App Culture

Published:  June 17, 2011
App Culture

Ubiquitous computing, robust mobile bandwidth and strong development support helped create the conditions for networked applications to eclipse browsers as a way that people got stuff done. Creative design played a huge part in raising awareness and trust in networked applications (remember Web 2.0?), but, as this culture matured beyond wrapping websites in standalone apps, a change occurred in the idea of ‘what it meant to be a good designer’. This article looks at this change in light of app culture – where applications are the new ‘new media’.

New media never really made it to the mainstream. It suffered from the bleeding edge problem, being just too far before the wave without an established base of ubiquitous hardware and networks for it to take root in, and we can perhaps see Flash as the thylacine of that wonderfully abundant age.

Like it or not, apps are the new ‘new media’ and, like that wonderfully creative aspect of 90s culture, apps are changing the way we interact with our technology and one another. Apps live in their own carefully crafted experiential universes. Whether it’s tweets floating above the desktop or augmented reality revealing street art that isn’t there anymore, apps flesh out and sequence the framework of interactions required to create a coherent experience around what is usually a small, singular, but complex action. Apps help us to get stuff done, and then to tell our friends about it.

Because apps focus on doing one thing (well), we tend to master them more quickly than software or tools that do a lot of things. Our apps start to disappear as we act through them, rather than with them. So great app design needs to support this disappearing act – to be invisible – or, at least, to get out of our way when we want to do something. While apps can drive innovation in interface design, we also need to remember that those interfaces (and, more importantly, the people using them) are informed and primed by over half a century of digital interface research and development.

Interfaces bridge a gap between an app and the experience of people using it. Apps are developed through technical specifications, databases, content and APIs (application programming interfaces). Designers need to somehow take this model of ‘how the thing is put together’, or ‘implementation’ as Alan Cooper calls it, and present it in a way that makes sense to the person who just wants to get something done. More importantly, designers need to be able to work with developers in ways that don’t just bolt on design after a technical specification.

Apps support behaviour and, by helping developers understand what behaviour their app is trying to support, a designer can do more good than any amount of interface design later.

Apps aren’t the only place this change in our role has occurred; they’re just the most visible example at the moment. They give us an insight into how the role of design has moved to include advocacy for the people using our products, and the kinds of behavior those products support.

Illustration by Carlo Mussett.

From desktop magazine.

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