Application obligation at Made by Many

Anjali Ramachandran
Anjali Ramachandran

Following up on Cath’s recent post about what Conor calls ‘application obligation’, I thought it would be interesting to see what apps people in the office feel obliged to use, and why. More interesting than the apps themselves (Twitter as a service took centre stage, as I expected), was the reasoning behind why people altered their behaviour to fit these apps or services into their lives, instead of the other way around. I’m presenting them below so you can read them for yourselves (in most cases I’m simply putting their words into the third person so as not to take too much away from the content – they make really valid points):

James / Twitter:

James, one of the most voracious readers I know, was addicted to using Twitter, and felt a compulsion to use it all the time, even interrupting reading sessions to use it, perhaps as many as 4 times an hour. Before Twitter he would have read without break for 1-2 hours at a stretch, so it's a big change for him.

He says he also used to use it compulsively while watching TV, and it was compelling enough to sit and ‘half-watch’ something he didn't really want to watch. ‘That's a bad habit’, he says, and eliminating Twitter (he went on a prolonged break from it a few months ago and is using it very sporadically now) means that he now spends much less time in front of the TV with something worthless on. For some reason, he feels compelled to read every single tweet, so (as with many of us I’m sure), he can't understand how anyone can follow thousands of people. In particular, the push notifications when someone mentions you make replying back a kind of compulsion.

James / Guardian:

Another app that he uses obsessively is the Guardian app, especially now that they've done a proper implementation of their live blogs, which are often excellent –such as their transfer deadline liveblog and their Egypt coverage.

James / Byline:

Finally, he uses Byline, an RSS reader that syncs with Google Reader (in his words, he ‘*despises* the Google Reader interface’ and only uses it when there is literally no other option). He uses Byline pretty obsessively, probably checking it at least twice per hour outside of work, sometimes more often than that.

James / Instapaper:

He uses Instapaper an awful lot, but wouldn't describe it as compulsive. There's a background anxiety that he’s adding more articles than he reads, but not enough to actually make him read compulsively.

Matt / Instagram & Twitter:

I think this is a great way of explaining application obligation:

There’s the phenomenon of the tyranny of the unread counter, in whatever form in manifests itself: any application that sits there, displaying an icon augmented in some way (i.e. displaying a number (in red, usually) or an envelope or bouncing or whatever it does to signal its neediness) -  is the UX equivalent of a passive-aggressive rebuke to you for your lack of attention. As in relationships, this kind of behaviour is unattractive and generally signals the beginning of the end (or at least indicates that you’re going to end up in some sort of love/hate relationship: i.e. email).

As a result, he usually dumps apps that behave like this, but hold on to the ones that are undemanding and don’t have any problem – metaphorically speaking - with him rolling in at 4am after a night out with the lads: Instagram and the Twitter app are good examples of this in his mind.

Paul Battley / Twitter:

Paul thinks we really need to move away from the idea of completion: “maybe you can read all your emails, but you certainly can't read all of Twitter, and you're not missing out if you don't.”

Paul says that he’d really like a Twitter interface that “doesn't allow me to go back:
one that lives entirely in the moment. Maybe that would be one that'srestricted to a single, non-scrolling screenful, with old stuff justdropping off the bottom.”

Tim / Twitter, Instagram & Spotify:

Tim tracks Twitter ‘man times per hour when away from a desktop’.

He uses Instagram a LOT – all of us in the office can vouch for his love of it!

And he needs the Spotify app because in his words, “I can't travel on public transport unless I've got music... I feel weird if I don't have it... I never use the inbuilt iPod any more.” I think that’s quite significant – that Spotify has in effect replaced the iPod functionality on his iPhone.

Conor / Twitter:

Twitter is again described by Conor as the ultimate app that more or less brings out this compulsive behaviour.  He says: “Can't help it. First thing I reach for. I automatically tap the icon even when I don't want to open it.”

Conor / Things:

Conor also uses Things: “The "red dot of guilt" makes me open the app and see all the things I'll never do today. Makes me realise what a bad person I am. Wait a second...”

Conor / Momento:

Finally, he uses Momento. He loves it but has to ‘force’ himself to add moments from time to time. Proper app-ob behaviour!

Simon / Twitter:

Simon is also “addicted to Twitter but only really in dead times - bus, waiting for people etc. It is my go-to app whenever I am 'alone with my mobile'. But I make a point of not looking at it obsessively in the evenings (or very rarely anyway) to try and ensure that it doesn't start to rule my life.”

Simon / WeatherPro:

Simon’s use of this app is based on the fact that he is an avid cycler, and so needs to know what the weather is going to be like before his ride the next day. However (and this is a sort of obligation), he looks at the app multiple times a day, “especially at night before riding in to work the following day. The week before I go on holiday I set the location of our trip and check the weather every (other) day or so.” 

Simon / Spotify:

He feels slightly obliged to use Spotify every day especially “if he’s commuting via the loser cruiser. Getting my money's worth and all that.” (!!!)

Duncan / Carcassonne:

Our resident games fan, Duncan uses Carcassonne as an example of an app that generates a positive feeling of obligation: in his opinion it is “a great async game and I don't feel the same pressure when there are alerts or unread icons as I do with Twitter, etc. It's a fun obligation.” Now if only all apps could be described as fun.

Duncan / Calendar:

He uses the Calendar app a lot, and it's an obligation “because my short term memory is terrible, so I set myself lots of quick reminders purely for the alert later on in the day.”

Duncan / Tube Map:

As many Londoners probably do, Duncan’s use of this app is based on the really terrible Transport for London schedules for the tube!

Duncan / Sleep Cycle:

He’s got back to using Sleep Cycle again recently, and to him it’s an app that's got a big obligation element to it. He says it gives him very little new information after using it for a week or so, and – this is quite telling – “the excitement about sanctioned passive surveillance quickly turns into an annoyance."

