Tuesday, August 11, 2009

With better tools you can build more crap faster

Last week I attended a lecture given by a software development company offering a new development tool for mobile developers. They are tapping into the moves by Google and Palm toward the mobile web app framework versus the native app focus of Apple. While that is an interesting business battle to watch, the central point of the lecture focused on something more disturbing and worth our time actually engaging in as designers.

They started by pointing out stats that most of us know or expected: the apps in Apple's store are mostly failures. Many never capture a significant number of users and many that do show an initial spurt of purchases, then fall dramatically. The number of apps that have significant purchase and use over time is very small. To make things worse, the lecturers indicated that iPhone and other mobile apps typically require fairly large amounts of time and effort, meaning that the ROI for the vast majority of apps is very negative.

As a designer, my response was of course that the failing apps do not meet the criteria that any software must for successful adoption: usability, usefulness, and engagement. Meaning that most developers are really wasting their time in addition to the consumers and even Apple's. This company's response was far different from mine, though. They essentially are resigned to the current state that the widespread development of crappy apps is a permanent condition. Their solution to the problem as they see it is to greatly shorten the time and effort needed to develop. So, if we can build apps faster, then we can build more apps. And if we can build more apps faster, we increase our chances of getting lucky that one of them won't be crap.

While I can understand this logic, and it has a fine product marketing tradition backing it up, it is very flawed. Let's look at a few reasons:
- Consumers are rejecting these apps. Putting them up faster will not change that. Statistically, it will actually worsen the percentages.
- Building more apps will vastly increase the clutter that consumers have to deal with, leading to the probability that good apps will get lost in the madness.
- Failures lead to zero or negative ROI. Getting there faster is not a bad thing, but it is not a good driving goal for software tools.
- We are in the beginning (I continue to hope) of a design revolution. Aims such as this company's waste precious talent and time that could be used to make progress toward good design.

To be fair, the product looked interesting and useful. Perhaps it could be used to build better apps faster. And I certainly agree that experimentation and failure are part of the marketplace. However, creating better products for consumers is accomplished in large part by aiming to build better products, not simply more of the status quo, faster.

Share your thoughts about this below.

Good design in 2009.