How did app stores forget the user experience?

It has been interesting to observe how much of the debate about application stores has been about the needs of the industry rather than the needs of the consumer. Amid all the discussion about Apple’s vetting policies, RIM’s minimum pricepoints and the revenue shares offered by each of the major players, who’s really stopping to think about what matters to the end customers, the people who ultimately provide the revenue stream for this industry?

In today’s newsletter I’d like to explore the topic in more depth: reviewing the current user experience of the major stores, questioning whether the industry is on the right path for growth and suggesting some focus areas for making things better.

One of our key Manifesto statements for the MEX Conference next month (19th – 20th May, London) challenges the industry to think differently about this area. MEX Manifesto #1 reads:

“We believe…current app stores are little more than glorified lists. They are time consuming to browse and innovative applications are often buried by poor interface design. The opportunity is for a next generation provider to transcend the traditional scrolling list and establish market leadership through innovative UI design, an open approach to commercial partnerships and advanced customer understanding.”

You can read full details of this Manifesto statement here.

The app store experience today

Let’s think about the user experience of app stores as it stands today. Imagine you are a customer accessing the iPhone App Store, Android Market or Nokia Download for the first time.

Once you’ve located the correct icon or menu link to open the store, you’ll find an environment full of traditional UI methods imported from other platforms or applications.

The iPhone App Store and Android Market both employ scrolling lists, category hierarchies and keyword search to help customers find something they might want to buy. Other UI elements include star-based rating systems, different sorting options and a way to shortcut to other applications produced by the same developer.

The star-based rating system used on most app stores
The star-based rating system used on most app stores

Categorised browsing
Categorised browsing

Apple uses editorial highlights as the most effective way of merchandising applications
Apple uses editorial highlights as the most effective way of merchandising applications

They are essentially flat databases with a few visual tweaks to help users sort, browse and search the information contained within. As a result, the vast majority of customers focus their attention on applications highlighted by Apple’s and Google’s own editorial policies rather than content tailored for their personal preferences.

Nokia’s Download application is a little different. It currently uses an interface reminiscent of Windows 3.1 (circa. 1992) to present customers with a grid of folders and icons. When I accessed it to write this article, no fewer than 3 ‘Yes/No’ confirmation messages were required before I could even load any content I could interact with. First I was asked whether I wanted to download the catalogue, then if I wanted to connect to the internet and finally which access point I’d like to use.

The first of many confirmation messages
The first of many confirmation messages

The Windows 3.1-style interface, circa 1992
The Windows 3.1-style interface, circa 1992

Who am I doing business with: Nokia, Fox or Jamster?
Who am I doing business with: Nokia, Fox or Jamster?

My first attempt to explore further in the Download store generated another ‘Would you like to connect’ message, followed by an error warning and then asked me to agree to a disclaimer from a company I’d never heard of (Fox Mobile). I can only presume Nokia has outsourced management of the content in Download to Jamster, which is now part of Fox?

9 clicks, 6 of which were unnecessary confirmation or error messages, and I’d still not been presented with a single piece of content I could download, let alone something actually tailored to my individual interests.

I won’t be too harsh on Nokia Download as it is due to be replaced shortly by the new Ovi Store, but I do find it astounding the world’s largest handset manufacturer has allowed this application to ship on tens of millions of devices.

What do these problems mean for the industry?

The relative ‘success’ of the iPhone App Store is creating a problem for the mobile industry. It may have eclipsed the low benchmark established by previous application distribution attempts, but instead of prompting mobile innovators to think about how they can move beyond the iPhone experience, instead it has the market playing a game of catch-up.

I’m sure any executive at RIM, Nokia or Microsoft would freely admit they’d be delighted to achieve the 1 billion + downloads Apple seems to set to record in its first year. I’d argue they are aiming far too low. If Apple is achieving this with approximately 30m iPhone and iPod Touch customers, surely it suggests much greater potential for a store owner who can reach a larger proportion of the world’s 3.2 billion mobile customers?

We’ll be looking at the potential for change in much more detail at the MEX Conference on 19th – 20th May in London, when 100 of the mobile industry’s most creative thinkers will come together to create a collaborative response to the 8 point MEX Manifesto. You can take part in this think tank environment by registering to attend MEX.

