What mobile apps can learn from games

The iTunes App Store, Google Play and other markets have given us reason to never let go of our phones as we use them for everything from keeping our appointments to hurling angry birds at pigs. If I asked you what your favorite app to use is I can almost guarantee you it would be a game. Why? Because even while you may use your calendar religiously or always be Instagram-ing your food, your utility apps (let’s call them that) are downright ugly and sometimes a pain to use.
Last month I took a trip up to Silicon Valley, a place widely regarded as the home of technological innovation, and had a long talk with a couple of entrepreneurial strategists about the interfaces used in utility apps today. We were talking about how both mobile and desktop utility applications that you see today are ugly, slow, and clunky.

My 4-year-old cousin can pick up my iPhone and immediately start playing “Annoying Orange” but my mother on the other hand holds on to her dumbphone because the cryptic icons and gestures of the latest smartphones don’t make sense to her.

I wouldn’t touch this software with a ten-foot pole, let alone my finger.
Apple, as much as I love them, even seems to encourage a cookie-cutter type of app for their iPhone. Their Xcode tool gives a simple drag-and-drop interface to create user interfaces (UIs) that trap a developer eager to get their app to market into creating a subpar, boring UI that requires a manual (or makes you wish you had a manual).

Android gives more control to the developer, but that often results in the age-old problem of an ugly interface that screams engineering degree. No offense to those engineers who also have good design intuition. I know you exist too.

So here’s my point: what if we stopped thinking about utility app development from a boring, “this is an app to do work,” mantra to a more game-like point of view. Before you think I’m trying to turn everything all “Fruit Ninja” on you (although, you might like that), hear me out.
Game UIs are less restrictive. Maybe having that back button shoved in the corner of the top navigation bar isn’t the best place. Heck, maybe that top navigation bar needs to disappear altogether. Game designers are rewarded for making designs that don’t stick to a cookie-cutter style while utility app designers are punished for not being consistent.
Game UIs communicate more information using less screen real estate. The heads-up display in “Diablo III” relays more information in a smaller space than any office application I’ve used.

They also communicate that information more fluidly and less-intrusively. I hate how I have to switch windows or even spaces just to respond to a simple text or instant message. Games typically make use of windows with different opacities to attract focus.

Game UIs are easier to use. When I ask my game-shy friends if they want to play a game, the usual response is that they’ll watch me play for a little while and then give it a shot. When they pick it up, it all comes fairly easily because the game teaches you as you play.
Games are that easy to use because players have demanded an experience that doesn’t require them to read a manual. Game developers have already faced a lot of UI design and human interaction problems, and have fixed them (well, the good developers have) while standard utility-software development has been stuck thinking inside a box full of restrictions and standards.

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