(Originally written on July 2, 2013)
Everyone you know has an idea for an app.
Some of them are obvious, some are esoteric, but how can you tell which of these (after months of hard work) will turn into a mobile phenomenon?
The company where I work has a published list of criteria that we use when judging the merits of an app concept:
1. Original: We are not interested in re-doing what others have already done.
2. Functional: Does it perform a service people want? Does it perform that service well?
3. Social: Does it have the ability to plug into the social graph in a way that’s meaningful?
4. Simple: Can you pitch it in one sentence?
5. Marketability: Can we drive downloads using our existing marketing network?
6. Profitable: Can it be monetized?
This is the sort of checklist that the business development guys love to use, but each of the criteria can be very debatable.
I’ve personally started using a technique that I discovered from an article called Learning to See by Oliver Reichenstein. I’ve adapted it to my thinking of app concepts, and I’ve even been using it when considering the types of articles to write for this blog.
Simply put, it is a graph with two axes.
The horizontal axis is “Form” — how the app looks. If it’s using programmer art, the app would be on the left-hand side (i.e. “ugly”). If it is designed well and polished, it falls on the right-hand side (i.e. “pretty”). Take any apps by competitors to your product, and you can roughly (but as objectively as possible) place them where they belong on this axis as well.
The vertical axis represents “Function” — or how well the app works. It’s not always black and white (i.e. either an app works, or it’s broken). Sometimes an app functions most of the time, sometimes it is crappy and has too few features. You can still objectively place your app and your competitors on this line.
When plotted along these two axes, you will see that your apps fall into one of four quadrants:
– Trash is where an app is ugly (not well designed, crappy graphics, pessimal user experience, etc.) as well as broken (app crashes, functionality doesn’t work or is missing)
– Usable is where an app works (has good functionality) but isn’t pretty. The Android OS is the first thing that comes to my mind — it does what you need, but it was clearly designed by engineers. (This is not to knock Android — I may be an iOS developer, but you’d have to pry my HTC Incredible 2 from my cold, dead hands…it’s my primary mobile phone of choice personally)
– Kitsch is where an app is pretty, but it doesn’t really do much. I’ve been very embarrassed using this evaluation and realizing that a number of my apps or concepts fall into this category, and I’ve made it my mission to get them out of this quadrant.
– and finally, Elegant is where an app is both intrinsically beautiful, as well as functional. It performs the way a user would expect, without any prompting. It would have DWIM features (“do what I mean”) that, in the words of Apple, “just works”.
This method of plotting apps has been a game changer for me. It’s given me a method of visualizing where an app falls, based on its concept — and it tells me exactly where I need to focus my energies to take it to the next level.
None of us want to design things that are trash, but so many one-off branding or marketing apps end up falling into the kitsch category. I’ve designed other apps that were very usable, but didn’t have the degree of polish that was needed to push them over into the elegant category.
I will strive to do better in the future. :-)