Interview with Greg Nudelman: Celebrate Fragmentation, Search is Dead & When to Not Build Apps

| August 22, 2013
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GregNudelmanAs founder of UX design consultancy DesignCaffeine, Greg designs innovative mobile and tablet experiences. He has developed mobile solutions for Fortune 500 companies as well as non-profits and start ups. He has authored multiple books including Designing Search: UX Strategies for eCommerce Success and recently Android Design Patterns. We wanted to give our audience the chance to get to know him a little bit better after his participation in our recent webinar, so we asked him a few questions. We caught up with Greg just hours after he finished his completely unplugged, week-long getaway to Yosemite.

(You can watch the webinar on demand here!)

The name of the webinar you participated in is “Secrets of Mobile Success.” Without rehashing the whole webinar, can you give us some keys to success in mobile?

I don’t want to over promote, but read my 3rd book, Android Design Patterns. It describes the entire methodology for a very lean, agile approach to mobile design. That will serve you in a tremendous way. What I describe there and teach through my webinars is a very lean, agile approach that involves using paper, post it notes, and prototypes to understand the interactions people have with the software. Mobile is unique, it’s meant to be used on the go and in a very unique context. So unless you get out there in that context, you’re just building something that has no demand whatsoever.

The main reason subpar apps are subpar really has nothing to do with visuals and everything to do with interaction design. By that I mean the entire experience—the transitions, icons, text, copy, landing pages, and wayfinding within the app. In these apps, things are just not designed well. Part of the reason is that they never have anyone try it out. Basically, “Let’s just build it, forget the testing.”

What I want to encourage everyone to do who wants to be a raging success in mobile is to build it on paper first. Try out some of the different patterns and see which ones work better for your app. Instead of going with your gut, you should literally try 3 or 4 or 5 different options. Ask questions. Can we make it faster? Can we make it easier to get to critical pieces of the application? Can we make it more like a popular mobile game? Can we add more hidden gestures?  Can we just make it more engaging and delightful? That, in a nutshell, is how I would do it. And as you go through the process, do usability testing! That way you can ensure you’re not just building an app based on your own preferences or commonly used conventions, but what is actually a good experience for your users.

What are some examples of apps that you think are really doing it well right now?

One that has been indispensible to me is the iOS native email. It’s been well done since day one, and has gotten a very nice upgrade. Yahoo weather is receiving some really good feedback. Yelp has always been excellent. Flipboard is really nice, and has a very unique approach to dealing with information. Kindle has been really good, although the recent design is not my favorite. The new banking app, Simple, is another great app that is really the poster-child for new finance apps.

What are the obstacles preventing the vast majority of people from doing mobile apps well?

A huge problem is not using the agile methodology I spoke of earlier. App developers tend to follow their gut instinct or blindly follow the latest app design conventions, without focusing on the end experience. App design conventions are not always bad, but they don’t always apply or work.

design conventions don't always work

Design conventions are not always bad, but they don’t always work.

Design conventions gave us a great start that allowed us to get a lot of apps (a million in the App Store) in just a few years. However, I think the mobile consumer is ready to kick off the “training wheels” and support the “information forward” approach. This approach is one that involves apps that are customized to you, your information, your experience, wherever you are. Even Apple, after advocating for certain design conventions, is going against much of their former advice with iOS 7 and app developers are really beginning to think outside of the box.

A good example of a forward thinking app is the Flipboard app. They basically approached development with the question, “what’s a good experience for the user?” The particular OS concerns were secondary. I’m not saying we ignore good design patterns and particular OS standards. If they work for your app then by all means use them. But if you’re really looking to stand out, you need to do the legwork and do the research and testing to find out what is the best design for your particular app.

How do companies decide between a responsive site, a mobile site, or a native app?

First of all, if you have a consumer-facing site that you expect to have a fair bit of mobile or tablet traffic, responsive web design should be the core of your strategy. This is the best way to “future-proof” your website. Having a great responsive site makes it possible to transition to new devices that will come out in the future. This responsive, cross-platform mindset may mean you need to rethink your web design. If you have a lot of flash, multi-level menus, extra text, heavy images and custom icons, you may need to abandon all that. You’re much better off approaching the entire site as a cross-platform experience.

