UX Trend for 2016: Experience over multiple apps

Facebook took Messenger out of its core product into a standalone app (and tried several times to build apps around other Facebook features), Foursquare made Swarm, LinkedIn made Pulse (and a bunch of others), Instagram made Layout, Hyperlapse and Boomerang, Google with Drive, Spreadsheet, Doc, etc…; other exemple can be found all over the AppStore.

More and more large services are now proposing suites of apps instead of one, centralized app, and I believe it will be trend in 2016, as more and more apps are growling large. So let’s answer a few questions:

  • Why is it happening ?
  • What are the technics behind multiple apps ?
  • Should you be having a multiple app strategy ?
  • How about the design challenges ?

I’ll talk about iOS specifically here, but most of what is described here has an Android equivalent of some kind.

Why it happens

July 11th 2008: AppStore opens, it has 500 apps.
Almost 8 years later, the AppStore is now filled with more apps than we can count.

At first, apps were designed as companions for desktop/web based services. Experienced soon showed that in many cases, and despite the small screen size, the phone was to be the primary interaction platform to access services, and accordingly, apps would no longer be the lighter version of larger experience but the experience in itself.

With time, the maturity of a lot of services came with an increasing complexity and depth, and designers dealt with this by creating new design patterns like smarter menus (ahh, Hamburger menu), gestures (Swipes), long press, 3D touch, cards, timelines etc…; phones also got bigger to make more room for the content and the interaction.

Despite all this, it is sometimes difficult to maintain simplicity and discoverability of features in a feature crowded app.

How it works

Apple built several tools over the years that makes this possible.

Links between apps

Deeplinks are URLs for apps. Push a button in one app (or website), iOS will take you to another app, at the right page. It’s the core element allowing experience over multiple apps.

In the case of Instagram, they added what looks like edit options.
The choice of picto underline that strategy; it is not the Boomerang logo, but pictogram that signifies the infinite loop of animations created in Boomerang. Same goes for Layout. The close button in the Boomerang app only exists if the user comes from Instagram and send the user back its starting point. It is almost seamless.

Instagram’s multi-app journey

Google Drive adopts a similar strategy. If the user tries to edit a Google document, he is redirected into the right app. In this app, the back button brings the user back to Drive:

Google Drive’s multi-app journey

App detection

One app is capable of knowing which over apps are present on the system and react accordingly. Instagram uses to present its standalone apps instead of redirecting users, LinkedIn displays a list of its standalone apps mixing shortcuts to the apps already on the system and to the AppStore for the others:

Instagram introducing Boomerang on the right, LinkedIn’s standalone app list.

Credentials & Data sharing

Log in one app, share the account settings with the over apps from the same developer. It makes the journey a lot easier.

LinkedIn Pulse and Google’s simplified login.

“Back to initial app”

A link back to the app the user’s come from is automatically created in the Status Bar, on the top left of the screen.

Facebook uses the default iOS9 back button.

Make the decision

Design decisions are always a tradeoff. Multiple apps experiences won’t work for everyone. It adds complexity (the user needs to download several apps, switch from app to app). To make up for it, it needs to generate simplicity on over levels.

If you have trouble describing your app’s purpose in one sentence, choosing what the core feature is, if you constantly feel like you are pushing the walls, it is probably that your app is doing too much. It may be time to trash parts of it, or to split the experience. It is not always possible, nor does it always makes sens.

If your app is all about efficiency to do one thing perfectly, then it might be worth splitting side ideas in over apps to preserve performances.

If you want to build momentum around a feature that you feel is very important, consider building an app around it and fit it in your core product through smart contact points.

Design Challenges

The essential challenge is to find meaningful ways to split the experience.

Every app needs to be self sufficient, and the whole needs to be greater than the sum of its parts. Instagram is a great exemple of that. Side apps are neat, simple tools of creation and the core app is there to share the creations. The contact points between the apps are obvious.

Another challenge is consistency. You’ll need to structure code and design in way that makes it possible to share screen structures, components, user flows. Ideally, do not split your design teams, do not split your dev teams. If you do need to (like Google, I guess), then prepare to have strong guidelines, tools to share code, and spend time evangelizing.

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