Your bad companion app will drive away your customers | by Juhani Lehtimäki

The quality of Android apps has really increased in the past years. I’ve not been writing many rambling about bad design for a long time. App developers and designers (for the most part) understand Android and value the platform specific design and development needs.

However, there is still one are which seems to be spawning apps that are really not good. Companion apps.

Companion app disasters range from things like tooth brush companions to smart home apps. The companion app often is the very first contact point to the potential new customer.

Do you think this will encourage the customer to jump on board with your product:

What is it that leads into so many of these disasters even when there is clearly enough skill in the mobile app industry?

I think (I’m guessing here) it’s often ignorance of what it takes to build a good app. Sometimes it’s the management being taken for a ride by a skilled sales people from a bad agency etc. Maybe sometimes it is spending money the wrong way and getting sucked into promises of technologies like React Native or HTML wrappers which promise a lot but end up always producing bad results.

Cars are going digital. New cars get apps before they hit the market. These are examples of some of the worst mobile engineering out there.

I pre-ordered a Polestar 2 some time ago. And when they launched their app I got really worried. The app is simply a pointless website wrapper. I don’t understand why it was done at all. I got so worried, in fact, that I contacted Polestar asking what is happening and offering my help. I was later assured that the actual companion app is going to be built by a skilled team and will, in fact be great. Remains to be seen, I remain sceptical.

Recently another car company was tweeting about an upcoming app for their unreleased car:

I couldn’t help but to ask if they’re using a team that actually knows how to build apps:

The answer was promising:

But the result not so much! Today, the app was launched and I took a look. What did we find.. the same bad app design we have gotten used to seeing with companion apps. Unfortunately.

Let’s take a closer look at the Fisker app.

While I’m kind of singling out Fisker here, it’s really much wider issue. Their app just has symptoms from almost everything that can be wrong in building a companion app so it makes a very good example.

Maybe, just maybe, some CTO, or CEO of a hardware company sees this later and when a bad agency is pitching these ideas they know to show them the door immediately.

App icon

Let’s start from the very first contact point after user has installed the app, the app icon.

I’m sure your brand is pristine, well known and better than the rest but in the app drawer you’re an app next to all the rest. Standing out here (by being wrong) is not the way to go. You want to be a good citizen and make it feel that you’re and want to be part of the user’s phone. It requires that you follow platform and store app icon design guides. Note that these guidelines don’t force every icon into a single mould. You can still stand out with your brand, design and ideas but in a way that it feels like the app should be in the phone.

Fix it: Make sure your app icon is built for the platform you’re on:

Over branding, splash screen

For a companion app or a sales tool your brand is important. But there is such a thing as overdoing it. The most common offender, by my experience, is the splash screen. While I’d argue that splash screens are always bad, sometimes they get implemented anyways. If you absolutely need one there’s a right way to do it. What ever you do, for goodness’ sake, don’t animate it!

This one is even funnier. It seems to use some kind of video player to play the animation as opening the app steals audio focus. This means that if you’re listening to music, or audio book this app will stop it. Even though it doesn’t actually (fortunately) play any sounds.

This kind of thing really raises multiple warning flags about the team and their understanding of the platform they’re building for or they were forced to do something they didn’t want to by incompetent managers.

Fix it: Don’t do splash screens. If you have to, do it right:

Forced login

I’m sure there are features people can’t use without signing in. But if you force people to do that give them a reason to do so. You, as a brand owner and the product owner, you have a good idea and full conviction that everyone in the world will line up to signup to see the amazing content.. In the meanwhile in the real world, people install the app, see your login screen and give up. You MUST give your users reason to signup. Either explain and show why or better yet, make the content available without signing up

Yep understood, e-mobility and all but why should I sign up?

In this app there is no idea why the user should signup. You literally don’t see anything about the app. What will I get more by giving up my personal data?

Fix it: Think carefully where you put your login wall. Make sure users understand why you’re asking their information.

Utilise platform to make things easy for the users

Typing things on mobile devices is annoying. That’s why Google and Apple have been working hard to make things easier. Things like auto fill, smart lock etc are great at simplifying signup flows. Even better, using social media logins allow users not to have to sign up manually at all.

The Fisker app doesn’t use any of the helpers available from the Android platform. Even more bafflingly, the phone number input is separated to country code and rest of the number in a very strange way. For some reason the country code is a loooooong selection list. This reminds me of some of the funny jokes about bad UX that have been going around lately. What was wrong in typing in the 1–3 extra numbers the normal way. Also, many users copy-paste their number. This prevents it.

Fix it: Utilise the tools platforms gives you to make things easier for the users. Design for ease of user flow and eliminate extra steps everywhere you can. Give up business requirements if they conflict with comfort of users.

There you have it. This is as far as I can get with the app as the login doesn’t actually work. Looks like their servers sending SMS verification are not working at the moment. But I think this doesn’t really matter in this case. I don’t want to pile on the Fisker app but it was such a good example of everything that is wrong in the companion app industry.

Why companies refuse to get the help they need is not easy to understand. Maybe some still believe that mobile apps are somehow simpler and easy and anyone can do them? That just isn’t the case anymore. The mobile platforms have grown to complex ecosystems that require constant studying to keep up with the good patterns of app development. Anything less is going to damage your brand. If you don’t want to invest into building a good app, don’t. Stay in the browser and build a mobile web page. There’s nothing wrong with that! However, if you want to be in the storefronts in the Play Store and App Store for the visibility, make sure your visibility is well crafted, from the beginning to the end.

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