A MEX recipe for change

To get you thinking ahead of the Conference, I wanted to highlight some of the areas where the industry can enhance the app store experience for customers:

    1. The user interface
    So much more can be done to improve the visual presentation and interaction flow of app stores. The current UI methodology of scrolling lists and categories is the digital equivalent of a grocery store which displays all of its 1000s of products on one huge wall a hundred metres long and 10 metres high.

    More thought also needs to be given to how app stores sit within the overall interaction framework of the mobile experience. The iPhone, for example, dedicates a single icon on the main screen to the app store, a feature which provides access to tens of thousands of pieces of content. It is rather like asking users to view an art gallery through a pin-sized hole in the wall. Surely there is a better way to let potentially interesting applications flow into other areas of the overall interaction framework?

    2. Payment mechanisms
    Nokia recently revealed 8 out of every 10 customers of its N-Gage gaming service prefer to pay for downloads using operator billing. However, Apple requires users to open an iTunes account, Google expects users to subscribe to Google Checkout and RIM is working with Paypal. Only Nokia seems to be making a serious effort to ensure users can pay for applications in the Ovi Store via operator billing. If you don’t accept a currency which the customer is willing to use, how do expect to make a sale?

    3. Harnessing network recommendation power
    Mobile phones are communication devices first and foremost. Indeed, one could argue human beings themselves have evolved primarily into communication-based creatures. Few of us make physical purchases without first taking some sort of consultation, either with someone who is with us in the store, by reading a trusted magazine review or contacting our social network of friends and family. How can the mobile industry make it as easy as possible for users to recommend, consult and evaluate the people, information sources and networks which convince us to make purchases?

    4. Dimensions beyond the screen
    Think about the mindset of a user buying a new handset or upgrading an existing device at a retail location. Their level of interest in learning about new mobile services is never higher than at that moment. However, only a tiny fraction of retailers make any attempt to sell users additional applications at this crucial point in the purchasing process.

    Why aren’t we equipping the retail network with interaction kiosks which allow users to explore the huge range of applications and automatically configure their device at the point of sale with compelling content? It is also an environment in which trained staff could help the customer to understand these features. Rather than offering dodgy cashback offers from the subscriber acquisition cost (SAC) budget, why not subsidise users’ first few application purchases?

Hopefully these suggestions will get you thinking about the MEX Manifesto Statement No. 1 in advance of the MEX Conference. Please feel free to take part in the debate by adding your comments to the MEX blog.

Speakers on this subject at the MEX Conference include Hampus Jakobsson, Founder and Vice President of Business Development at TAT, who will be exploring some of the cutting edge user interface techniques we can use to enhance app stores. We’ll then be involving everyone at the Conference in an interactive workshop, where independent app store pioneers like Neil Wooding (formerly of Handango), will help small working groups explore a series of challenges and questions on this statement.

You can take part in this think tank environment by registering to attend MEX.

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  1. 2
    Nico Koepke

    Hi guys great article, especially love the reference to Windows 3.1. Coming in from the music industry to mobile (a few years ago!), let me add that the “silo” mentality of handset manufacturers and carriers/operators makes it even worse. If there is a cool app, whether game, productivity or communication type, why wouldn’t I expect to get it on ANY decent smartphone? It’s a bit like forcing consumers to know that Madonna is a Warner artist, and Springsteen on Columbia which is Sony, and then go to their different record stores. And imnagine worse, Warner only takes PayPal! And the CD only plays in a special CD player only available from CD-RIM rather than CD-NOKIA. Good luck with making a proper mass market business out of that.

  2. 4
    Sachendra Yadav

    1. I think a better search mechanism should be there for discivering content.

    2. It’s easy to solve this one if operators stop being stubborn and unrealistic about the revenue share. Developers loved iPhone because it took operator out of the picture.

    3. Rating is defenitely helpful and must be used to push the content recommended directly by the users. However, expecting them to come back to the app store and rate/comment is way too much, I believe the rating mechanism should be built in the app itself which would update the rating/comment on the app store automatically.

    4. Fresh thinking here, would need tie up between app vendors and retail chains.

  3. 5
    Giuliano Maciocci

    I have a couple of small issues with your otherwise insightful article, from a pure user experience standpoint.

    First, you compare the current App Store experience with grocery shopping, neglecting to point out that grocery shopping is a common learned behaviour in the ‘analog’ world, and one which the average mobile user will be utterly familiar with. Which is why it works.

    User experience is not always about finding the cleverest way to do something, it’s about presenting new information using metaphors your target users will be familiar with. The grocery store is about as familiar a metaphor as you can find.

