What’s more important in UI: what you tap or what you see?

Daring Fireball recently linked to Maps Plus. The app uses Google Maps data but filters it through an Apple-style interface. John Gruber says:

It’s close to what you’d get if Google Maps were still providing the data for Apple Maps.

And this is true. It even has Street View. It doesn’t, though, have turn-by-turn, and there is, to me, a worse problem: the roads are the wrong colour. This is because when Google shifted its system to a faster vector-based approach, it dispensed with varying road colours individual nations used, preferring US ones worldwide. Instead of blue motorways, green A roads and yellow B roads, UK motorways became orange, A roads were coloured yellow, and B roads were white, not differentiated from smaller roads. Motorways and A roads since received correctly coloured markers, but that only helps when one is in the viewing area. Otherwise, at a glance, the M3 diagonally crossing the screen looks at a glance like an A road.

Apple Maps got this right in iOS 7b4. This means in the UK, you can more easily spot the roads you need, just by what colour they are. By contrast, Maps Plus loses this, through working with Google’s mapping system. So you end up with a user interface that’s more suited to iOS, but content where its ‘user interface’ is far worse. Complicating matters further, Google remains far superior to Apple when it comes to points of interest and with Street View versus the oddball Flyover. So either Apple needs to get way better with POI or Google needs to get over itself and start recognising everywhere isn’t the USA. Usually, I’d suggest there’d be no chance of Apple winning such a race, but Google doesn’t seem to want to budge on this one.

 

 

June 6, 2016. Read more in: Apps, Design

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App Store review guidelines

In light of Apple’s recent about-face on Liyla and the Shadows of War, it’s interesting to look at Apple’s App Store review guidelines. One of the statements is:

If your App is rejected, we have a Review Board that you can appeal to. If you run to the press and trash us, it never helps.

The wording here is pure Jobs, but the thing that gets me is this statement is flat-out wrong. Most developers don’t have the contacts or a subject that results in a load of press. Generally, though, those who have ‘run to the press’ have found bizarre decisions Apple made about an app rapidly overturned. Perhaps the ‘and trash us’ bit is key. But certainly running to the press can help.

It’s also interesting looking at Apple’s other so-called ‘broader themes’:

We have lots of kids downloading lots of Apps. Parental controls work great to protect kids, but you have to do your part too. So know that we’re keeping an eye out for the kids.

This, I think, governs an awful lot of what Apple deems acceptable regarding app and game content, but the App Store has age gating. On that basis, I still find the following baffling:

We view Apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate. If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical App.

Clearly, Apple isn’t really budging much on this, but it makes no sense to consider interactive content somehow ‘lesser’ than books or music when it comes to self expression. I recall during my fine arts degree that it was innovative for people to be creating interactive art, but that was during the 1990s. Now, apps and games are just another medium for working within. Treating them with kid gloves helps no-one.

We have over a million Apps in the App Store. If your App doesn’t do something useful, unique or provide some form of lasting entertainment, or if your app is plain creepy, it may not be accepted.

I actually like this one’s ‘plain creepy’ remark, although as ever with Apple, it’s almost like the vague language that politicians use, meaning you can apply all sorts of content to that rule if you want to kick out an app. As for ‘useful, unique or provide some form of lasting entertainment’, plenty of apps in the store arguably fail that test.

If your App looks like it was cobbled together in a few days, or you’re trying to get your first practice App into the store to impress your friends, please brace yourself for rejection. We have lots of serious developers who don’t want their quality Apps to be surrounded by amateur hour.

This is the other rule that really gets me. Amateur hour is everywhere on the App Store. There are thousands of truly terrible apps and games that are devoid of quality. I suppose it’s still helpful for Apple to argue people should aim higher, but it strikes me this rule has never been seriously adhered to.

We will reject Apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, “I’ll know it when I see it”. And we think that you will also know it when you cross it.

“We won’t tell you what the rules are and can change them whenever we see fit.” It’s this kind of thing that is slowly putting off developers from creating innovative content for iOS. And times are changing.

I recall chatting to a lot of game devs at an event five or six years ago, and without exception they were thrilled about the platform. As they saw it, Apple was a major step up from existing players, who too often made onerous demands on developers. There was a kind of hands-off freedom in developing for iOS. But goodwill continues to be chipped away as developers almost randomly find apps and games blocked for no obvious reason. (And then, worse, you see other apps of the same kind approved, and the original sometimes making its way to the store many months later, far too late to make an impact or any money.)

But hey, at least Apple points out your app could trigger a bout of craziness:

This is a living document, and new Apps presenting new questions may result in new rules at any time. Perhaps your App will trigger this.

‘Boom’.

 

May 23, 2016. Read more in: Apple, Apps, Opinions, Technology

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App Store search is currently broken

Developer Travis Ryan just noted to me on Twitter that App Store search is broken. Presumably, this is a temporary glitch, but it’s frustrating for developers. In Ryan’s case, a search for Dashy Crashy doesn’t bring up his excellent game of the same name. All you get is Dashy Crashy Bird, a one-thumb sort-of Flappy Bird clone.

Once Ryan reminded me, I realised that I’ve seen this problem crop up quite a bit recently, although I’d never really thought much of it. When writing round-ups, I’d not find the odd app by searching the App Store, and would then check online to see if it still existed. I’d end up on iTunes Preview, click View in iTunes, and then go straight to the app’s page to install it.

All this makes me think is that, once again, the App Store needs a serious kicking. But also Apple needs to do a bit more stealing. I might grumble about Android and that Google Play is mostly full of garbage, but at least when I find something I want to install on my Android devices, I can do so from the web. That Apple doesn’t yet allow me to install an app or game from Safari (or, for that matter, an iPad app from an iPhone) is ludicrous. It’s not so much a walled garden at that point as walled stupid.


