What Makes Apps Delightful?

On my last visit to New York, I stopped at apparel maker Bruno Cucinelli’s store in the West Village. In a city of opulent, luxury-brand outlets, this tiny outpost was perhaps one of the most ideal and idyllic shopping experiences. I go there again and again. There is little or no clutter, a limited set of apparel options and more importantly, everything is laid out for maximum impact.
You enter the store, walk down an aisle looking at the clothes hanging on your right (men’s wear), reach the end of the store, turn around, check out the middle aisle, and take in what’s on display. The whole process takes a few minutes. Once you’re done with the walk-through, you zero in on one or more items on display, and engage with the sales person. If nothing catches your fancy, you move on.
It doesn’t take much time, and more importantly, it involves fewer decisions on my part, making shopping less of a chore.
That Cucinelli store is a great metaphor for what I think is a good mobile app experience. Why? Because the store had little or no friction when it comes to the shopping process. Similarly, in order to be successful and stand out among the growing number of mobile apps demanding our attention, the mobile apps have to have little friction.
There are few ways an app can work toward a better experience. It all starts with overcoming three major constraints with today’s mobile and smartphone experience:

  1. Network speeds, despite all the talk from carriers are limited and thus not conducive to heavy download activity.
  2. Limited screen real estate, which puts premium on every pixel.
  3. Finite number of mobile gestures (that don’t involve using the keyboard.)

Faster Is Better

The same demand that makes smartphones an exciting opportunity also turns into a liability. It doesn’t matter what device you use; even the best of 3G networks has bandwidth challenges. And while at some point in the future, the faster wireless broadband technologies are going to solve the problems, today as an app developer, you have to keep the challenges of network speeds in mind.
What you have to do is build apps that are fast. By that, I mean not only does the app load fast, but also has a lightweight experience. It’s optimized less around cool features and more around the speed with which you can use an app’s core value proposition.
Kevin Systrom, co-founder of Instagram, recently told me one of the crucial product decisions his start-up made was optimizing around speed. Knowing upload speeds on wireless networks were bad, they decided to limit photo size to small enough for a quick upload, yet looked gorgeous on the smartphone screen. The speed, he contended, would make for happier customers, who in turn would use the app more. And they were right.
Other app companies are finding out that faster execution is key to higher engagement. Foursquare Co-founder Dennis Crowley, speaking at a recent event, said the company was building a lighter version of the app for faster check-ins and to reduce the check-in time from 20 seconds to five seconds.
The easier and faster it is to check-in, the more likely one is to use Foursquare. This isn’t a radically new notion; Google has used the speed with which it can serve up search results as a lure for getting people to use its search more often. Since the search results show up blazingly fast, one is likely to search again, even if the first try doesn’t yield results.

Size Matters

A couple of months back, I wrote about what makes a hit (consumer) Internet service. Of the three reasons I listed, “clear purpose” and “simple to use” were ones that make perfect sense for mobile apps, given the limitations of screen size and touch-screen gestures. A good example of an app with clear purpose and simplicity? Instapaper: the save-and-read-later app.
That simplicity and clear purpose begins from the very second someone opens the app after downloading. Signing up for your app/service should be done within seconds, not minutes. One of the reasons why I loved Beluga was that it probably had one of the simplest sign-up processes. Not many questions asked — enter an email, get a username and password, and you’re ready to go.
Better yet, use Facebook Connect, which removes any friction that there is in terms of sign-ups. There is a big risk of you being logged out of all these apps if your account gets hacked, like mine was a couple of months ago. But app developers are embracing the Facebook Connect, and are well aware of such risks.
Daniel Raffel, co-founder of a yet-to-be-named stealth mode company, described Facebook Connect as the “K-Y Jelly of the mobile web.” By now, most, if not all, people have Facebook accounts, so by entering their username and password, the hassle of signing up a service and remembering another password is also eliminated.
This is crucial. Too much typing on a smartphone can be arduous and time-consuming, no matter how deft you are. The less time spent between download and using the service, the faster customers can start to experience your offering. Remember, there are no second chances in today’s app-infested world.
A few days back, I wrote about why apps (and other products) have to start building the idea of “happiness” into their offerings. Speed, simple and easy sign-ups, and single focus on core values only add to that “happiness.” Those three qualities are the reason why I keep going back to that Cucinelli store. On my last trip, I almost bought a cardigan — but they didn’t have it in my size.
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