Mobile apps with a death wish

In a bid to look fresh, mobile app makers risk making their apps worse -- as many media apps show

Customers need to know you're paying attention, so it's common for products of any sort to get a fresh coat of paint every few years: updated packaging on soup cans, a makeover on a magazine, a new jingle or slogan, and some small change to the product that justifies slapping a "new and improved" sticker on it.

In mobile apps, where updates seem to come every other day in some cases, we're seeing that same mentality: Change the app cosmetically at least every so often, so users don't feel you've abandoned the product -- or get a reason to try the app again. Unfortunately, many app revisions are terrible, making apps harder to use.

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That's a big problem in mobile, where it's hard to go back to a previous version. In iOS, you need a backup of the old one, then you reinstall it in iTunes; in Android, there's no way to do that. Furthermore, the auto-update feature in Android and the forthcoming auto-update feature in iOS 7 will make it even harder to keep or go back to a version you can use. These app developers must have a death wish -- when an app goes bad and users can't roll back, they have one option: Delete it. And they will.

Ironically, media companies seem especially prone to ruin their apps with an ill-advised update -- a strange irony when you consider they usually fall down in an area of historic strength: design.

The latest example is the Associated Press's AP Mobile news app. The previous version was fairly clean and simple, with a list of topics at left that you selected to get the relevant news stories. The new version has a bunch of photo tiles, each representing a topic. One problem is that the photos change constantly, based on the top story for that section. There's no way to easily go to the section you want -- no simple, half-second visual to use. Yes, text is superimposed on the photos, but it's hard to read. Another issue: Only a few tiles fit on the screen, so you have to scroll a lot to find a desired section. I've deleted the app from my iPhone.

This use of gratuitous graphics to obscure information and navigation is a common affliction. USA Today and Reuters suffer from it, though BBC News is a counterexample: It shows an image for every story in each section, but the sections have easy-to-read text labels. Ironically, the idea of a graphic next to each story is the way things used to be, and it works fine so long as the adjacent text is legible. But using changing graphics with superimposed text as the navigation is a horrible idea.

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