zalando? Then just tell your phone “Show me some jeans at Zalando” and the UI will be produced without you ever installing the app. (We see hints of this already happening). Designers will need to start designing apps so that each section will be an independent module that can be produced out of context at any given time, but still be usable and understandable.
  3. Limited scope and time to market. Getting your product to market in the right time frame is an important factor in the success of your product after development kickoff. By limiting the scope of your application you allow more time for iteration thus increasing quality and also potentially reducing the time to market.
  4. Understandability. This is a critical factor in making or breaking an app often overlooked in the enthusiasm of creating new things. It should always be possible to explain the purpose of an app in one sentence or just by glancing at it. Users install 0–3 new apps per month, if something seems difficult or hard to understand it won’t make it to the list. In a way apps are like jokes - if you need to explain it, it’s not very good.

Wrap up

Which direction do you think app design is going? Will apps still be integral to the mobile experience, or will they fade away to even smaller pieces of interface called on demand? Are large apps dead? Please share your thoughts and comments below.

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