Joachim Farncombe Digital Projects

Planet of the apps

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Apps are everywhere. There are thousands of them. Any organisation worth talking about has an app or several apps or at the very least wants to build an app. Many people commissioning these things may just be missing the point though, and this makes people like me quite unAPPy. (You may need to prepare yourself for wanton pun-ishment throughout this post.) 

I understand the need to have the latest gadget or technology. In fact it’s a hobby of mine. Certainly in my line of work it’s imperative that I keep up with the latest ‘thing’. It’s a typical request from people in positions of power - they want the latest ‘thing’ while being ignorant of what that ‘thing’ actually is or does.

Recently a senior member of staff wanted to start a blog. To give them credit, I’m sure they knew what I blog was. The problem was they had absolutely no idea what they were going to blog about; let alone why they were doing it in the first place.

A colleague once told me about how her managers in a previous job wanted to make sure their organisation was “web 2.0 ready”.

A former director told me he wanted to “twit”. To this day I’m still not sure what he was driving at there.

These demands are cringe-worthy for two reasons: they come from people who by their own admission are not tech savvy; trying to be ‘with it’ and make out like they’re on top of things. The second is that they have little to no idea what the thing they are requesting is actually for.

It’s been the case with Twitter and Facebook. Currently it’s Instagram and Vine. It’ll be something else within a few months.

For a while now in my day-job, senior-staff have been talking about producing an app. (Deep sigh).

An app or a website?

Very often when people are requesting an app they are referring to something that they will be able to use on a phone or a tablet. That’s fair enough. Often however a properly responsive website can do this job for them. 

Responsive websites are still a relatively new thing. It’s one thing making a website display effectively on a small screen using responsive design, it's another to implement a ‘mobile first’ approach where the thought processes used when building the navigation and creating content are geared up to the mobile device before anything else. The end result makes websites look more app-like. Everything evolves from the apps.

You still need to create the content!

If the proposed app is information or data heavy, that information or data will still need to be created and maintained. You can see people’s eyes glaze over when people like me talk about the need to create info first and apps later. Apps are cool. Apps are sexy. Information management is really dull. I guarantee your app will be a pile of crapp (sic) if you don’t have any information to feed it.

“Hang on. If I’ve got to create loads of content, I might as well just build a really good responsive site.”

Yes. Apps are hard work and expensive. Apps have to be built for different operating systems. Responsive website will work on any* device with a decent browser. You might as well invest all your money on paying people like me to build you a website instead of an app.

*Shut up Samsung tablets and Internet Explorer 7.


If you’re feeling very rich, you could build your website (all responsive like) AND build an app. 

Several big organisations have done this; they use the same information/data and push it to their website and app. IMdb is a good example. Sure, there’s more to see and do on the website and the app is easier to personalise but essentially the data and functionality are the same. Amazon is a similar deal – you can do everything on the app and on the website.

Don’t do this!

One of my tablet browsing dislikes at the moment happens when I’m on my iPad (other tablets are available) and I visit a website like BBC GoodFood. On the tablet or mobile version you’re asked straight away to download their app. This sounds like it’s a good idea in principle. A cooking app on my very-expensive-only-used-for-cooking-tablet? Great! Problem is you can’t access the same amount of recipes. It’s a very limited app. Ikea do something similar. Their app is essentially their catalogue. It doesn’t actually allow you to buy anything. Frustrating.

So what makes a good app?

Maybe I should take a step back at this point. What actually is an app?

Noun, a self-contained program or piece of software designed to fulfil a particular purpose; an application, especially as downloaded by a user to a mobile device.

So something that makes a task easier or facilitates a particular activity.

I find that the best apps make use of a mobile device’s camera, microphone, GPS, web connection or a combination of these things.

  • Duolingo 
    Very clever app to aid language learning. I was impressed by the interface and the methods of learning and then blown away by Duolingo’s business model.
  • Trainline
    Useful. It does its job pretty well. Location based in that it can find your nearest station. Shame it can’t make the train turn up on time. Amiright?
  • Instagram
    Makes a device’s camera fun and arty.
  • Spotify
    Changing the way I purchase and consume music.

How many things does an app have to do?

The BBC made a decision to split out key areas of its website information resulting in separate apps for news, sport and weather. The BBC has clearly decided that there would be too much to cram into one app so now have a suite of apps.

Looking at what I have on my phone right now the best ones have one express purpose – they don’t try to do too much.

I should probably say something about games

Of course the most popular apps are games. 90% of all app downloads are gaming related. Perhaps games could be used to aid a practical purpose – the ‘find your way around the hospital’ app could be popular. No? Okay.

In conclusion

Apps should have an express purpose. Creating one shouldn’t be a ‘tick box’ exercise or to satisfy the whims of senior staff. They shouldn’t just be a fancy bookmark for mobile devices. A lot of apps are essentially a fancy way of delivering information, so first and foremost go and create good information.  Unless you’re Duolingo, in which case you get your users to provide you with the information. Apps off to you.

When writing this post I put a call out for article titles. Here is a selection of the responses I received:

  • Appy talk
  • Apps the way I like it
  • Escape from the planet of the apps
  • I’m tired, I think I’ll have an app
  • How much for an app dance?
  • Appetite for destruction
  • Passing the apptitude test
  • Pop an app in yo ass
  • If your appy and you know it app your ands.
  • Apples and appricots – the fruitful world of mobile communication

Please leave more in the comments below. It’s a great opportunity to APPly the use of puns.


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