Just recently, I found myself outside a promising-looking pizza place and decided to do some impromptu research on my iPhone. My initial Safari search turned up Yelp information about the pizzeria, and when I tapped on them, I was prompted to download his Yelp app on my phone for more information.
That was a mistake.
First, the Yelp app asked me to allow location tracking (sure), whether it could track my browsing for additional purposes (definitely not), and adjust various other settings. I then had to log in or sign up for Yelp, and trying to use the Sign with Apple feature proved futile. (I may have already created a Yelp account months ago, but I hope I remember which email account and what kind of password.) Time is ticking. But it didn’t get me any closer to solving what seemed like a fairly simple question. Is this pizza restaurant delicious?
I immediately deleted Yelp from my iPhone. There was no pizza.
It was a rotten experience, but typical of frustrating mobile apps these days. These apps seem more focused on keeping you occupied than helping you with the task at hand. The goals of app users and app makers seem more contradictory than ever. We all want to use apps to perform specific tasks, and app creators seem to want their software to be so essential that we never have to log out of the app. The irony, of course, is that this approach is the easiest way to immediately remove the app from his iPhone.
Back to the good old App Store days
It wasn’t always like this. I’ve been reviewing mobile apps since Apple first started allowing me to use them on my iPhone in 2008. And in those early days, it seemed like you could focus on things because you were limited to what you could do with your smartphone. I needed an app that would help me manage my to-dos, check long-term weather forecasts, and find out about movie casts. That’s exactly what it is.
The advent of faster 4G networks a decade ago greatly expanded the capabilities of apps. Your phone can now download enough data to stream, share videos, and even multitask. While this was a welcome improvement, I think it introduced feature creep that would overtake the modern app experience.
My theory is that apps work best when the information you’re looking for is readily available when you need it, and then disappears until you need it again. The Premier League app is a great example of this. When I open the app on game day, I can instantly see the match score and see which channels and streaming services are broadcasting the game in my area. If you want to drill down, you can, but the most relevant information will be brought to the front. That’s the exact opposite of my recent experience with Yelp.
Notifications, subscriptions, and other hassles
Modern apps seem to work on the theory that once you close an app, you can’t launch it again. So if there’s a part of an app that doesn’t seem important to a particular user, it gets feature-bloated on the obvious theory that, by God, there are dozens of other options that might catch the user’s attention. There is a tendency to become This also helps explain my other big frustration with many of today’s apps. It’s a near-constant stream of notifications meant to constantly interact with the app.
A while ago, I helped edit a piece of work with the new AI-powered background editing tool for Instagram, but I had to download the app to my iPhone to test the feature. After it was over, I left Instagram alone, but for the next two weeks, Instagram started texting my phone like it was a first date, desperately trying to get us to go out again.
According to iOS’s notification tracker, the only thing that sends more pings than Instagram is my fitness app (the one that checks in with me to see if I’m meeting my travel goals). I now get fewer notifications from Overcast (which tells me when new podcast episodes are available) and more notifications from Google Calendar (which tells me about upcoming meetings). And I would argue those are a little more important than someone you barely know posting a new Instagram Story.
I have another complaint about the current state of mobile apps. It has to do with the subscription-based pricing that is currently favored. Yes, I think app makers have a right to make money, and if subscriptions are the best way to do that, then so be it. But the risks of this approach are the same as those faced by streaming services. You’ll have so many subscriptions to manage that you’ll be wary of paying extra. And you might start canceling your existing subscriptions.
In other words, mobile apps have gone from being a fun way to extend the functionality of your phone to a cumbersome, attention-grabbing tool that’s cumbersome to use and manage. Lately, I’ve found myself relying primarily on the iPhone’s built-in apps, which seem to be designed with at least some degree of interactivity in mind. I utilize third-party apps for sports scores, podcasts, and the occasional health and fitness task, but that’s about it.
Mobile app outlook
One or two solid downloads over the next year might change my attitude towards mobile apps. And frankly, I hope so. A good mobile app is fun to use, but you don’t find many of them on modern phones.