Random Acts Of Creativity: When Apps Think Harder

Once again my phone home screens runneth over. As I researched and programmed the may 12 OMMA Mobile, which is focusing on apps and the developing platform wars among Google, Apple and the mobile Web, I have been burning up the 3G and Wi-Fi channel with downloads.

It is time to do a brain dump of observations that occur to me as I spend more time with mobile apps than a grown man probably should.

Is this a magazine medium? the phone and iPad iterations of print magazines gushed on the platform in recent months, and I am not even remotely convinced that most people really want their magazines in full on a phone. the iPhone versions of GQ and Esquire are interesting interface experiments, but the basic flow of a magazine (front matter, feature well, end matter, full page ad bridges) just doesn’t translate effectively to a small screen. there is just too much content in there, and I have yet to see an interface that doesn’t lose me at some point.

The jury is still out for me on magazines on the iPad. the screen does recreate the feel of print more effectively than anything I have seen. I am not sure the use case of sinking into a magazine is the same. Which is why I am most enthused by Entertainment Weekly‘s “Must List” iPad app. This magazine has simple scraped the best stuff, the reviews and must-see items from its front matter, and put it into an interface that isn’t trying to be a magazine. Just tap one of the ten items on the splash page, and the app gives you content and links into tickets, songs and TV episode purchases. it creates a virtuous circle of reader inspiration, exploration and purchase. and every Friday it is refreshed with the latest issue’s content. For publishers, this model is going somewhere.

The reemergence of voice as an element in mobile is encouraging. For some strange reason, the first generations of mobile content forgot entirely that the phone is a voice-centric device, treating it instead as the Web extended. Now we are seeing smarter examples of reintroducing the voice as an interface. A new app from TV chef Nigella Lawson smartly uses voice controls to advance items in a recipe. the idea of course is that you want hands-free navigation when your fingers are thick with dough. also the truly inspired iPhone and iPad apps for the TV program “Glee” uses voice synthesis to “reform” your singing pitch for better harmonizing with the cast. This is a territory ripe with creative possibilities.

Speaking of audio, I still don’t get why more consumer and media brands aren’t making better use of the “radio” dimension of the smart phone. Didn’t Pandora prove this case? or NPR? both apps demonstrate how a rich stream of content doesn’t require video. I am not sure why brands aren’t using streaming audio more. it is more accessible to more users in more situations, and it makes nearly as compelling an experience. and once we get the iPhone 4.0 multitasking in place, a brand will be able to stick with the user while he is in other apps.

We are only still fumbling toward effective touch-screen interfaces. there are some companies that just can’t leave the swiping and the panning alone. the Gap’s 1969 app is pushing the boundaries with its wonder-wall approach, free-floating us across a sea of images and icons to press. This reminds us that pages and display boundaries are a nice organizing principle and generally prevent that queasy sensation, which you don’t really want to induce in consumers.

More sensible but creative uses of the swipe interface are in the Disney iPhone app. the main sections whirl by like a slot machine wheel, but the landing pages tend to float on the main screen rather than drop you into a new area. the effect keeps you visually oriented despite the novel interface.

There is a tendency to overuse the x and y axes in touch-screen interfaces, so that you end up with horizontal menus on top and bottom and vertical scrolls in the center. less is more and designers have to remember the basics of interactive design. Always have consistent touchstones in the interface telling users where they are and how to get back.

If you are going to play, then play to win. everyone wants a piece of the mobile gaming craze. all of those brand managers and agencies are seeing how well games do on the app charts, and so a new wave of advergames is coming, if not already upon us. Except for brands with big budgets, the basic advergaming approach reskinned a third-party title with their branding message and everyone went out for a drink. Done. the results were mixed at best. Let’s not forget that as we see the same model reenacted on mobile.

Ben and Jerry’s Chuck-a-Chunk game for iPhone is an example of being stuck between low production values and a creative idea. it is a simple variation on the paper toss game where a finger swipe sends your object toward a wastebasket, usually fighting against fan wind. in this case you are tossing chocolate-chip cookies into a glass of milk, all to promote B&J’s Milk & Cookies ice-cream flavor. by putting the game into a college dorm room with cackling students cheering and jeering, the app shows its creative spark. and then it fails to execute. the brand shows its awareness of its audience and the idea is clever. But, the animations and illustrations are crude — and not in a successfully ironic way — and the challenge in the end is not varied or rich enough to communicate value. it is a creative spark that never quite ignited.

Random Acts Of Creativity: When Apps Think Harder

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