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A few months ago, a notice appeared on the door into our apartment building. Our management company would be replacing our old-fashioned entryway buzz-to-enter system with a video-touchscreen in the entryway and an app for every resident so they can see and buzz-in anyone, directly from their phones.

I cried for several months while they installed it and we had no buzzer at all and every day since as the app never works and we have to go down to open the building door. That our archaic apartment manager decided to go all mobile-first on us and failed is the latest example of what’s beginning to feel like app saturation.

Over the past 3-4 years, every company decided that they needed an app interface in order to remain relevant in a mobile world. Fast-forward to today and it’s clear that they do not.

Arriving at an app for everything moment stems from exponential mobile use — the average person checks their phone 150 times per day — and app downloads per smart phone user (35% annual growth since 2012). The average smartphone user has 41 apps on their phone. FORTY-ONE!!!

That may not seem crazy to our industry’s rabid beta testers but honestly how many television channels and credit cards do you think the average person uses in a given day? That number is nowhere close to 41.

Unfortunately, the phone’s layout and ease of access to such a variety of applications on them encourages time management, focus and efficiency to fall prey to mindless, mobile distraction. The application layer has made access to everything we like, do or engage with universal. We’re only human after all, so given a choice between immediately answering an urgent work email when we’re two thumb taps away from a hilarious snapchat story, it’s not even a choice.

With a seamless flow from app to app and the proliferation of apps on our phones, its clear our homescreen is not sustainable as the default UI and access point to internet services, experiences and communication. New apps will inevitably see a diminishing return as they compete for usage and mindshare. Sensory and focal elements of the human brain do not subscribe to Moore’s Law, the lasting interaction model in mobile remains to be determined.

Here are few types of apps prevalent today that we probably don’t need or use nearly enough to justify downloading:

Banking-Transaction apps – transactions can be facilitated and recorded by blockchains, confirmed via Apple Pay et al and displayed in a push notification. No need for BOFA and Amex and Citi and TD Ameritrade and Venmo and PayPal apps.

Corporate Apps #1   – airline apps are phenomenal when traveling and useless when not. The same generally goes for live events and ticketing apps. Beacons and/or RFID should be able to confirm flights and check users in when they arrive an airport and boarding passes should be sent through push. Better yet, beacons can again check someone into the gate and you never take your phone out at the airport again.

Corporate Apps #2 – There are many companies who’s core services or products do not translate to the application layer. Coca Cola has over 20 standalone apps in the app store as well as a main Coca Cola app with international versions translated into 15+ languages. There are more effective and direct ways for them to advertise and, judging from their app reviews, these corporations’ app downloads are almost negligible.

And so, in a world of ghost apps and Instagram holes, where do we go next? Perhaps to keyboards, messaging, push notifications, blockchains and beacons.

Messaging, in the traditional SMS flow, as well as in the form of the notifications powered by pushing to locked-out screen, is a potential solution to app overload and an innovative step in how mobile technology transmits information and facilitates communication. One-to-one text messaging caught due to its simplicity, ubiquity, and efficiency. Texting can be both real-time and asynchronous, it carries much less of the emotional and psychological friction of phone calls, and easily expands to group chats.

Scheduling and commerce are two areas that stand to be improved by the efficiency and comfort of messaging.  As a platform, messaging has built-in engagement, via push, and built-in distribution, via keyboards, that can’t be ignored. If open-sourced, messaging could be the initial interaction for then completing more complex actions faster. Services like Drizzy and the GIF keyboard are sending content directly into text. Stefan’s Head and Text Rex from The Infatuation provide real-time commerce and restaurant reccs in your SMS stream. Yo, Hooks, IFTTT, and Sunrise allow push notifications and the locked-out screen to eliminate the need to dive back into your crowded app screens to process an update or facilitate quick communication.

A mobile experience building towards one-touch interactions that reduces multiple steps and any redundancies is coming. We will interact quickly with our devices, not sinking into them but gaining informational or entertainment benefit and moving back into the physical world. The Apple Watch is a strong step in this direction.

99% Invisible is a phrase borrowed from a tremendous podcast of the same name, a narrative show about the unseen and overlooked aspects design. The name comes from a quote by renowned design intellect Buckminster Fuller who said that 99% of who we are is invisible and untouchable. The quote has evolved into a notion that some of the very best design is barely noticed by those that experience it. Near perfect design is so seamless, engaging or obvious that its not seen as design at all.

The same may eventually be said of some technologies, perhaps the mobile interaction model. If blockchains and beacons, SMS and push notifications can move us past the app, we may approach a period in mobile tech that’s not defined by a new product or service but just a unique experience we have as a mobile user.


I’m aware that many of the ideas for mobile improvement suggested above would still depend on an app as a starting point for data and interaction (most push notifications for example). Hopefully this becomes a post or conversation for another time focused on what could generate notifications or messages on mobile outside of applications. 

This story originally appeared on Tim Devane. Copyright 2015

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