With WWDC 2016 upon us and its expected focus on the much-anticipated third-party Siri API, I’d like to reflect on how Apple has been preparing native app developers for a world where the experience of a given application service or brand is multifaceted, continuous across platforms, extensible, and, ironically, as a consequence of increasing reach, also at risk of being fragmented, subsumed, and erased.
Last year while attending WWDC, I had the good fortune to participate in the inaugural Layers conference, which was introduced as a design-oriented complement to the generally developer-focused WWDC “main event” of the week. The conference size, the diversity of its events, the approachability of its speakers, the range of topics covered, and the engagement level of the audience all came together to make Layers a truly inspiring and memorable experience. One presentation from last year in particular has stuck with me as I’ve thought through the changes we are seeing in the way we interact with services and brands on our iPhones.
Neven Mrgan spoke about some of his favorite things, and, loosely, the sometimes unexpected goodness that comes from sharing what you love. Chuck Jones’ seminal Duck Amuck cartoon was one of the beloved things Mrgan shared (@ around 20:00), a rare treasure which I agree is both wildly entertaining and endures as required reading for anyone interested in the art and craft of animation, filmmaking, or storytelling and visual art in general. But what caught my attention that day was Mrgan’s off-handed comment about the sequence near the end of the cartoon where the frame literally begins to close in on poor Daffy, collapsing from all directions. He joked the image reminded him of his time designing responsive web applications.
The analogy was spot on and, as I thought about it more, seemed appropriate not only to web app design but equally reflective if perhaps in a more abstract way of the fundamental changes native mobile apps have witnessed in recent years, especially in light of Apple’s announcements that very week, which included: app “thinning” and targeting application assets for different devices, Siri Proactive and app deep linking, and multitasking and split-screen window management in both OS X and iOS. Through the lens of Duck Amuck, Apple’s announcements could be seen as the latest in a series of operating system enhancements (cf. iOS 8’s share sheets and extensions framework, notification center widgets) designed to deconstruct what it means to be — and what it means to experience — a modern, mobile (iOS) application.
The trend continued with the hardward-specific “peek and pop” feature enabled by 3D Touch announced later in the year as a feature exclusive to the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus. So it wasn’t surprising that many industry commentators began to question the long-term fate of native apps. And given recent investments in messaging and chat bots, major platform players, especially those who have been laggards in mobile, appear anxious to speed the demise of the standalone app (store), instead encouraging companies to deliver their services on their respective “aggregator apps” or “portals” as Ben Evans astutely describes them, such as Facebook Messenger, Microsoft Skype, Kik, Slack, and the most successful to date, WeChat. Even Amazon’s Echo requires a companion mobile app to manage third-party aggregated services through so-called “skills”.
In parallel, responsive web design emerged to address the proliferation of devices accessing the world wide web today, and effectively, with limitations, provide native app-like experience to web apps when accessed by mobile devices. Rather than developing and serving mobile-specific sites (remember WAP?) for mobile devices, the responsive web is built on the idea that a site should be fluid in nature and able to gracefully adapt its content and services to accommodate the way in which that content is accessed and used.
As with responsive web design, native apps will continue to evolve with greater adaptability based on device type and screen size (including no screen at all) and, by extension, their respective interaction models. Traditional graphical UIs will co-exist with conversational voice and text options. The challenge will be how best to maintain context across these interaction models and move users as seamlessly as possible between them when necessary. And users, for their part, should prove equally adaptable as long as expectations are clearly communicated, transitions are consistent and predictable, and transactions are fast, accurate, and add value.