Blog Post

What Makes Apps Delightful?

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

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.

[wufoo form=”z7m8z1″ username=”gigaom”]

19 Responses to “What Makes Apps Delightful?”

  1. mortjac

    I’m flabbergasted.
    Having asked for Facebook single sign-on from my developers since November, I found they didn’t understand it. So I wrote a couple of posts, and then today started to look for which of my about 150 apps does use Facebook single sing-on. And after an hour I found only tree: Instapaper, Diptic and MealSnap. Both Instapaper and Diptic are highly rewarded apps, so I wasn’t surprised to find single sign-on on them. But I wasn’t able to find it on any other of my 20+ social apps or 15+ photo apps.
    I don’t understand it.
    Om Malik wrote in What makes apps delightful:
    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.
    – Dear Om Malik, could you counter or verify my poor findings?

  2. Paul Calento

    While focus of article and most comments are on consumer experience, there’s implications for enterprise apps for mobile, as well … particularly since many org’s will opt to deploy existing (non-consumer) apps via a virtualization client and/or a Web front-end which may or may not be optimized for a mobile-centric point of view. The “three major constraints” limit the functionality of an existing app merely presented on a mobile device. Enterprises seldom think of “happiness” in app modernization projects. Perhaps they should.

  3. Thank you for being one of the first person to acknowledge slow internet connectivity speeds.
    Like everything these days involves being connected to the internet.
    Microsoft outlook express, relies totally on being connected to the internet, so that you can do their ‘fabulous’ new windows live while you innocently check incoming emails. As a result, it takes me at least 12 seconds to click on am email see its content.
    I have slow internet.
    I have expensive internet.
    I live in Africa.
    I don’t always have power.
    I don’t always have internet working.

    So as a result i am left out of the crowd and the rest of the world.
    I do not own a blackberry.
    I have a nokia n96
    Which means, i don’t get free internet on my phone (but i have to say i prefer using my computer with that nice giant keyboard) 

    Please can i call for applications to acknowledge that most people have slow internet connection, and that some of us may not always have internet.
    I think only facebook is the only program that has low resolution, no background images, or flashy adverts to slow down the page…. at times, not even hotmail website works in south Africa – you try and explain that to a European person, they think you’re not telling the truth.

    Please can outlook as an email application take heed – and ask us if it should recive large mails, and not block the emails for a day or so.
    I’m sure we have all wasted a day or more, where outlook just doesn’t send,
    Outlook just doesn’t receive

    And thats all due to having slow internet
    And because this new version of outlook, and this SO CALLED SUPER program, Microsoft live, that first wants to link an email to all other emails from that sender and connect to that sender online – BEFORE the actual email opens.
    As a result, slowing down whole computer

    And lets not add the new version of Windows 7 into the mix – jeepers, makes things even slower!

    What is a girl top do?
    Any suggestions?????

  4. This article is spot on. We faced many of the same issues when deciding what to include in the new SavingStar app for digital grocery coupons. We started with a long list of features of what the app should do, like displaying coupons, showing videos and recipes for some products, letting users make shopping lists, and giving options for how to signup like Facebook Connect. Taking a minimum viable product approach to the release, we streamlined the functionality and this really helped improve performance. We decided to remove Facebook Connect (for now) because we require a unique SavingStar email and password (which is important for many businesses). We also reduced the number of features so that the core action we want the user to take (select and view their coupons) reduced to 1 tab. Improving how fast the app functions became a main focus, specifically how quickly the coupons and images load, and how fast a user can select a coupon they want. It’s tempting to want to include lots of bells and whistles but keeping it simple makes for a better user experience.

  5. I agree that simplicity and speed are the most important factors in evaluating the success of a new mobile app. I have more than 50 apps on my phone, yet only use 5 on a regular basis. The ones I use frequently either do not require a log in or only required me to log in the first time I used the app.

  6. Great post…

    I’ve taken on a softer and more behavioral viewpoint to what makes apps or networks, especially social nets work (ex. @

    If something is true and allows behavioral expression, we just do it regardless. Speed, size, and load time all matter for certain but what made Facebook and Twitter and 4Sq work initially (and they were all pretty horrible performance wise) is that they gave a platform to a natural expression that needed to surface.

    Or simpler, Facebook didn’t invent sharing, it gave an expression to it.

    So, I agree…the less baggage between the user and app there is, the better, but the idea or expression is still the key.

  7. Your last comment reflects a curated experience as opposed to search. If that cardigan were available at Amazon, what makes you engage in the store experience? That is what is missing in e-commerce. We built a platform to enable small companies to develop “catalog” apps that could be fed via simple tools. Unfortunately, the same tools were useful for creating music experiences, and Apple was our downfall.

    Do you feel that if such shops were able to create a viable experience via mobile, that you would engage often? Is that akin to Googles efforts in fashion commerce?

