Tuesday, Sep 21, 2010
Much fuss has been made about the user experience of the Android Marketplace and how it compares to the iOS App Store but, while there are many points to be made about how the Marketplace's design could be improved, the highest barrier to purchasing Android apps has nothing to do with the store's design because Android's standard provisioning of apps actively dissuades users from venturing outside the phone for more. If you'll excuse a little metaphorplay, consider the iOS app launcher as a desk with accessories on it. The user's first experience with the iPhone immediately lays out the capability that the device offers. 'Phone,' 'Clock,' 'Calculator,' 'YouTube,' 'Mail,' 'Music,' 'App Store.' Apple puts a premium on their real estate, ensuring not only that all the primary functionality is clearly displayed on the home screen with room to spare, but that the user isn't presented with apps that lack broad appeal or a clear value proposition based on name and icon alone.* In short, a new user can tell what an iPhone can do without ever going further than the default home screen. Leaving an empty space on the home screen is an essential part of the next part of the story. Apple deliberately pushed 'Contacts' off to the second page to keep several spaces empty. Open space adjacent to an 'App Store' icon implies expandability. Deliberately keeping a few showcase apps like iBooks out of the default provisioning gives the user a 'training mission' for the App Store. Apple guides them into getting a specific, high quality app in a fashion that gives the user both knowledge and confidence to go back in to the App Store in the future to add more capability to their phone. At the end of the day, there are two kinds of apps, those that are 'on the phone' and the thousands more that the user has been trained how to get. Now let's play the same scenario with a typical Android phone. Provisioning and UIs differ from provider to provider, but the salient problems are remarkably consistent across Android phones. The typical primary Android default home screen has anywhere from four to eleven app icons and a large widget on top, usually Clock and Weather or a Google search box. Consider the Android home screen as a workbench. It doesn't just hold apps and accessories, it holds tools. With several panes already configured with controls like the power widget, the tone is set: The home screens aren't just where you start a task, they're where you do stuff, they're where you read stuff. They comprise a workbench where you get stuff done. There's nothing inherently wrong with that. I really do wish the iPhone launcher had a bit more in the way of ambient notifications because even in California it's not always sunny and 73 degrees, nor am I always on De Anza Blvd just off 280 outside Apple's headquarters. Back to Android: All these widgets take space, and so the home is designed as a workbench (and a showcase for live wallpapers) rather than a place to store all your tools. Android has another place for keeping all the tools that come with the phone, the 'Launcher.' An entirely different place than the home screens with different behaviors and the capability to store many, many more apps in a big scrolling list. The Launcher is the problem. From one perspective, the Launcher sounds like a great idea. Instead of limiting themselves to 20 apps on one screen an Android carrier can include an unlimited number of apps and so many carriers throw a number of whiz-bang apps like Google Goggles into the Launcher to add to the value proposition of the phone. The net result is that the new user sees the home screen as the hub of interaction with their phone, and the Launcher as the secondary place (the role played by the App Store on the iPhone). When they want something that the home screen can't provide they open up the Launcher (tool chest) littered with gadgets whose utility isn't always obvious, for example Goggles, Car Home, Email and Gmail, Messaging and Talk, Phone and Voice, Voice Dialer and Voice Search. In short, when an iPhone user wants to do something new with their phone, they look around in the App Store. When an Android user wants to do something new with their phone, they look around in the Launcher and play with one of the tools they haven't played with yet. The Android Marketplace is another place entirely, a place many users are reluctant to go to when they don't feel they even fully understand the tools they've already got. When a phone ships with core functionality and an easy route to further provision it for your own needs, users end up with a phone that feels like it's their device, something they know how to use completely and have made their own. When a phone ships with kitchen sink apps and those with overlapping or unclear functionality, the user feels like they're using someone else's tool and, yes, they can add to it and customize it, but a large portion of users will still feel there are places inside their own phone that are fuzzy to them because they either don't have a use for the functionality or simply don't understand it. By simplifying the scope of the Android new user experience, challenging themselves by eliminating the Launcher altogether, and giving the users a yellow brick road to the Android Marketplace to get a few almost-critical applications, Android carriers would not only give customers a device they won't be overwhelmed by, but also supply the user with the confidence and the incentive to make the Android Marketplace a regular part of their smartphone experience. PS: 'Marketplace' sounds like a forum where dozens of shopkeepers are hawking their wares. Rebranding Android's shopping experience in a way that makes the user feel like they're shopping and purchasing from a single trusted entity with a trusted brand would go a long way. 'Google Store' has a nice ring to it.
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