In this post, I would like to talk about applications for digital devices, or anything on a screen for that matter. This topic does not really require an introduction like how it did ten years back, and most of this has been mentioned in places elsewhere but I will ramble because I must. Applications have managed to become a part of almost everyone’s lives, whether they wanted it or not – even the ones who were once very anti-tech find themselves staring at a screen for hours everyday (my mother who once used to blame the computer to be the source of all evil now cannot get by without YouTube and WhatsApp). Since our relationship with technology has changed, so must the degree at which we analyze and criticize it.
Our devices have a good number of apps; and apart from the two or three which are essential to going about our lives, most of them are what we did not use after that one time we needed a discount code, or because everyone else was using it and we did not want to feel left out. It is not possible to use all the applications on your phone and function as a normal productive human being, as often promised by their developers. There is more to this compromise – these applications linger on with their bloating updates, keeping an eye over what we are doing till we either uninstall them ourselves or lose/break our phones. Enough has been discussed on this and I would not drag this along further but, in short, – the service never really ends with the transaction.
Even if we can view more of what is going on in our screens than ever before, our focus on tasks is diminishing – more tabs and more sources of notifications lead to a complete saturation of our senses and attention. And then, there are apps for improving productivity and focus as well, or that is what they claim. Some have even crossed over on to keeping one enriched through audio while we are doing some other task – I am not really sure how much of that content is retained in our minds compared to sitting down and, say, reading an actual book. All of this seems to perfectly complement a population that is getting increasingly dependent on focus enhancing medication. This only gets worse when expensive smart e-learning packages are sold to institutions – these are nothing but more applications, each with its own set of distractions aimed at the youngest of our populations.
With that, we have come to a point where the interactions of our existence, directly or indirectly, rely on a digital application of some sort – whether the goal is achieved by downloading an app for a particular task, or is realized by going through multiple layers of digital media to achieve a goal (an example would be – turning your computer on, dealing with its interface and then pulling up a browser that leads you to the website delivering the solution/information required). In this flood, our modern and smart living experience is nothing but us looking at one screen and then moving onto another. The real world just doesn’t have room in our lives anymore and it is just not us who is to blame but also the creators who see an app as an end, or at least a supplementary essential, rather than as a means. People have often talked about how real conversations do not exist when everyone is looking at their phones, but I wish to prod this along even further – do real conversations even exist nowadays without phones? Do most conversations not eventually spiral towards someone pulling out a phone to look up something that would make things more interesting? And when the conversation is in an exciting scenario or leads to a great moment, the need to capture it through photos becomes essential (the real world interaction leads to a great experience which must now be put into and validated through the application realm). The phone gets pulled out regardless. Not to forget that the phone and its make also influences how we are perceived.
To designers and product developers, apps seem like an intelligent & quick solution to what were previously insurmountable problems. The evaluation of a product’s worth is mostly centered around the digital experiences it has to provide, even when that isn’t primarily the focus of that service. The seamlessness of its interaction with the real world and its changing dynamics is one of the key barometers to make this said experience great. This seamlessness also involves the success of that application to keep the user absorbed/pulled in within its ecosystem, away from other ecosystems (which also includes the real world). This competition for attention is a deadly game we are playing with our society and is not really expected when every other design group uses feel-good words like ‘social responsibility’ etc.
I feel, this is something we are not talking about as a community, maybe because of how much it has simplified our living and has achieved a status where it need not be questioned. Also, not to forget, that a lot has been built upon this and a huge industry with its numerous specialized jobs depends on the screens which keep us distracted and unsatiated. For every young designer, having visualized apps and interactions to some extent has become almost like a rite-of-passage. User interface/experience and visual communication design, fields with immense opportunities for research, have somehow gotten fixated for too long in this trap of the app – everyone is focusing on ‘crafting’ these experiences and great products in the form of phone or tablet applications. It is almost as if these designers, by their own will, have forced themselves and the experiences they seek into the guidelines set by the corporate giants. But, if at the end of the day, one is held hostage by a leading device platform developer, and if that is where most of the bread and butter is at, how can one really solve problems beyond the screen? This is an honest question – in a walled garden with a limited number of playing blocks provided (to which the platform developer regularly adds or removes), can you really innovate for the real world beyond a certain point?
