The "Age of the App" has been in full effect for the past 7 years. When mobile apps first started popping up in 2008, no one could have expected them to take over over the technology scene and completely revolutionize how we live and work.
Currently, the iTunes app store houses around 1.4 million apps and the Google Play Store 1.7 million. (And yes, don’t forget the few hundred thousand on the Windows Phone Store, Amazon Appstore, and the struggling BlackBerry World). These numbers have had constant steady growth over the past 7 years. But how long can this continue?
In a recent Nielsen study, the average smartphone user accesses about 26.7 apps on a monthly basis. And, this number hasn't fluctuated much in the last 2 years. So, what does this mean? Why are businesses continuously developing new mobile apps if user habits aren’t shifting towards a higher use of apps?
This week I attended a Tech in Motion meet up in New York City. And, even there it was clear, there is still a large market push for apps. Every business is looking for the elusive unicorn UX designer and full stack developer to build out their visions. But when I ran into Tim Sturge, head of engineering at GoButler, I was intrigued by their consumer platform model. Their business focuses on providing anyone with a smartphone access to anything on-demand. Need flight reservations? Food delivered? Dog walked? Shoot them an SMS text and they’ll arrange all the details for you. No app needed. They’ve essentially done two key things differently:
- Removed the barrier to entry by simply avoiding an app shell all together.
- Created a conversational user interface (CUI)—an interface which users are already familiar with. There's no need to learn a new app interaction language/pattern as the service focuses on SMS as their main channel for interaction.
And GoButler is not the only company that has started taking this contrasting approach to building an app. Magic is a similar SMS-based ordering service that gives user 24/7 access to on-demand services and MTA Bus Time is changing the way commuters get information about their bus arrival times by allowing them to text the MTA with their bus code or intersection to receive an immediate message with how many stops away their bus is.
Rhombus brands itself as "the first conversational commerce platform," that helps businesses get paid by customers within an SMS conversation. Rhombus credits their deliberate no-app choice to the fact that using a CUI allows their technology to disappear in the background, therefore reducing checkout abandonment.
While there is a growing number of companies taking this novel approach, tailored app experiences can certainly provide unique value to users via richer, more engaging experiences. In these cases, a simple SMS may never be able to replace it. However, there is also value in businesses utilizing a conversational user interface approach—ease of use, familiarity, versatility, human-centered nature, conversational context. To add to this, the 80/20 rule—80% of app users will only ever use 20% of the app's functionality—provides a solid reason to consider text-based interactions over a bulky app design.
Considering a text-based conversational user interface is a creative solution in which no full-fledged app is needed to conduct key interactions. So, if you're in the market to build an app, don't leave the "text space" out of your creative toolbox.