  8. While I completely understand your view of why one should use something like Facebook Connect, let me ask all app developers to please provide a non-Facebook way to connect as well. Currently, I live in China where sites like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube are blocked. Unless I have a VPN running on my computer or mobile device, the use of Facebook Connect is an utter failure. I cannot even get past the first screen without pulling my hair out.

    I know this can be easily dismissed by saying, “China is not our market, nor is the expat living there,” but this is short-sighted. Apps such as Instagram are not blocked (yet) and are seeing more and more growth here. Blocking yourself out of such a large potential user-base just seems strange to me.

  9. If I could add something I would add the following.
    Do not expect an linear work flow.
    Mobile is,…. well mobile and we need to get things done when we get things done, not when they are planed to be done (desktop).

    Google example of “good” application with utility. @36:20

    Notice how many taps it takes in the example. So I browse an recipe and order bananas, then what. Is there a link back to the recipe or the menu plan if one exists. Do I need them now or is it ok to wait, is it just a reminder I need some later. Does this program really want me to remember all of this, or create it. How about it’s a staple. We buy them all the time, does it really want me to search select repeat all the time for the same stuff?

    Simple shopping decisions can become really complex if one doesn’t structure a mobile program to handle out of sequence data all the time, where feedback loops “why do I want bananas or why did my son put them on the list” aren’t even covered in “sophisticated” apps. Also staples/template data is just a form feedback loop.

    Maybe because I’m not a designer and sometimes remember “we need bananas” while reading an scientific article about epileptic seizures and think my brain just got smashed because at the same time I want to know why is the brain so resilient which reminds me my wife told me to get bananas. But I think that program above is just horrible, or I need more order in the way I work and think.
    Point is, desktop programs treat users as little input robots, guess what. I’m not a robot, follow me around and a lot of things happen and only some of them are planned. All the while I gather data and transform data into Information and knowledge, to maybe be used sometime later(out of sequence feedback loops).

    And now it’s Friday and I will take my son to Karate practice. At which point my system hopefully reminds me that at this point in time I have time to buy ripe bananas. Because what she really said was: “When you’re at Karate can you hop over to buy me some ripe bananas since I will make banana bread over the weekend, I will put it on the list”. The system has figured out banana, my input, is a duplicate from her bananas, which is linked to the recipe which requires ripe bananas.

    In other words the best system/app is one with none linear input/output and an analog experience(emotions, speed, clean, seamless). Sounds like a paradox but at 2:30 am also quite right.

    PS. I like Retro Meier’s book. Just not the apps he picked as good examples.

    • Nicholas

      I believe they are poor experiences because most Companies and their designers are operating from a web perspective. On mobile devices, this is simply a recipe for failure or the status quo.

      If you can’t make the experience an immediate decision by the user against a very targeted choice, you are not mobile. I will say that I believe network speed is irrelevant and a consequence of technology. What this should be about is how long it takes to get to a desired option.

      The combination of native feeds and web services will enable this. Intelligence will eliminate unnecessary decisions. The choice then gets down to an articulated decision. The clothing store discussed very simply presents options that match the range of choices that the user would like to see.

      • Just a minor point. One has to be careful with speed, speed is associated with emotions like “feels smart”.
        In other words if your app is to slow, what ever you do might “feel wrong”, since the users mind has wandered off. On the other hand big dumb data systems might “feel” smart if they can return a 80% wrong result really fast.
        The good news it’s a range, the bad news it varies by person.
        Getting to the point where the user needs to be can also be modeled from a system perspective as speed, only good design direct access is always faster than raw model/CPU speed.

      • Nicholas

        I’ll disagree with this simply because users don’t tolerate fast and wrong on mobile. That is in my mind a mis-perception. You don’t give me exactly what I want while I’m standing on the El platform you are worse than worthless!

        Accuracy is critical in mobile. Mobile users are extremely vocal. They want you to give them the correct choices. But, the continued tolerance doesn’t last forever.

      • A lot of list choices are based on math understanding, statistical understanding, like significance testing. Which leads to choices in apps based on data like this.
        People believe a lot of things to be right if you babble something about statistical significance testing,95%, data driven, created by “smart” people ….

    • beenyweenies

      I think the most likely answer is that the majority of iOS apps come from small teams, maybe 1-5 people, most of whom are iOS developers, NOT interface designers, UX experts etc.

  10. I have been making iPhone Apps for over a year @VectorBloom. Finally I decided to allow myself to create something ‘delightful’ for iPhone users. Inspired by Ballet and Circus performance, I created ‘ArtCards by Elizabeth Boylan’ iPhone App for custom greetings, mini poems, invitations or announcements. It’s a free download on the App Store for the next week, the Artwork can be saved for Custom Lock Screens and Wall Paper, sent as email, MMS or posted to ones Facebook Wall. There’s even a ‘Forgive Me’ ArtCard for anyone whose goofed up enough they need to make amends. Hope everyone loves the art! @ElizabethBoylan