At the core of successful and user-friendly apps lies great design. We take a look at what has made two London-based apps, Citymapper and Headspace, into audience favourites.
What’s the best transport app for London? Citymapper! Okay, so I haven’t asked everybody but I’ll stick my neck out on this – that app is brilliant. It knows when there’s a problem on a tube line, it knows when it’s quicker to walk, and sometimes it will even surprise a veteran Londoner like me with a route including an overland train link you didn’t even know was an option.
Now, Citymapper doesn’t actually generate this data itself, but collects it from a variety of sources. A lot of other transport apps do that too, but somehow Citymapper has become known as the one that provides the solution. Why do some app-based companies fail and others succeed if they do basically the same thing?
The key to winning fans is down to making an app really user friendly, and this centres on having really great design. For Citymapper, the guiding principle is to always “design for people”, according to Gil Wedam, lead designer at Citymapper, at last year’s Design+Banter gathering in London. One example is how Citymapper doesn’t have a button called “search routes”, but instead they’ve labelled it what people are thinking when they pull up the app: “get me somewhere”. The human-centric attitude continues on the next screen which presents a range of options intended to quickly resolve a host of possible scenarios: “I’d like to walk, is there still time?” or “It’s raining, what’s the best route for keeping me dry?”. Its elegant solution saw Citymapper, which now serves several other cities beyond London, earn a nomination for the Design Museum’s Designs of the Year award last year.
Another London company which has become an audience favourite thanks to its brilliant app is Headspace. Celebrities and commoners alike are all on board with this app, which is an ideal tool in the “mindfulness” phase we seem to be going through: basically it teaches you to meditate. The app is designed to encourage you to keep stress at bay , and it is actually good for you: just ten minutes of meditation every day is scientifically proven to reduce symptoms of anxiety, lower blood pressure and improve quality of sleep.
Headspace co-founder Andy Puddicombe told ‘Wired’: “I think in the past, although it may not have been meditation, there was an idea of stepping out of the business of life to spend time all together… and so I think mediation has filled that void. I think we’ve always had the need as individuals and as groups to step away from the madness and to find some kind of solitude and calm and clarity, I just don’t think in modern time we’ve had the tools we need to do that.”.
Headspace has certainly provided the tools to do this, and again good design sits at the core of the user friendliness of the app. It’s personalised, so each user can see where they are in the meditation journey every time they open the app. Beyond the standard programme there’s a selection of ten-minute sessions tailored to activities such as commenting, eating and walking, plus two-minute SOS sessions for emergencies. Puddicombe, who is actually a monk, leads the Headspace meditations and is particularly keen on the ‘Headspace Buddy’, which allows you to link your account with others for encouragement. Talking to Wired, he said: “There is something so comforting and reassuring knowing that other people are doing it at the same time.”.
While the great design which enables a great user experience has been the key to the success of these two London startups, be wary of sacrificing details over design. In March, Coeus Consulting issued a report that warned that large businesses will often end up focusing too much on the “shiny new veneer” of apps and websites when launching digital initiatives, to the detriment of the core service that lies behind them.
“The back offices which support the shiny new digital platforms are often neglected and therefore put under strain,” said Matthew Headford, Head of Technology and Architecture at Coeus Consulting. So the front-facing website may look all fancy, but if the connected database is old and slow it will ruin the user experience. ”If backend systems cannot support the innovative new ways in which your customer-facing systems are being transformed, then our experience is that you will ultimately end up with dissatisfied customers.”.
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