Improving Apps on iOS Pt. 3: App Store and Extensibility

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Sense of clarity

It’s easy to appreciate the advancement of Apple’s line of iOS devices since the original iPhone, as well as the exponential growth and influence of the App Store. However, as an overall product, iOS devices (since the App Store) are conceptually the same as they’ve always been: once slabs of glass with a few sizes, now made faster with better/improved input methods (iSight camera and Touch ID especially) and several sizes.

While we might see Apple as a laser-focused company that knows exactly the purpose of their products in their portfolio and for end users, the way the App Store is organised doesn’t seem to prove that. Again, this might be a result of the App Review Team being involved with internal conflicts, but the App Store itself (as in the app on iOS devices) is inherently flawed as well. Here are, what I think, are the two main problems:

  • There is no straightforward way of discovery, given the plethora of options you’re given to interact with the App Store app e.g. choosing between Featured/Top Charts/Explore tabs, then having more options within those tabs, the Featured tab especially.
  • Search is terrible. For a platform with as many apps - especially as many high quality apps - as they have on it, the only search options on the iPhone App Store are to select “Trending Searches” (limited to just 10 searches) or to search manually. That’s it.

However, I think the fundamental flaw leading to the App Store being structured this way has to do with Apple not being user-centric and design-oriented in this regard, which is where I think they need a sense of clarity.

Action words

One of the big things to change at Apple in the early years of Steve Jobs’ second tenure as CEO was Apple’s retail presence, limited to mostly third-party retailers, if I’m not mistaken. This came in the form of Apple creating and conceptualising (and if you’ll excuse the term, revolutionising) retail stores.

The main concepts incorporated into the design of Apple’s retail stores seen today are now commonplace across the retail presence of not just Apple, but the consumer tech industry in general: Genius-Bar-esque customer service, big wooden tables used to display devices you can interact with, uniform T-shirts on friendly-faced staff, etc. Just walk into any Samsung or Microsoft store nowadays and you’ll see what I mean. But what’s striking about the initial designs of their retail stores is that they weren’t just structured around what products they were selling, but what you could do with them at different levels of expertise. In a sense, these segments centralised around action words.

What affords Apple to deviate away from that with their current stores is the familiarity that people already have with their products, the intuitiveness of their functional industrial design, and the small size of their product portfolio. In other words, if you walk into an Apple Store right now, it won’t be difficult to understand what is being sold there, and to determine where in the store you should go to get what you need.

The App Store doesn’t have that affordance. The first impression you have of an app is its icon and name (rather, a few words of its name before being cut off by an ellipsis). Unless you deliberately go into Apple’s many curated lists, you might not even know what an app does without tapping on it. I think there’s a need for this stuff to be more “glanceable”, to borrow a philosophy adopted by the Apple Watch. Speaking of which, now that a third device will soon be powered by the App Store (especially one with a minuscule screen), making the functions of apps obvious is made even more necessary.

Extensibility

The same principle can apply to other areas of iOS, especially those that are involved in the implementation of Extensibility. Share Sheets and the Today screen in Notification Center come to mind as their functions and presentation rely on iOS apps, built-in and third-party. I think applying this "action word" approach will effectively help promote Extensibility, making it a more accessible and less unclear as to what things onscreen mean. The problem I have with Extensibility today is that, as great of an idea as it is, I never get around to taking advantage of it because of a lack of clarity.

My main problem with Share Sheets is its design, particularly the way that the sharing options are distributed and named. On the second row are coloured app icons labelled with their names, and on the last row are monochrome icons labelled with some action words and service names. Only on the second row can I edit what’s on it and how buttons are arranged, and there isn’t any obvious trend or pattern with how the icons are organised besides what makes it convenient for developers and Apple to manage Share Sheets.

 

A list of action words, preferably associated with simple icons, would be ideal in my opinion. Some examples of possible implementations are actually already present in apps like Pocket, Twitter, Evernote, and Instagram.

The same thing goes for the Today screen. While I don't think widgets have to be necessarily organised by action words, categories like "News", "Events", or "Tasks" - loosely based on action words - would make it easier to understand what information is being consumed at face value, which I think goes along the lines of the Today screen's primary function.

A general solution

You might’ve noticed that the problems highlighted in these series of posts may have little in common, but can be solved in part by one main solution: putting an emphasis on the function of apps. How? By reorganising how apps are presented to end users. Instead of presenting the usefulness of iOS devices in the form of ambiguous, randomised icons and names, Apple can instead present users with uses and functions, or as Steve Jobs put it, “solutions”.

“People don't just want to buy personal computers anymore, they want to know what they can do with them.” - Steve Jobs

Restructuring the App Store, Share Sheets, and the Today Screen to display action words upon first glance enables users to realise the different things they can do with their devices more quickly, so they spend more time getting stuff done rather than figuring what app icons and names mean every single time.

Presenting defaults as action words (e.g. in the Settings app) and indicating which apps are eligible to be set as default makes it easier for users to understand which apps will be serving what fundamental functions on their iOS device. For example, from downloading Wunderlist on the now-restructured App Store and setting it as a default for reminding users about tasks, it’s made easier to realise that Wunderlist represents the entire reminders/to-do functionality of their iOS devices.

Through all this, people can find innovative ways of consuming and creating content on their iPads, or maybe find new ways to interact with the world using iPads. I don’t think this “action word” approach will be all it’ll take to create a sudden resurgence for the iPad, but it can help us, and even Apple themselves, give it a clear direction, especially in the way apps, thus uses, are to be presented in the App Store.

In the end, it’s all about simplifying the semantics, which could enable people to do things on their iOS devices only power users might see themselves doing, without thinking about it as much. With appropriate regulation, that’s how I think Apple can more easily address the influx of great third-party applications on iOS.