What does the future hold for developers who currently build, or want to build, apps? I’ve been reflecting on where we’ve come from and thinking about what’s coming next.
Until about 15 years ago they were just called phones, but then they started to come in two classes. The more capable and feature rich ones were called “smartphones”, the others were called “feature phones”. Or if feeling less polite “dumb phones”.
Smartphones brought apps to the masses. Many phones had the ability to install and run apps before then but it wasn’t until 2007/8 that installing apps on smartphones became something everyone thought about.
The first apps were mostly very basic and did little more than was also possible on a website (if one existed). It was a time when many people felt it was more important to have an app than to be concerned with what app did. The novelty soon wore off and people quickly realized apps needed to do more than just exist.
This led to what many called apps 2.0. The aim was to provide real value, take advantage of the unique opportunities running on a mobile device offers, and to get a return on, or at least justify the expense of, building and maintaining an app. This has served us well for the last few years but we’re starting to see a trend towards something new.
As the power of big data and machine learning drive what’s possible technically on a server, the use of AI is now easier, or at least a possibility for most organization. Additionally, the rise of natural language input, personal assistants and a growing interest in conversational bots show a desire for a change in the way people want to interact with apps. These two factors present an opportunity to advance what apps do and allow us to take the next big step in the evolution of mobile apps.
If you like sequential numbers, you could call this apps 3.0 but I like to think of them as Smart apps
It’s tempting to call any app that runs on a smart device as a smart app but the fact there’s an overwhelming number of apps which are slow, difficult to use, limited in capability or just have a clumsy UX makes it hard to call them smart. Some people are approaching the challenge of creating something smart by trying to tackle purely technical challenges. This isn’t always the same as being smart either. Doing something highly challenging or difficult with technology may enable something smart but it isn’t the whole picture.
People want and deserve more than just having a new label applied to what already exists or a lot of processing under the hood so as we move into this new opportunity, I have defined five characteristics of smart apps:
1. Sophisticated, not complicated
Smart apps contain advanced, useful features but are still simple and intuitive to use. It’s great when new features and functionality are available but if a person’s unable to work out how to set things up, grasp what’s possible or understand what the app returns then it’s wasted effort. The implication is that a true understanding of good UX and an ability to apply UX principles to all parts of an app will become increasingly important.
2. Truly personal
As more people use an app it becomes harder to justify showing them all the same thing and claim it’s relevant to all of them as equally. People want tailored experiences in their apps. Customization’s great but smart apps don’t rely solely on manual configuration. Instead, smart apps learn from usage and take advantage of multiple input sources where they are appropriate. The aim is for smart apps to become a contributor in making an individual’s life better, not just a thing people use. To create such experiences won’t just require development abilities but the targeting, customization, and analysis skills of marketeers and data scientists.
3. Connected and connecting
Smart apps, like the people who use them, don’t exist in isolation. They transition seamlessly between different network states and don’t require the person using them to consider whether they are online and in doing so allow people to connect and relationships to be enriched. They are rich in capability and do more than just allow a person to share information or connect to a social network. Their level of integration is deeply engrained in their core and allows deep integration across services and the different devices a person uses as part of their omnichannel lifestyle. The creation of these apps requires systems integration skills and an ability to develop for multiple platforms.
4. Relevant and timely
A smart app does more than just display the same information as can be seen elsewhere. It takes advantage of the unique features of being “mobile” including how and when a person interacts with an app to provide a relevant, contextual experience that crosses multiple devices. It’s also responsible about what it does and when. A smart app understands it isn’t appropriate to notify a person about everything that happens and wants to give back time to the person using it, not require them to do more. The app enables someone to get more while doing less by being a servant. It isn’t a master demanding action of a person, nor is it insecure and always shouting for attention. The creation of relevant and timely apps requires a level of psychological understanding and empathy with the people using them.
5. Proven but not boastful or creepy
While “smart” has been prefixed on almost every type of device or appliance with an internet connection or basic processing capabilities we need to do more to justify the use of the term. Allow people to see the value the app provides without the need to talk about how it did it. Let people know about things they might otherwise miss out on when you know it’s valuable or interesting to them. There’s no need to tell them how much work you did in the background to get to that point. Smart apps don’t talk about how great they are they simply make the person using them a bit more awesome. As doing this means integrating more deeply with people’s physical and online lives there’s a need for transparency not just from a legal perspective but to build a solid relationship with the user. A smart app may surprise a person with the quality of the information they present but never leave a person wondering how the app “knew” something or thinking it’s creepy. A key way of doing this is to give people control over their data (and metadata). Let people know what you know about them and let them modify or reset this as they wish. This openness builds trust and confidence with the person using it that’ll keep them using it in the future.
Some people have expressed concerns about the future of apps and are reluctant to make changes. To assume apps will stay as they are is naïve. Just consider how they’ve changed in the last ten years. The apps being built in 2006 are very different from what’s created today and what people are demanding is created next. The ways people consume apps and services will change and advance beyond the devices and interfaces used now but the above principles of smart apps can still be applied. To really embrace the coming smart apps future, you may need to think beyond apps as we use the term now and simply consider them as interfaces to smart services. This’ll mean learning new skills and techniques but your ability to learn new things and create new experiences is one of the factors that allow you to be among the best at what you do and create a better world for the people who interact with your work (apps).
By Matt Lacey,
Matt is a Software developer with 13+ year experience and specialising in Mobile and .NET technologies.