The Daily Struggle with Poorly Designed Apps

Over a cup of tea, we talked about getting back home after work. After one of us opened the Mumbai 1 app, the conversation went on to how we as designers have to rely on poorly designed apps just to access certain services. Do we not have alternatives? Why are we stuck with this? We began to wonder how much more reliable some platforms would be if their apps were improved, design-wise.

As designers, we know what is wrong with an app and always find ways to improve it. Do other designers feel the same? Are they also stuck using ineffective apps just for their service?

Good thing we work with a bunch of them.

We asked our fellow designers a simple question. As design experts – What is an app they hate but they still end up using throughout their day?

We got a ton of responses like:

“Hate is a strong word, I’m not sure if I would use an app that I hate.”

“Hate? Why would I use an app that I hate?”

A UX designer surely won’t use a badly designed app, right? Well it turns out they do! This is because these apps are an integral part of their lives. To make sense of the information gathered, we created clusters of data points that were correlated. By creating these clusters and comparing them, we tried to understand more about why the designers said what they said.

One thing to point out here is – since we asked them to think about apps they use daily, frequency plays a huge role in the insights. While the problem might be a small one, since the user has to deal with it daily it becomes a big problem.

Here’s what we learned:

So what do we do with this information? We draw insights!

1. The bumpy ride of transport app designs

32% of our responses were travel apps! Contrary to what we had anticipated (banking apps) travel apps had the most mentions. So we tried to decode the issue:

Let’s say, you travel from Bandra to Powai every day. As someone from Mumbai knows, if public transport has to be used for this commute, a couple of steps must be taken. Starting from your house in Bandra, you book an Ola rickshaw to the train station. While commuting to the train station, you use the M-indicator app to check train timings and then the UTS app to book a train ticket. During your train journey from Bandra to Andheri, you use the Mumbai 1 app to book a metro ticket. You take a metro from Andheri to Saki Naka. You book another Ola rickshaw from the metro station to get to Powai. This journey takes you less than an hour, and yet you have to use around four apps.

Now let’s go over what should be the basic requirements for these transport apps. They should be fast, to the point, informative and intuitive. Let’s see what our designers had to say about these transport apps:

In a city like Mumbai, where public transport is so prevalent – why do the apps disappoint users?

A few simple changes can fix these apps –

  • Keep it simple: Users want to book their rides/tickets and want relevant information about the particular transportation. Any excess information and features can confuse the user.
  • Retain Information: It is good design practice for an app to be able to retain information. Users who use these apps usually have the same route they follow for at least 5 days a week. The process can be made simpler for users who can rebook their usual routes. Apps like Uber and Ola already do this, making it easier for users who use these apps often.
  • Avoid the overload: Travel apps are something that needs minimal effort. Glitches, due to ads and other information, serve as a significant obstacle for users and slows down their process of getting their task done on the app.

2. Shopping online was supposed to be easy

In today’s age, people are so accustomed to shopping online. Need groceries? Just Instamart it. Need clothes? Myntra it is. When talking about online shopping, one of the most significant contributors is Amazon. So why did our designers choose Amazon as an app they dislike using?

Why is a platform as big as amazon…confusing? Starting with the landing page itself, the app looks cluttered and has a lot of unnecessary information. While content is king and Amazon has exceptional services, a few changes on the interface can change how users think of Amazon as a platform. Another online shopping app mentioned was Zepto—another app that provides exceptional service but lacks functionality.

Here are our thoughts:

  • First impressions do last: Amazon holds the number one spot for its e-commerce services. Users rely on Amazon for its accessibility and reliability. Considering this, the cluttered interface is not something that serves as a barrier for users. We, designers, know the interface could use some fixing. Users know how to navigate and find exactly what they need for low prices and impeccable service compared to any other e-commerce platform. In this case, the aesthetics of Amazon plays a very minor role. Functionality wins any day. Yet Amazon can improve its service by working on the first impression, especially for new users.
  • Cut the clutter: Clutter can look like – too much info crammed on one page, less spacing, layouts that are not ideal, etc. The best way is to identify the problems the users face and work towards offering a more seamless and intuitive experience.

