Feature Creep Emerges as Next Challenge for Mobile Devs

The mobile app ecosystem has been an amazing story over the last couple years, as millions of users have latched on to smartphone applications. The fast growth and the rising competition in apps has me wondering how soon before we may see feature creep overtake mobile apps, undercutting their usefulness.

Feature creep, as a reminder, is that piling on of features for products, often software, making the overly complex for users. It’s an issue that will — if it hasn’t already — increasingly face mobile developers, who have less margin of error to work with. Mobile apps are already slimmed-down pieces of software that promise to do simple tasks. One of the reasons why they’ve taken off in popularity is because they often serve as short cuts for actions that might have taken longer through a mobile web application. Adding features that may not be useful to the core functions of an app could detract from its value proposition.

A recent Harris Poll commissioned by EffectiveUI, a user interface consulting firm, lays out the issue.

  • 73 percent of mobile app users agree that they expect a company’s mobile app to be easier to use than its website
  • A full three-quarters think mobile apps should do exactly what they want or need them to do

Most mobile devices are small and don’t offer the same real estate as a website or computer application, forcing mobile developers to be really savvy about how they incorporate new features and improvements. I talked with a few UI experts about the issue, who agree that this is going to be an increasingly important challenge for mobile developers.

Anthony Franco, president of EffectiveUI, said developers are expected by mobile users to push out updates faster than desktop software or online sites. But he said it’s important for developers and designers to increasingly scrutinize their apps to ensure the apps don’t evolve into something too complex, as complexity is one of the two main reasons why users delete an app (the other is when they no longer find it useful).

Elizabeth Churchill, principal research scientist at Yahoo Research, said she’s started to hear more grumbles about increasingly complex apps. She said it’s a natural part of software development, but the winning apps in the future — the ones that sustain and grow a user base — will be the ones that learn how to mature gracefully and thoughtfully. “It’s so easy to delete an app and look around and find another one that’s not as annoying,” she said.

Here are some things to consider for app developers:

  • Consider how critical the updates are to users and what the point of the app is. If an improvement fits into the spirit of the app, go for it, but don’t just add features to keep up with the competition.
  • Regularly look at user feedback. Developers need to stay in touch with users to ensure that they’re adding features that add real value.
  • Stay focused on keeping an app useful for mainstream users. There is a temptation to play to more advanced users, but Franco said designers should look at targeting 80 percent of the market.
  • Rethink the dependence on icons. Anthony Andre, founding principal of Interface Analysis Associates, said apps rely a lot on icons but as they proliferate, they can overwhelm. He said inserting more text and making sure people understand their options can help users remain engaged with an app.
  • Consider separating an app by its functions or by its users to maintain its simplicity. As some apps take on more complexity, app makers should consider breaking out features into their own app to ensure that one app isn’t too cluttered. Or as Churchill suggests, look for ways for users to customize their experience so the app better fits their needs.
  • Features by themselves are not the problem. Franco said apps like Facebook show that one app can host a number of features when done well. But they have to be complementary. The problem isn’t the number of features, it’s making sure that they’re all useful to users and work well together.
  • As developers add more functions, look to maintain balance so users who want differing things out of one app can all get to it easily.

This is just the start, but these are some basic tips for developers. This may not be an issue for many developers who keep their apps streamlined, but feature creep is a natural temptation over time. The worst thing is for users to lose the joy and the feeling of efficiency they have in using mobile apps.

Related research on GigaOM Pro (sub. req’d):