Hundred year old lessons in app development

Article by

John Newbold
Design Director & Partner

John Newbold

John Newbold

Design Director & Partner

This post was originally written and published for 12Ahead

In 1891 Karl Elsener developed a useful device that would find it’s way in to millions of people’s pockets. The device was iconic and multi-use; with a couple of touches a person could perform a number of different tasks, shut it down, then slip it back in their pocket to be used again later on. As time passed, other tasks emerged that people needed help with. Designers began to imagine new applications for the device, developing new extensions, refining the hardware and driving more utility from the same object. Sounds familiar, right?

It’s been 7 years since Apple reinvented the way we see the mobile phone and introduced a new type of useful device in to our pockets. However, in the hundred or so years that have passed since the creation of the Swiss Army Knife, the synergy of technology, utility and design has remained a winning formula. And, just like the knife, look at any persons Android or iOS home screen and you’ll see that beyond the usual social networking apps the other ways we equip our phones are almost exclusively around the most ‘useful’ things. In fact, in most cases research shows that the average person uses fewer than 10 apps regularly on their phone, and barring the odd game, you’ll notice that almost exclusively those are the apps that offer the most utility.

So, if utility drives how people customise their app choices, how should app developers and brands be considering utility when making new things?

Build technologies, not just applications

Making a device that is useful out of the box is a key objective for both Google and Apple when developing their operating systems. And, as time has passed, more and more utility that was previously offered in standalone apps has migrated across to their OS. In the developer community this has become known as being ‘sherlocked’; where an app developer finds that the functionality once uniquely offered by them is suddenly present in a system update from the OS manufacturer. However, in cases where an applications utility is driven by an underlying technology, this can sometimes be great news for the companies involved.

technology in to Siri and iOS8 will drive far more usage than they could have previously expected as a standalone app.

Beyond partnerships, both Google and Apple have track records of acquiring companies whose useful technologies could add value to the OS at a native level.

Amongst a host of acquisitions this year Apple acquired SnappyLabs, whose technology previously allowed for better burst mode photography in their iOS app SnappyCam. Similarly, Songza, a music discovery application which had throughout 2012 and 2013 topped the charts on both Apple and Google’s app stores, was acquired by Google this year for a figure speculated to be between $15 million and $39 million.

Understand the ecosystem of utility within the OS

Each year, both Apple and Google release hundreds, if not thousands, or new APIs for developers to make use of. At a basic level, these can be understood as new ways for developers to integrate their apps or ideas more elegantly with the new features introduced at an operating system level. Often, despite this new opportunity, many developers and brands are slow to capitalise on how these features could be used to make useful things.

Take Passbook, Apple’s virtual card storage wallet, for example. Since being introduced in 2012 very few retailers have come up with decent integrations. However, in the case of Starbucks, they have a wildly popular loyalty app which is deeply integrated with Passbook. As of June 2014, Starbucks stated that over 15% of their 6 million weekly transactions were now happening via their mobile app. Similarly, look at iBeacons; a technology now over a year old, but one where useful examples are still few and far between. And, with the prevailing winds of mobile payments systems such as Apple Pay and Google Wallet on the horizon, it’s key that developers stay in touch with new OS technologies, to stay relevant in the app charts.

Do as Elsener did

So then, what’s the overarching lesson from the last hundred years of useful devices in our pockets? It’s probably, to do as Elsner did. Firstly, find a compelling reason for someone to want to take the device out their pocket. Secondly, create something genuinely useful that solves a human problem. Thirdly, design a tool that is elegantly integrated with the other things around it, remembering that ultimately the user only ever sees one experience.