Apps Are Just Little Websites in Cheap Fur Coats

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By Ellen Beldner (Director of User Experience, Groupon) While on the London Underground I saw a poster advertising Potiche, a movie starring Catherine Deneuve, who I think is the bees' knees. I made a note to myself to research it when I got back to WiFi.

Back on my iPad, I opened Safari and Googled for [ Potiche movie ]. The first couple of results were for IMDB (installed on my iPad) and Rotten Tomatoes (I may or may not have Flixter). Both sites took me to splash screens that suggested I download their apps. I got to thinking about why I'd gone to Google instead of using the native apps.

Ever since I discovered Google in 1999, my strategy has been the same. I go to the same reliable location (Google.com, or more recently, my browser address bar), type what I want, and I either get lucky and am there, or I click on one of the first couple of results.

It was more cognitive load for me to have to think about whether I already had the app on my device or not, and then I'd maybe swipe around to see whether it was there or not, and then open the app and enter my query. I did what I've been doing for 10 years: type what I want and get the answer, only this time I got interrupted and had to ponder whether I would use this installed thingy or the website thingy.

Technically, the only difference between an installed app and a website is that the app has access to more of your device's hardware. Platonically, from a human-need perspective, they're the exact same thing: A collection of tools and information that lets you do something.

  • It's a particular garden or destination.
  • You have to learn that it exists.
  • You have to understand what functionality it offers or what tasks it lets you accomplish.
  • You have to know how to navigate to it.
  • You have to learn how to use it.
  • You have to establish a relationship with it: by downloading, creating an account; paying for it.
  • You have to remember it the next time you want to use it.

I don't have a ton of apps on either my iPhone or my iPad, especially compared to some people I know. If I don't find an app useful, I delete it; they add too much clutter and overhead. Some of my friends use folders on their home screen to organize their apps (I've started doing this recently for certain categories that I use occasionally -- like travel-related apps: Onavo, SPG, Skype, AirBnB, TripIt).

A couple of friends almost exclusively use the iPhone search screen to get to their apps. I almost never use Search, although as I get more apps, I'm starting to use Search to navigate to the one I want. It's starting to be faster than browsing (and using spatial memory) to get to the thing I need.

Aside from apps' technical capabilities (which are blurring as HTML5 webapps via the browser are granted more capabilities), apps are no more than bookmarks used to be pre-Google. They're pointers to functionality. Right now they graphically represent space on your start screen, but this isn't scalable for the same reason that Yahoo's and Google's site directories didn't scale. There were too many sites, and there are / will be too many apps to use spatial navigation to get to more than a few.

As we install more apps, and the number of apps to choose from becomes greater, we're simply recapitulating the same problem that Google solved for websites in 1999 or so. We'll have to develop a navigational and / or search-based approach to get to the functionality that's available via our computing devices.

Moreover, the delineation between "app that is currently installed on my device" and "app that exists but is not yet on my phone" is going to blur. If I want to OCR some text let me search for [ OCR ]. If I have an app with this functionality, take me to the app. If I don't, find the best app in the apposphere and let me use it.

For the same reason that the Google search box became the way to navigate the web(1), an equivalent search field -- effectively, a command-line interface -- may become the main way that people navigate the world available to them on their mobile devices. The major caveat is that it's mechanically more difficult to type on mobile devices, so query-driven interfaces can be extra-punishing.

Apps are no different from websites. They just have special permissions to use my device's hardware. We'll need to solve the same problem for the app world that we did with the website world.

(1) Google saw such a large proportion of navigational queries -- I personally loved the ones like [yahoo.com] -- that it became the design basis for Chrome's combined URL and query input bar.

This post was originally posted at ellenbeldner.info.

Editor's note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below. About the guest blogger: Ellen Beldner is the Director of User Experience at Groupon. She was the first employee of ChoiceVendor, a B2B startup acquired by LinkedIn in September 2010, and before that spent over 5 years as a UX designer at YouTube and Google. Her areas of interest include business software, the role of design in software development, and high-efficiency interfaces. She studied Human-Computer Interaction at Carnegie Mellon University, and blogs at ellenbeldner.info. Follow her on Twitter at @ellenbeldner.