Imagining Something Different

August 25th, 2014

Over the past few weeks I have lamented the unnecessary requirement to sign up for accounts in order to use apps and the inconsiderate overuse of alerts and push notifications, specifically on iOS. Yet, these are arguably side effects of the fundamental problems that come with application development.

Most applications could be defined as a tool to do a specific thing in a specific way. (Talking mainly about non-game apps here.) This generalized concept is great. It allows for multiple applications which have similar outcomes, yet different processes. Thats why we have, CloudMagic, Gmail, Mailbox, Mail+… etc. There’s almost always an app that works the way do.

I would classify this as First Tier Functionality. The fundamental design is what the app does, each app has a workflow that emphasizes a specific feature or option.

Most apps also have what I will call Second Tier Functionality. While the first tier dictates how you sort or respond to your email, the second tier would be the add-ons that help fill in the checkboxes on the features page. Social networking, cloud syncing, ability to export. All things that you could theoretically live without, but could offer some benefits to certain users.

The deeper problem is that these features are not always segregated in the mind of the application creator.

Case Study

Lets look at a case study. The Bible app from, is one of the best Bible Reading apps in the app store, and rightly so. It offers a wide range of first and second tier features. Here’s a brief rundown:

First Tier Features:

  • Choose from hundreds of Bible Version in over 400 languages
  • Get access to many of the most popular versions of the Bible
  • Download versions for offline access
  • Listen to audio Bibles
  • Access devotional and reading plans
  • Search for passages
  • Highlight and write notes

Second Tier Features:

  • Connect with your friends
  • Track your friends progress as they read
  • Comment and share thoughts with contacts as you read
  • Share verses on social networks
  • Publish notes

Reading through the description and feature checklist on the app description everything mentioned falls into one of two categories: personal use and social use.

The fundamental difference here is that the social features are not required to find usefulness in the app. I’m not saying they aren’t useful, only that they are optional. They are certainly nice add-ons, but there will be a lot of people who probably won’t use them.

So where’s the problem?

The problem is that some apps nag users about secondary tier features. The Bible app will occasionally give me a push notification telling me that I should add my friends because that will make my experience better and more fun.

Now, there are two reasons why a user won’t use a feature. Either they don’t know about it or they don’t want to use it. If the user knows about a feature and has decided not to use it, a push notification telling them about it is akin to an unsolicited ad, showing up on the lock screen of your phone.

You can’t presume that everyone who uses an app will want to take advantage of everything the app has to offer. (Unless an app does exactly one thing, which… is not what we are talking about.) What fraction of the population uses every feature MS Word offers on a daily basis?

Dropbox is guilty of this as well. How many times do I have to tell it not to import my photos when I plug in my camera or not to upload my screenshots when I capture something on my computer? (Answer: more than once, which is too many times.)

This is a problem that plagues the technology industry. Apple, Google, Facebook, even Amazon. These companies are notorious for forcing new features on users or taking away useful ones without notice or explanations. Finder labels. Google Plus. Auto play video in timelines. Add-on items. Need I go on?

Developers need to be aware that not everyone who uses their app will use all the features. It seems like it should be common sense, but these things still crop up.

I get the sense that people in the tech world dream about a utopian future where all tech works seamlessly together and we all get to fly around the universe in the USS Enterprise. You know what Star Trek didn’t have? Pop-up alerts.

After Teleporting down to a planet:

You just transported to Omicron Ceti III, check in now to earn the “This Side of Paradise” Badge. Be sure to share with your friends!

In the middle of a space battle:

We noticed you haven’t posted an update in a while. Tell your friends what you are up to!

After being imprisoned by the Borg:

Check out what happened on your professional network!  

(Side note. You could probably do a pretty good Star Trek Parody swapping out the tech from the 1960s with tech from the 2010s and come out with a decent comedy. Though it would be tedious to watch because they would never get anything done because they don’t have an IT department to fix the inevitable problems.)