3. Endless Scroll might be the worst thing designed

Instagram is probably the most used social media app of our generation. Starting as just a platform to post pictures, Instagram offers much more now. One would say – it’s almost too much. It is a combination of TikTok, Facebook, Whatsapp, and Snapchat – a one stop shop. Their excellent algorithm can keep a user hooked onto their platform for hours.

Out of all Instagram has to offer, a feature most pointed out by users is the reels section. The reels section is a rabbit hole, with users just scrolling and scrolling with no end. While the experience may start pleasant when you finally get off and realise the time spent, the feeling is truly unpleasant.

Though other social media platforms like Reddit exist, users find Instagram the most valuable as a source of entertainment and content due to its addictive content. It has pretty much-become part of one’s daily life out of habit despite having a very low happiness curve. This is because of “The Network-effect’’ A user’s friends are on the platform so he is also on the platform.

Here’s what we think:

  • It’s all about business: Instagram needs to strike a balance between its business model and the happiness curve of its users. While users enjoy the time they spend on Instagram, over time, the happiness curve starts moving in a descent. Users spend a lot of time on reels. While there is a screen timer option for Instagram, a user can bypass the lock easily. Like how the Instagram feed scroll has an end at some point, reels could have a scroll limit after which the user leaves that section.
  • Too many cooks: A trend noticed with most social media apps like Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter is that they start straying away from what the app initially used to stand for. Let’s talk about Facebook. They added too much and now very few users use it as their primary social platform. Instagram as well started out as a photo-sharing platform, but now it is so much more. While that might be a good thing, it gets too much at some point. Now Instagram has a ton of extremely unnecessary features like – reels, notes, favourites/following algorithm, suggested posts, etc. Instagram could have the option to keep these features customizable according to the user’s needs.

4. Learning curve & muscle memory go hand in hand

It is human nature to switch between apps while looking for the content they wish to consume. When switching from one platform to another, there is a certain amount of learning involved. A learning curve is a measure of effort for users to become proficient in using a new interface.

One of the designers stated how he finds switching between YouTube and Netflix easier because the interactions are similar (e.g. double tap to fast forward) than switching between Netflix and Prime (click the button to fast forward). This issue is because of the drastic difference in learning curves while switching platforms.

A steep learning curve characterises this initial period of learning requires more effort on the users end while switching from Netflix to any other platform. A gradual/linear learning curve indicates that it takes less effort for the user to get accustomed to the platform.

Muscle memory, on the other hand, refers to the unconscious memory that is built through repetition of a task. A learning curve characterises this initial period of learning and is then converted to muscle memory over time, where the user is habituated to the interface.

Overall, the learning curve and muscle memory are essential parameters to consider in UI/UX design, as they impact how users interact with interfaces and the overall user experience.

Our two cents:

  • Don’t reinvent the wheel: Pick up from similar platforms that are doing well while designing your platform. The user is already accustomed to interacting with specific systems. Your attempt to make a platform “different” might only make it “difficult” for the user.
  • Know what they want: The priority isn’t to copy design; it is to keep the user’s needs and ease of use in mind. Study the audience you’re catering to and analyse how to ensure your design is user-friendly.

India is a land of contradictions. We have the extremes (and all the middles) of any situation. India’s diverse landscape is reflected not only in its people and the socio economic disparity but also in the digital landscape. We have best-in-class digital experiences that are comparable or better than the best in the world and we also have the worst. Over the last decade, this disparity in digital experiences has become smaller but there is more scope to reduce this gap further.

Why do businesses still get away with poorly designed digital experiences? Trust deficit in India is very high. In general people hesitate to trust something new. As a result, trust is a bigger variable for users than design when choosing a product/service.

Although the awareness and importance of good design has increased in India, there is still a long way to go for it to gain more importance in the realm of app development, and well, everything else. As designers, we are committed to changing this and improving the design landscape in our country.

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