The Future of Mobile Applications

Mar 9, 2009

Mobile applications are the new kid on the block. The inception of the iPhone has given birth to a whole new market for applications that are relatively cheap and easy to create. With the number of mobile applications on Apple’s app store projected to exceed 100,000 by the end of the year [http://mashable.com/2009/08/05/flurry-iphone-apps/], mobile apps are the exciting new frontier that invites both large companies and independent developers to innovate like the early days of the internet. Many app developers have treated the mobile space much like the web, providing information on demand, but they are just scratching the surface of what is possible with a personal device. Having applications that run on a single mobile device that sits in our pocket, allows engagement possibilities that can help us tackle lifestyle shifts like never before.
A New Engagement Model
One of the earliest big successes in mobile applications was actually iTunes itself. As a music delivery service, iTunes changed the way that people interacted with music. The iPod was a fantastic device because it allowed us to take our entire music collection with us, rather than the storage capacities associated with smaller mp3 devices that utilized only an album or playlist style of interaction. Instead, the iPod was large enough to hold a person’s entire music collection, so that a person could listen to any song in their collection at any time. The network connectivity features associated with the iPhone and iPod touch allowed iTunes to take this principle one step further, allowing users to listen to just about any song by purchasing and downloading it on demand. In this way, iTunes became the user’s personal music store, on demand at any time.
The fact that people carry their mobile phones with them at all times requires  an engagement model that relies on  small interactions throughout the day rather than attempting to capture and hold a user’s attention like a website or desktop application. Due to the rich context in which people conduct their lives, smaller interactions are preferred in order to allow people to engage in other essential activities, such as working and having a family. If a desktop application is a feature length movie and a web app is a half-hour sitcom then a mobile app should be thought of as a 30-second ad spot. The user will need to get in, achieve his or her goals and be able to exit in a very short amount of time much like a successful advertisement is able to communicate compelling thoughts and emotions in a 30-second time frame. On the other hand, the constant presence and small quick interactions are ideal for applications that can be associated with real and permanent lifestyle shifts.
Behavior Shifts
“Tap and Track” is a perfect example of an app that can help a user make a lifestyle change. “Tap and Track” is ranked as the number 2 paid healthcare and fitness app on the iTunes App Store. It’s a fairly simple application that puts a food diary right on your phone, but its way of manner of  logging food and exercise, the sizeable database ofnutritional information,  and the personalization of dietary goals amounts to having a personal nutritionist. I started using “Tap and Track” after a friend of mine told me that she had used it to lose 30 pounds. Right off the bat I could easily tell how different this weight management system was compared to traditional dieting. Rather than trying to lose a large amount of weight in a few weeks, the application limited weight loss to a maximum of 2 pounds a week. This kind of weight loss is consistent with a real lifestyle change rather than temporary crash dieting. The system functions by providing you with a daily caloric allowance operating under the near universal diet principle that losing weight relies on burning more calories than you consume. The allowance is established based on your current weight, the activity level associated with your profession (e.g. sedentary) and your weight loss goals. You can also log exercise which will adjust your daily allowance accordingly. At any time you can get an average amount of calories, protein, carbohydrates, fat, and sodium, as well as calories burned through exercise through a series of easy to read graphs.
There’s very little new about “Tap and Track” in the service that it provides. People have been counting calories for decades and food diaries are nothing new. But the nature of the engagement, through a persistent phone with an easy to use interface, makes it easier than ever before to keep a complete record of all food intake. The awareness of my caloric intake itself was enough for me to adjust my eating habits. I found myself eating smaller portions and healthier foods. It allowed great flexibility also, if I wanted to have pizza for dinner, I knew that I just had to cut back for breakfast and lunch and get some exercise during the day and I could fit comfortably under my daily limit. Through it all, I steadily and consistently lost weight. It was like I had my own personal nutritionist in my pocket at all times. I always knew the nutritional content of the food that I was eating and I knew what and how much of anything I could eat and still meet my weight loss goals. Best of all, it never felt like I was dieting, rather I felt like I was just living differently.
There are a few other apps that have taken advantage of this type of experience. There are several other calorie trackers similar to Tap and Track such as a Livestrong Calorie Tracker and an app that allows you to scan the barcodes on food packages to add them to your log. There are exercise logs such as iFitness, which touts itself as a personal trainer on your phone. Mint.com has an iPhone app that allows excellent money management by syncing with your banking and credit card accounts and showing you how much you have and where it’s going; ideally, helping users make intelligent decisions around personal finance. 12 Steps AA Companion helps recovering alcoholics by providing motivational reading as well as a sobriety calculator. By setting goals, tracking behavior, and providing an easy to consume picture of that behavior, it’s much easier for people to make intelligent and informed decisions.
With New Opportunities Come New Challenges
Mobile apps that aspire to provide this kind of value will have to overcome new challenges in order to be successful. Designing a user experience that is salient but fits into such a short engagement period requires excellent usability. When a person is busy living life, whether waiting in line at the bank or caring for a newborn, he can’t stop and spend 5 minutes messing with an interface, there are too many other activities competing for his attention. The ability to fit an experience design into this window of engagement is fundamental to mobile app success.
In order to accomplish this in the mobile space success will depend less on making information available – as it does with the web – and much more on making information actionable. Organizing and prioritizing information for quick and easy consumption and immediate response will be paramount. It requires a smarter and more contextual product that is able to anticipate the needs of the user. This is why customization will be essential to success. Initial setup should incorporate setting customization that allows the app to conform to the specific needs of the user much like “Tap and Track” requires you to enter your weight, your goals as well as optional features like a fat budget.
Thanks to the ubiquitous and persistent nature of mobile phones, mobile applications have profound new capabilities, but will also require a new level of usability to accommodate much shallower engagement as well as customization or contextual adjustment to predict the user’s needs. Apps that are able to conquer these challenges and lend themselves to behavior and lifestyle management will be the next generation of killer apps.