Developer Gary Riches says this screw-up has led to daily sales falling by 66 per cent, and adds that you “literally cannot find my app, even by keyword“.


Update: it’s fixed now. Apple presumably glared at the server hamster. WORK HARDER, SERVER HAMSTER. OUR BOTTOM LINE HAS FALLEN. NO HAMSTER FOOD FOR YOU TODAY.

May 5, 2016. Read more in: Apple, Apps, Opinions, Technology

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Pay to play: why paid placements in the App Store must not spread further than search

Given that Apple doesn’t comment on rumours, take Bloomberg’s story Apple Pursues New Search Features for a Crowded App Store with a pinch of salt. The claim is that Apple has

constructed a secret team to explore changes to the App Store, including a new strategy for charging developers to have their apps more prominently displayed

For me, the key paragraph in the story is this:

If Apple goes through with the idea, “it’s going to be huge,” said Krishna Subramanian, the co-founder of Captiv8, which helps brands market using social media. “Anything that you can do to help drive more awareness to your app, to get organic downloads, is critical.”

Subramanian is right in one sense: if Apple does this, it will be huge. It’ll be huge in eradicating any sense that the App Store is a meritocracy when it comes to app visibility.

Right now, search remains a mess, in part due to its lack of granularity regarding fields to search within. It has improved — a search for ‘Twitter’ now first returns a selection of Twitter clients rather than random apps with teams who were very good at App Store SEO — but it could be better.

My bigger concern, though, is paid placement permeating throughout the store, such as on to the entry pages a great many people use to find new apps and games. There, Apple’s ‘curation’ is uneven. I’ve been told by various American friends that ‘Editor’s Choice’ in the US is closer in meaning to ‘this is interesting’ than ‘this is amazing’, but even so, that slot is often filled with garbage, albeit garbage released by companies important to Apple from a revenue standpoint.

However, it would be hyperbole to suggest this is ubiquitous. In both apps and games, prominent positions in the App Store are very regularly given to top-notch products, many of which are by indies; Apple’s selections are on the whole pretty good. A case in point: today’s App Store highlights for games include Warbits, PKTBALL, and Chameleon Run, all of which are very much worth playing. And the first couple of entries in the smaller ‘What We’re Playing’ zone are Looty Dungeon and Shadow Bug — both of which I’d also recommend.

So should Apple veer down a paid route for search, I hope it won’t spread further. Things are hard enough for developers now, without them worrying that they’ll need the deepest of pockets, in order to even have a shot of visibility on the App Store.

April 15, 2016. Read more in: Apple, Apps, Gaming, Opinions

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Ratings screens in children’s apps need to die — and they’re not the only thing

Mini-G has been faffing about with an iPod touch and — whenever possible — her parents’ iPhones for some months now. If ever you need a reminder about your generation’s looming obsolescence, stick a toddler in front of a high-tech device and see them master it before they’ve even figured out how to talk. Anyway, since we’re at the point where mini-G can use apps alone (albeit supervised), I’ve made some observations.

First, I’m broadly positive about the whole screens thing. I don’t believe a kid should be glued to any kind of screen for long periods of the day, but mini-G learned how to attempt to say ‘mouth’ from Metamorphabet, and has apps that have boosted aspects of empathy and dexterity. After a session has gone on for perhaps 20 minutes, an iPhone is — typically without prompting — turned to sleep mode and returned to the relevant parent. (Elsewhere, books are read, Lego is played with, puzzles are completed, telly is watched, and wheeled walkers are driven around the kitchen as if it’s the Indy 500. So: balance.)

Secondly, however, it’s clear some developers of apps for children either haven’t tested them all that much on actual children using them on their own, or fundamentally don’t care about the user experience as it relates to said children. Here are some things developers should avoid when making apps for kids:


Ratings screens.
These aren’t exactly loved in apps for adults, but it’s reasonable to include them — reviews and ratings can be important for an app’s success. But throwing up a screen along these lines on an app being used by a 20-month-old child? At best, a parent will be there and grumpily turn off the app. If not, the child will get frustrated and bounce out to the App Store. (And developers who reason very young kids do not remember their favourite apps — as in, apps that don’t annoy them — let me tell you: you are wrong.)


Long launch animations.
 Yes, we know you’re probably very proud of that lengthy animation you had commissioned, your company logo bouncing around like a cartoon character hopped up on sugar. But here’s the thing: no kid cares a jot. In fact, mini-G exits apps with remarkable speed if they don’t ‘do’ anything interactive. You’ve probably got two or three seconds. By all means include your intro, but make it immediately skippable with a single tap. Otherwise, you’re just this tech generation’s DVD producer.


Visible IAP.
 I’m not against IAP in general, not even in apps for children. Developers just need to ensure apps aren’t exploitative. However, in apps designed for children, the IAP needs to be hidden behind some kind of settings screen. I’ve seen too many apps now where you get the first bit for free, and then a kid taps on something that flings up an IAP window. Sure, they’re not going to purchase anything at that moment (well, unless they’re very tech savvy and you are asleep); but the child will get frustrated at not being able to easily exit that screen and get back to the fun parts, or when they inevitably end up back on that screen on a fairly regular basis.


Fiddly navigation.
 It takes time for the dexterity of young children to improve, and yet children’s apps are full of fiddly navigation elements. So make interfaces chunky. Ensure that if a kid accidentally exits to the main screen, they can continue by tapping a suitably massive button (it turns out a big Play symbol is a good one to use). If you don’t, you may find kids simply exit the app and don’t go back.

April 7, 2016. Read more in: Apps, Design, Opinions, Technology

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