How Not to Build a Too-Cute Mobile App

"He's cute." Those are two of the worst words a father can hear from a teen daughter when the family is out and about. Once a boy and girl of that age make eye contact and go into flirt mode, you can bet that your evening in the mall or at a restaurant, a ball game - whatever - is about to get hijacked. But it only gets compounded when your own partner joins in. "Yeah, he is cute." In one of those creepy episodes that turn an evening at Red Lobster into a regrettable adventure, the two of them are scoping out one of the servers. We're at this place mainly because one of my daughter's buddies works here, even though I am not a fan of the menu and am feverishly checking my Eat This, Not That iPhone app for items that I won't feel congealing in my arteries.

My daughter has found her own new dish, of course, but it is not on the menu or in my phone app. He is tall, with dark long hair, and a non-threatening androgynous face of the sort that has sold millions of boy bands and Tiger Beat magazines for a few generations now. And of course under the new regime of wireless connectivity, we now have a back channel of conversation going on by text among my daughter and her absent friends as well as her friend at the restaurant about this mysterious new face - who happens to be passing by our table and attracting both ladies' glances every five minutes.

"He seems shy," they agree. They have already crafted a fantasy profile of the guy, which is when I have to throw water on the two of them. "Are you two kidding me? This is exactly the kind of guy you avoid. He knows precisely how cute he is, and I guarantee you he spent half an hour making sure that hair, shirt and look hit just the right combination of adorable unkempt and dashing. Both of you should know better. Don't be fooled. This is the guy you run from. "

I should have known that when it comes to boys, my opinion was discounted as over-protective-father-speak a long time ago. Actually, I think my opinion on just about everything was tossed in that bucket. Ordinarily I am scolded if I check email even once while out to dinner with them. But now... "Why don't you just play with your iPhone, Dad?"

Well, I am just as fed up with cute apps these days as I am with purportedly cute guys in my daughter's life. They won't listen to my "are you kidding me?" rules for not dating guys, but after months of feverish app testing, I remain frustrated by developers who continue to hide bad design decisions behind good looks.

Are you kidding me?

Stop kicking me out of the app. There continue to be major branded media apps out there that don't embed a browser into the experience so ads and links don't pop you out to the Safari browser. This is a disruption that is simply inexcusable.

Bookmark your own app experience. If you are going to kick me out of an app for an ad or link (or even if you aren't) then don't make me restart the app from its own home page. Apps should behave more like a DVD than a Web site. In most cases, the app should remember where you are and make the default assumption that you want to pick up where you left off. The best shortcut you can give a user is to drop her back into an app at the feature she last accessed. It is likely the one thing she most value about your app anyway.

Stop silo-ing content by media type. Only media makers and content management systems differentiate among text, video and image content. We media consumers really don't think to ourselves, oh what we really want right now is some video or a photo gallery. A good story is a good story no matter how it is told. Video, images, etc. are phony content buckets that only hide great content. Integrate the media and find ways to telegraph to the user the kind of experience they are about to have.

Stop sending me to the Web to register. A mobile app should be seamlessly mobile. I still get apps that force me to interact with them via a desktop or a Web site that is not optimized for mobile just to register for the service. You should be able to sign up in an app and via pages that are aware of my mobile browser.

Explain the damn features. This is not high school and you are not designing apps for the in-the-know crowd that already gets it. This is a real problem for many of the location based services I am seeing lately where it is not always clear at start up what the terminology is or the basic functionality. You are introducing a new paradigm that needs to succeed outside of the VC and journo crown of Silicon Valley. Being a "mayor" or "checking in" or using "Facebook Connect" or "invite friends" may seem commonplace to mobilistas, but a lot of this needs to be explained to newbies, especially the interconnections across networks. Go outside your own office when looking for an informal beta tester.

Cache it in. For heavy app users like me, smart caching of mobile content makes all the difference and I think we penalize brands that we know are sluggish. CNN and Fluent News are especially good at loading up in background just enough copy in each section to satisfy the user as he grazes quickly across stories. Mobile user experience is multi-dimensional and it very much includes the time axis. Don't get cocky over 3G and WiFi. To wit...

Your interface is not as cool as you think it is. The upside of the app model is that it gives a brand more control over the user experience and look and feel. The downside is that you can be too clever for your own good and disorient users. The branded media companies suffer this malady as they try to pile into apps an entire magazine or TV station of content. The magazine facsimiles for Esquire and GQ are noble attempts, but moving among mobile text modes and full-page modes can be disorienting. In some apps each major tab seems to recreate the interface. NBC affiliates have an extremely cool looking wall of floating images that indexes the stories, but in most cases the thumbnails are not expressive enough of the story content. You end up tapping into images just to see what they are about, and this is the opposite of interface efficiency. Try pop-ups that tell a user what is under a button or what they are supposed to be doing in a given area of the mobile app. Iterate on convention. Don't make me decode your interface.

Teen boys, by the way, could use pop-ups that reveal a bit more of their actual content to cute-bedazzled women like my daughter... and apparently even my own middle-aged partner. "This guy is worse than a heartbreaker," I try to argue to the two of them as they say their final flirtatious "toodles" to Fabio or Ricky or Carlos (whatever) on our way out the door. "He is the kind of guy that girls still think is wonderful and shy and sensitive even after he has used them and left them behind. That is by far the most dangerous."

They look at me as if I am the one going off the rails, until my daughter gets a text message from her friend who works with the cutie at the restaurant.

"Forget it. He's gay."

"Ya know I was just about to say...

"Dad, hush. Play with your iPhone."

1 comment about "How Not to Build a Too-Cute Mobile App".
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  1. David Thurman from Aussie Rescue of Illinois, March 17, 2010 at 9:27 a.m.

    Always great reading. I can relate as I have a daughter too that used to do the same thing, and my girlfriends would always add to the fire...

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