    My second point centers around your dismissal of a single access point (the App Store icon on the iPhone) as somewhat insufficient or inadequate for the purpose of presenting content to users. While I agree that there are ways the user experience can be enhanced with regards to discoverability (A good and properly integrated recommendations engine can do wonders in this area), there is a fine line between enhancing content discoverability and intruding in your users’ overall experience.

    It’s hard enough as a user experience designer in the field to keep mobile carriers from actively ‘spamming’ the contents of their app stores on users’ home screens with integrated links, banners, locked icons, menus etc. – a single point of access, albeit to a well-categorised listing of content, allows users to be in control of their own discovery experience.

    What seems to be missing right now is better contextual integration between the sort of content available in a typical App Store and the sort of information a user accesses through the mobile browser. Assuming an open mobile internet model (as opposed to walled garden, to be clear), there could be opportunities for the mobile browser to glean some insight as to the user’s general areas of interest, and feed that information to the device’s App Store for recommendation purposes.

    By observing what the user is actively interested in outside of a carrier or device manufacturer’s own catalog offerings, the user’s true interests can come to light, leading to opportunities for potentially tailoring and improving the user’s ongoing content discovery process.

  4. 6
    Marek Pawlowski

    Thanks for all your insightful comments. I’d like to pick up on a few of them for further discussion:

    I am in agreement with Nico on the immaturity of the mobile app store model and his comparison with the music industry. What we’re seeing at the moment in mobile is typical of the initial stages of market development in all businesses, where the rapid growth of a small number of proprietary players enables them to dictate terms which will subsequently be deemed unreasonable once the market becomes more competitive.

    Developers have flocked to the iPhone App Store because, in today’s environment of fragmented mobile platforms, iPhone offers the quickest and most efficient way to reach the largest number of potential customers.

    However, the interests of both customers and developers are better served in the long-term if applications can be easily created and run on all devices using open, web-based standards. As the capabilities of mobile web browsers improve and equalise, I think we’ll see many more developers chosing this model to power their applications and make them more easily available to users of all phones. Nokia, Apple and Palm already use the same underlying browser engine.

    There is still a role for application stores in this environment, but rather than being lists limited to proprietary, natively-coded applications, they would be payment mechanisms for a much wider selection of cross-platform, web-based apps. At that point, I think developers will rightly start to question whether the typical 70/30 revenue split is still fair…

    Picking up on Sachendra’s point about embedding ratings within applications, I think this is a superb idea. By requiring users to go back to the app store to add their rating or review, the ratings system is naturally biased in favour of those users who are sufficiently motivated – typically they are the ones who are most negative about applications.

    There was also an interesting announcement from MobUI this week about a technology which enables developers to add a recommendation engine into their application. This allows users to see a list of similar applications and developers to receive commission for each referral they make.

    Giuliano makes some excellent observations about the importance of leaving users in control of their discovery experience. I wholeheartedly agree with this and I’m unsure how best we can manage the balance between increasing the relative visibility of the wealth of content contained in app stores and maintaining the purity of the user experience.

    I’m tempted by an extension of Nokia’s active homescreen concept, where users can choose to see the blog and photo feeds of a few key contacts directly on their idle screen. Perhaps we could also add the capability for users to see which applications their friends are downloading or recommending?

    I think there is also a role for integrating app discovery into some of the universal search mechanisms which are starting to emerge, e.g. you simply start typing what you want to find from the homescreen of your device and it searches the web, your contacts and the app store to show you relevant results.

    Great to see some debate on this topic ahead of the MEX Conference next month – keep the ideas coming!

  5. 7
    Phil Ohme

    I agree that the Apple iPhone App Store is sub-par…and that it just “sucks less” than all the others hence its success. I used to use the Nokia app store over a year ago and it was just horrendous. And yes, we need to stop the “there’s an app for that” mentality and move towards web-based applications that cross platforms. Some developers are starting to realize that but not enough to make a difference yet (difference meaning give Apple a wake-up call). An interesting feature of the iphone though is that if you come across a great web app or website you really want to use over and over again, you can make it “look like” an app on your phone. Once you have it up on your Safari browser, hit the + icon at the bottom and choose “Add to Home Screen”. It then appears alongside all of your other apps and is almost indistinguishable. Could this be one of the back doors needed to usurp Apple’s App Store?

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