Stuart / Xero:

Tongue firmly in cheek, Stuart says he feels obliged to use the Xero app. Get out of finance mode Stuart!

Paul Sims / Instagram:

Paul’s clear that Instagram is a fad and says it’s in his ‘fad folder’, because “it suddenly feels like it's where my friends are at. It may move to the tray soon.” In the same vein, he says Twitter is just marketing professionals and brands now, so he  feels like it's in it's autumn. Nice way of putting it, though it may not be true, if Twitter’s legions of addicts are anything to go by!

Paul Sims / Rowmote:

He uses this app a lot and the reasoning is pretty simple: : “I have a Mac as my telly so it saves me using my limbs to switch apps and channels etc.” Can’t argue with that!

Paul Sims / TimeSince:

This description sounds suspiciously like he’s describing a woman: “it's awesome and smart and clever and attractive.” Which brings up an interesting thought – do people ever actively think of an app as having greater masculine or feminine qualities?

Paul Sims / 1password:

Very simply, because it’s the one app that helps him “rule them all”.

Paul Sims / Dictionary app:

I can’t say it better than him, so quoting Mr. Sims: “Some dictionary app to comfort me on meaning / spelling when trying so very hard to be funny and get reassurance on Twitter.” Another example of a lot of people, including me, feeling obliged to project a certain persona on Twitter, which IS true even if you’d rather not admit it!

Paul Sims / the App store:

Not sure how regularly most people do this, but Paul uses it a fair bit ‘in the hope of finding a new useful app.'

Cath / Reeder:

“Since I haven't been cycling I've had more time for my ADD device. 
I love the Reeder app, beautifully designed and really simple to use. There's definitely an element of obligation there though as it only shows you unread items, and every item has an unread count next to it. I've found that I check things in reverse order, i.e. start with ones with the least number of unread items as then I might have a hope of scanning through them all (yes I am a completist). This means that the bigger numbers keep getting higher as I never end up checking them. Can be overwhelming.”

Cath / Smartr:

Cath’s Twitter app of choice is Smartr, and she finds it a much better experience than Twitter itself: “it just shows tweets with links in them, and instead of showing the tweet in the feed you see the headline and first line of the link. It basically turns Twitter into an RSS feed and you can scan through it pretty quickly.” Quite useful.

Cath / Spotify, Soundcloud:

Cath uses these two apps to indulge in her love for music, and she has good things to say : “they are not needy and demanding.” In her opinion, they are 2 apps which give back more than they take.

Tara / Carcassonne:

Tara, like Duncan, is a huge fan of games. She echoes his love for Carcassonne, and typical of a player who loves her game, keeps opening the app “whenever I have a down moment in the hope that someone has made their move.” She describes Carcassonne as a ‘perfect’ game – “it can require minimum attention to play (30 seconds or so) but can also be played for an hour or so if you're sitting next to the people you're playing with (okay I may be a tad addicted...). It's something I enjoy playing and it's the only app that I feel I am benefiting from, rather than it just being a time filler.” Spoken like a true app addict :-)

Tara / Twitter:

More Twitter stories from the trenches:

“I also feel compelled to open Twitter even though I don't really ever follow links, I mostly just skim read everything.  It's literally just a habit and I wouldn't say I actually gained much pleasure from it and if I'm busy or distracted I won't really look at it for days, but as soon as I have even a few minutes of downtime I will open it again and fall right back into the habit.”

Tara / Facebook:

Facebook brings out the obligation sentiment too - it’s an app she uses in a similar way but  the obligation arises out of a fear that she’ll miss the actual updates from friends she cares about rather than the general Facebook masses. “But”, she says, “once again I don't really feel I gain anything from the experience.”

Alex / Spotify, Twitter, Facebook:

Alex is one of the younger members of the Made by Many clan, and hits the youth pulse straight on: the apps he can’t do without are Spotify (he’s always plugged into his music and says he ‘can't live without it’), Twitter, 'for sharing my thoughts + opinions'. He thinks there’s no point doing this on Facebook as 'he’ll get rubbish back.' Finally the Facebook app, but not to keep in touch with friends, more to stay in the know: “for creating events, uploading photos. You can't help but look at what people are doing, kinda like a digital version of Heat magazine”. And that may be the best description of Facebook I’ve ever heard.

Heather / Tweetdeck:

Heather’s favourite Twitter client is Tweetdeck – she says “checking Twitter has become an almost unconscious habit. Sometimes in an attempt to do some other task, I end up with the app open before even realizing that I opened it. Beyond just keeping up with things, DM on Twitter has become a mechanism for contact with some my more digital friends because I know I can get an almost instant response.”

Heather / Instagram:

She’s another big Instagram fan because she feels it’s a great way to “see what her friends are up to back in the States without having to open Facebook.” 

Heather / Foursquare:

Heather remains the most ardent user of Foursquare in the office as it’s lost its sheen for most of us, but here’s why she likes it:

“Push notifications, my mayorship of the Made by Many office, and an RVIP karaoke badge that I never received at SXSW last year are holding me on by a thread.”

Although, to be fair, she admits she is now checking in more frequently with Instagram.

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In psychology, there’s a great way of describing two different kinds of species: obligate and facultative, where obligate refers to “species which must occupy a certain niche or behave in a certain way in order to survive” and facultative means “a species is able to behave in a certain way and may do so under certain circumstances, but it can survive without having to perform this certain behaviour”. I think the main thing, as we continue to lap up new apps and navigate this never-ending sea of new technologies, is to remind ourselves that none of these apps should really make us an obligate species as far as apps are concerned, which some of us tend to forget in our excitement.

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