Color Proves Chasing Trends Isn’t Good App Design

On paper, Color, the iPhone (s aapl) (and now Android (s goog)) app which grabbed headlines Wednesday for securing $41 million in pre-release startup funding, looks pretty good. It’s a photo and video sharing app (those do well) with a geo-local twist (ditto) that’s built around the concept of the group (natch).

Color also has some influential people behind it. Founder Bill Nguyen is the man who sold music streaming service LaLa to Apple in 2009, and he has a history of successfully building and selling other companies, too. And Color recently brought on board DJ Patil, who was the chief scientist at LinkedIn.

The app itself works well and looks good, with an intuitively designed minimal interface, but you’d be mistaken for thinking you’re somehow not using it properly. It only really works if there are a group of people in your immediate surroundings using the app simultaneously. Otherwise, you’ll see little more than a steady stream of whatever you yourself happen to be capturing with your iPhone’s camera, because the app is limited to showing images from a highly local area.

Color is playing with solid core concepts, even beyond the trend-chasing aspects I mention above. Photo and video sharing among friends is clearly a proven winner, as is evident from Facebook’s success. And the app lowers the barrier to entry (though not necessarily to actual use, as you’ll see below) more than any existing social app by making the only login requirement your first name (no passwords, no sign-ups). But even that doesn’t save it from feeling badly like an idea in search of a problem.

The app first goes wrong by requiring you take a picture before you can use it. To some degree, that makes sense since the sharing mechanism is so simple, but in contrast to the simplicity of requiring only a user’s first name to sign up, asking for a photo and not letting you choose an existing image on your handset means many users who aren’t in a position to take one or just don’t feel like it might shut the app down and never open it again. And those who do satisfy this early requirement might be no less put-off by their next experience: You may find that no one around you — within 150 feet — is sharing photos, and the app appears to offer next to nothing.

The alternative case is not desirable either: Nearby people are sharing photos, and you’re inundated with images of complete strangers, along with the realization that those same strangers can see the self-portrait you just snapped, too, without much warning from the app. In both cases, I think many will be put-off enough to stay clear for good.

It’s possible Color has more appeal among the teenage users Mark Zuckerberg talked about when explaining the idea behind Facebook’s expanded messaging service, and I’m in a category of users who just doesn’t get it. But I think it’s more likely this is a prime example of how, when it comes to apps, 1+1+1 does not always equal 3. An app can’t just hope to profit by being at the intersection of a number of promising mobile trends. Developers still have to think intelligently about how those trends integrate, and remember that user experience, especially the one following first launch, is still the key to wide app adoption. Color fails this test, and as such, it definitely isn’t going to be the next Facebook, or even the next Instagram for that matter.