I recently came across a series of posts that have me rethinking apps. Check out the Intercom blog where they discuss the idea of the smartphone evolving beyond it’s current app-centered experience. Paul Adams has written great posts here and here. Check them out; definitely worth a read.
Apps, while providing a useful service experience initially, are starting to bristle at their limitations. The problem is (with everything) context. You’re using the Facebook mobile app, browsing your timeline, and want to send off a quick message to a friend. You tap the Messenger icon and now the new app opens, taking you out of Facebook Mobile. Once you’ve sent your message, you need to close the Messenger app and reopen Facebook. Hope the two apps are kept side by side on your phone, otherwise you’ll need to navigate to the appropriate screen just to return to what you were doing initially (browsing Facebook).
Apple has started to address this problem by incorporating “Back to ______” links in iOS that return users to the originating app. This is immediately helpful and something we all asked “where was this all along?” after having to suffer without such an obvious fix.
This is a start, but it is also only addressing the symptom (frustration from being redirected out of an app and having to find a way back). The real opportunity is to break down the silo’d experience and allow for multiple relevant services to be available within an app. And this is where context matters.
If you type a day or time into a text message, that wording is presented to the user as a link. Invoke that link and the phone asks if you would like to turn it into a calendar event. Similarly, if you type an address into your Gmail message, you’re asked if you want to look at the address in Google Maps.
These are examples of companies (Apple and Google) packaging different services together and triggering them at appropriate times (context). The challenge though is that they are services offered by the same company. More value to the user will be when the services offered come from different companies.
In this, Uber is leading the way. It’s been written about in many places, but now users can request an Uber from Facebook Messenger, for example. This is providing relevant services in context while breaking the arbitrary boundaries of an app (you don’t have to open Uber to order an Uber). Similarly, it is now possible to use Venmo to pay for things through other apps.
The current experience of apps on a mobile device — several pages of individual apps laid out, each offering a discrete experience — prevents collaboration of related services from multiple companies. This framework though is starting to be chipped away. This is most definitely a good thing.