The Evolution of Mobile Software Towards Deep Functionality

By February 17, 2017Uncategorized

Cosmetics and Aesthetics


Continuing our discussion about Mobile software in 2017, I think about it in many different aspects as shown in the chart below. In this installment, I’d like to tackle cosmetics and aesthetics.

Cosmetically and aesthetically, mobile apps continue to be an emerging art form, with trends that wax and wane. And as to be expected in something as subjective as beauty, no 2 people can agree on what looks good. In the past few years, the term “Beautiful App” wedged its way into the broader discussion, which of course, creates even more opinions. I’ve seen many of  what pundits call “beautiful apps”, and while many may be attractive on the surface, often, they are either very difficult to use, or its nearly impossible to actually find what you’re looking for in them. I did a completely non-scientific bit of research here, and looked at a number of “Beautiful Apps of the Year” articles on many popular tech websites, awards given from broader industry groups, etc. (the usual suspects, TechCrunch, Business Insider, Apple’s awards, etc).

Out of respect for each developer and publisher, I won’t specify what the apps are because I’m really more interested in the study, and I never want to call out anyone who didn’t succeed (you can look at all the beautiful app awards in the past few years and figure it out). I eliminated a handful of apps that are published by giant companies (like Twitter, Yahoo, Facebook, etc), as they will likely get lots of attention anyway from their gigantic user bases.  And even though I’m a huge gamer, I also eliminated games from my non-scientific analysis as games have a very specific audience, and an incredibly short half life anyway (pun intended). I wanted to focus on functional apps and see if there’s any relationship between “beauty” and success (certainly in my own case, clearly there is NOT!) The end sample set, which is statistically a small sample, ended up being a 16 total apps.

I looked at the App, then went to their respective App stores, and looked at how well they appeared to have done using App Annie, Sensor Tower, and others, read reviews, looked at the date of the most recent reviews, estimates on annual revenue, etc. I used a spreadsheet and some level of averaging to figure out if whether the software in general has succeeded, (which admittedly, is fairly subjective). Review counts are interesting statistically I believe, because if a customer actually invests their time to write something positive, that is fantastic. If LOTS of customers do it, you’re doing amazing.  We know that negative reviews seem to come easier than positive.

What I found ultimately didn’t surprise me. Out of 16 total apps, that in the last 18 months were hailed as “beautiful” and “amazing” by all sorts of industry pundits, 8 (50%), are either completely out of business, or appear abandoned (ie, no updates in more than a year, with the developer seeming to have moved on).

The remaining 50% had a variety of success across my twisted matrix of metrics. Four out of the remaining eight had very low download counts, nearly no reviews,  and nearly no estimated revenue. Two of these were actually acquired by larger companies (interestingly, the two that had pretty negative reviews and low review counts)

Out of the four remaining apps, three seem to be prospering.  They have wonderful statistics from review counts, downloads, a continuous string of updates, revenue projections, and an enthusiastic following.  The other one seems to be trucking along, with a decent amount of activity, but seriously low “projected revenue”, which is derived from fees, in app purchases, etc.
So what did I learn from my completely unscientific analysis as to whether beautiful apps succeed?  As the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume famously wrote in 1742, ” Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them”.  And as mobile software matures,  becomes more purposeful, and permeates more aspects of our lives, what constitutes beauty will likely shift.  Beauty in software is clearly ephemeral.  Trends shift, and with the ever increasing desire for more and more functionality in our pockets running on our mobile devices, it’s clearly more important to balance design trends with practicality and usability as we cram more things into the limited real estate of our small screens.

At some point, I’m going to explore “absolute relevance” and how it might relate to true longevity in future mobile software.  In my next post though, we’ll focus on functionality and usefulness.

Dan Crain

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