If there’s no compelling reason to build an app, then don’t build one. Not long ago, it was extremely popular to build a “hybrid app,” which is an app that is really just the website running inside of an app. Frustrated by this, I was inspired me to write a post “Hybrid Apps Must Die,” and I stand by those words!

Responsive design should be the core of your mobile strategy. If there’s no compelling reason to build an app, then don’t build one.

Thankfully, hybrid apps are slowly dying. The reviews on these types of apps tell the story. The general consensus is, “it’s exactly like the website, only slower.” In fact, on these apps, you can actually see less stuff, because of the tab bar and application bar, so you end up with an even less functional product than the website. To avoid building a useless app, have a clear vision of the “Easter egg” your app contains that will deliver value to the consumer.

A good example of a great mobile strategy is Yelp. They have a very fast and very mobile-friendly website. Yet their app is even faster and better. It uses GPS in a very creative way, so you’re able to get all that information right on your phone much faster. So you can use either one, and get a good experience, but those that regularly use Yelp heavily prefer the app. These are exactly the kinds of experiences you want for the app.

In summary, you should absolutely have a responsive site, and then if there is some unique value your app will deliver that your site will not, then you should build an app as well.

You wrote Designing Search a few years ago. What is the landscape currently for search on mobile? Is it getting better?

“Search is dead. Long live search.” Search is no longer a function. It’s not an option that an app or site has. Search is the platform on which every single digital experience unfolds. Anything, from Facebook, to Amazon, email, messaging, music, any app or any website you touch is essentially running a search. The number one experience on mobile is search and everything we do is search based. It’s all about finding information in context. Basically, search shouldn’t feel like search. It should just feel like I’m communicating what I want and getting the information back.  What’s exciting to me is how search has moved even beyond me searching, but the technology predicting what I would need to search for.  For me, that’s the holy grail of search.

search is dead

“Search is dead. Long live search.”

The knock on Android is always fragmentation. In your book you say “celebrate fragmentation.” Can you explain that?

The reason I said that is because what we’re seeing is the explosion of many different forms. For many years, Apple had a monopoly on the entire mobile experience. And for good reason–their device is the Cadillac of phones. This monopoly lulled us into thinking that the iPhone equaled mobile. We just needed to figure out how to get things to look good on that screen size and on that device.

This idea was promptly destroyed when the iPad came along. People had to find ways develop for multiple screen sizes. Then, by the time Android came out on all these different phones worldwide, it caused us to really scratch our heads and say, “what have we done? The whole web is broken.” You could no longer put it in a box or say, “this is the dimension.” We’ve had to change our thinking entirely.

Android has achieved incredible penetration worldwide. It has taken off and bypassed the Apple monopoly in so many ways. Android 4 can work on a device that costs 5 dollars. For 20 rupees you can get a device that can access email, messaging, financial information. Now a farmer in rural India can see what the price of corn is on the global market, so they’re not cheated by a middleman. People who don’t have a lot of money and aren’t used to technology can now join in on the world’s conversation. In this way, fragmentation really makes us a global community. If you have a good app, you have the potential to touch billions of people. This is like science fiction, today.

A rural farmer in India

Celebrate Fragmentation. Now a farmer in rural India can see the the global price of corn and avoid being cheated by a middleman.

What is it that most excites you about the future of mobile development?

So many things! Soon we will have interactions with our devices that are so frictionless that they basically become part of your body. All of us that have smartphones are basically already cyborgs. My experience in Yosemite this week really underscored just how much it’s part of my thinking process. With a smartphone, you no longer need to remember trivial facts. The whole idea of knowledge has really evolved from the idea that you are smart if you can remember facts to the idea intelligence is the ability to incorporate facts and do storytelling. To retell a story, that is now how we can excel and communicate with each other.

It’s a brave new world out there and we’re just getting started. The next five years are going to be amazing!

Watch the intriguing panel discussion, “Secrets of Mobile Success,” on demand now!