If the ever-present and unquestioned goal is to push for a digital product that solves real problems, all the research and the decorative post-its are, thus, useless.
Businesses & Products:
New and old businesses alike, whether big or small, fall prey to the app trap. The reasons are many: it might be because of their desire to try out a new technology without a huge investment or risk, or a push to keep up with the times, or just finding the app-marketplace to be a level ground when competing against big players. The last one probably is stemmed in the overnight successes of independent app developers that became multi-billion dollar corporations. Even within the established digital services domain, some businesses have already ditched their online websites completely for apps while others are slowly phasing them out or are downgrading their capabilities. The reasons for these are both economical and socio-technological, and hence the snowball of applications only gets bigger with every passing year.
One does not need apps to control or manage light-bulbs, shower-heads or keys – these objects serve their own purpose by themselves. A device with apps for that is the intangible equivalent of a purse with all the keys to your home, your passport, your bank account info, your nail cutter, hair trimmer and your toolbox – all of it, in one place, all the time. You have to carry it around and take these objects out every time you need them, must have it all in there regardless. Losing your purse also gives away all of these to someone who finds them, or at least takes them away from your reach, even if the loss is temporary and recoverable. Just because there is no physical weight to it does not mean there is no weight to it.
Apps also encourage obsolescence – while physical parts might be, to some extent, easier to source and create (or at least replace) – code is difficult to break into for repairs by an average user. Open source alternatives completely depend on how impactful the product was during its run and they too might stop once the interest of the community dies out or the overall use of this gets absorbed and closed off as a small feature by the larger fish (discussed below). This effect magnifies if you have a physical product that relies on an app to run. Imagine having a perfectly functioning ‘smart’ light-bulb which cannot function anymore because the application is out of development; or the application now only serves a newer line of products; or it works only on newer operating systems for your devices. To turn that damn bulb back on again, what would you throw and what would you replace?
Apps should be replaced by relevant interfaces that only become salient to the product’s scenario of use and context. And there need not be an app for everything. Even in situations where an application or a digital experience seems to be the absolute necessary for a product or a service, it need not be so at all. All the designer needs to do is step back and look at things through a new perspective.
The Unified Interface & Its Coming:
Usually, there would be a software capable of performing a given set of tasks, anything that would expand its capabilities would be done through a plugin or another software that would use the application in a certain manner. These handy plugins or widgets are suicidal by nature in these times, because once they gather enough user-base, they are rapidly absorbed by the system they rely on or work within. Things which are the USP of these smaller products get picked up and added as extra features to the main apps they rely on. Take for example Maps, you can now call for a cab, lookup places to eat through this single application on your device – sure it might rely on another installed app for this feature to be available, but once enough people start to use these features on this ‘mother’ app, the economic incentives of piggybacking for these food and taxi aggregators become high enough for them to discontinue their standalone applications. Right now, these things happen slowly within an ecosystem or in between applications that work with each other, but soon this will expand into entire operating systems. What we are headed towards is an experience where independent (not independent in the development sense) software would not exist – it would be the part of the operating system where it shows up only when needed.
The focus of the industry is also on VR or personal home assistants, but the song remains the same for this new medium. In fact, it only gets murkier with this – the simple action of whipping out a phone will be completely replaced by the presence which is actually beyond one’s control, we would be incapable to really turn it off. It will soon extend itself to the devices we will interact with or shall be present through someone else we interact with (asking people to put down their phones nowadays is an escalated situation by itself, imagine asking someone to turn off their personal assistant or such entities). The user will become an extension of the interface. The strings of control just became tighter – good luck coming up with socially responsible designs for that.
So simply put, things look bad and will only get worse. And I am not really big on changing this, because there is no other way either – it is just that we can only be cautious and know about the consequences of what has us smitten. The signs of it already show up indirectly through the court hearings, political conspiracies and corporate leaks we frequently read about. Such is progress and it does not come without sacrifices. Behind all disappointment is a hype, behind all utopias is absolute control.