Windows Store: Charmed, I’m sure.

I noted yesterday on Twitter that many of the apps that are appearing on the store look alike. This is really unfortunate. It’s unfortunate for consumers as they’ll need to sort through lots of chaff to find really unique apps. It’s unfortunate for developers because, well, they’re wasting their time. If you’re a dev who is cutting and pasting into the VS 2012 templates, and putting little effort into making something unique, you’re not going to stand out, and you’re not going to have many fans of your app (or make any money if you’re using ads in it or selling it).

I’m seeing too many apps that are glorified Web browsers – apps that simply take one of the Visual Studio (VS) 2012 templates and put a Metro-style veneer over public Web sites or Web content. If you’re taking the time to build an app, ask yourself, “is what I’m building better than if the user just used Bing to search or Internet Explorer 10 to browse?

What is more important on October 26th:

  1. That there be a giant number of apps available in the Windows Store?
  2. That there be a handful of truly compelling, unique apps on the Windows Store?

Through some fault of my own, the focus has become item 1. That’s not the case.

Let’s take a step back. Microsoft has written two blog posts that should frankly be required reading for Windows Store developers. If you are a developer and you  haven’t yet read them, please do so.

  1. Creating Metro style apps that stand out from the crowd (July 11, 2012)
  2. Embracing UI on demand with the app bar (Sept. 6, 2012)

In looking through the range of apps in the store, it became apparent to me that there are some rules of the road that devs should really be trying to live up to.

When it comes to writing your own app for Windows 8 and Windows RT, you should make your app:

  1. Thoughtful. Don’t just take a VS 2012 template and interlink it with public Web content. What value is that adding? Take time before you even open VS up, and storyboard your app. Use a mindmap, PowerPoint, a whiteboard, OneNote… whatever – use a napkin! But take the time to understand the flow of experiences a user will have with your app. One app I looked at, a PDF viewer, comes with no built in content, and doesn’t display the App bar automatically. Result? It’s a blank slate with literally nothing for a novice user to do. They’ll close it and throw it away. Understand how your users will use your app – before you design it, and before you build it.
  2. Designed. Call it Metro, call it Windows 8 Style. Call it whatever. There are thousands of apps in the store, If you’re just taking a VS template and squishing content into it, with default images or bland stock photography, your app will get lost in the mix. Take the time to design your app, pay for good imagery if you need it, pay a designer to help you design it, if you’re a developer and not a designer. Take your time and do it right. We’ve found a few apps with weird font clipping that indicates the app hasn’t been that thoroughly tested. If you’re going to take the time to design it, take the time to test your app, and ensure it looks great, throughout. Take the time to build all of the suggested tile sizes, and if you elect to make a Live Tile, don’t go overboard. You’re passing along information that is intended to be helpful to the user at a glance. This isn’t Times Square.
  3. Unique. Do something that hasn’t been done. The Windows Store already has several password management apps and xkcd or reddit readers. What are you going to build that is so amazing that users will not only seek it out on the Windows Store, but download it, and not forget about it 2 days later? Do something new. Do something compelling that users will fall in love with your app over.
  4. Professional. Don’t use a cutesy name for your app or the company name you’re using for the Windows Store. Make it professional. Check the text and images in your app and on your Web site. Don’t lift someone else’s trademarked or copyrighted content for your app or your icon. If the language of the app you’re building isn’t your first language, take the time or money to find someone who speaks that language, and have them proofread it. Show adequate screenshots on your app’s Windows Store entry, but don’t show more than you need. Also, ensure the first screenshot shows what your app does - don’t show a welcome page! That app page – that image – is your single best chance to make a first impression. Take the time to ensure it looks professional, and looks compelling.
  5. Cross-platform. Got a specific reason to not support one of the three architectures? Tell me about it. Just over 5% of apps in the US Store currently don’t support Windows RT. Now that may be because you all don’t have Windows RT systems to test on, and it’ll change. That’s my hope. Recall that Windows RT has no user-installable apps other than the ones you’re building. So you are Windows RT’s best hope – and if it’s successful, it’ll pay you back. Don’t drop Windows RT support unless you absolutely have to.
  6. Support contracts and the Charms bar. Contracts and the Charms bar are how your app interacts with the rest of Windows. Sure, one or more charms may not make sense for some apps. But really – if you’re not using any of them, what does your app do??? If you have content, use contracts, and support the Search charm. Unless you’re building a strange app, enable the Share charm – this is the single easiest way for your users to share out your content - and talk about your app, if you do it right! We’ve seen some apps that “barely share”, too – they share just a link, even if the user highlighted text. Conversely, if a user is watching a video and they use the Share charm to send an email, don’t just send the description, with no URL call to action for the recipient to click on (yes, this is a behavior I’ve seen too). Take the time to sweat the details, and make share work the way your users expect. Don’t leave it out unless it doesn’t make sense. The saddest dialog in Windows is the Share charm telling a user, “This app can’t share.” Support the devices charm if your app will support printing, Play To, or sharing with other devices. Support the settings charm if, well, your app has any settings. Don’t stick app settings in the app or under the app bar. They go under the Settings charm.
  7. Support the app bar and navigation bar. I’m not going to add much other than tell you to read, and absorb the second Microsoft link above. Don’t skimp on designing your app bar if it makes sense to add it. In the case of the app I mentioned earlier, I think including a PDF tutorial that explains the controls would prove both more welcoming and more thoughtful, and enable users to more easily become familiar with the controls of that app that are contained in the app’s app bar.
  8. Support snap. Sure, there are whole categories of apps that make sense to not support snap. It also appears that there will be many budget-minded Windows 8 and Windows RT devices that may have a resolution too low to support snap. But if your app makes sense, don’t skimp on designing snap. For users who multitask and have the right hardware, this is how you enable them to use your app as a secondary app while another app is the user’s primary focus.

I think that Microsoft itself is doing a pretty good job of living up to the above rules, in particular with their Mail, Fresh Paint, and SkyDrive apps. Another great example is the Dailymotion app.

You’ve got almost one month before the Windows Store goes live. Take the time to build a few great apps. Don’t build a mass of mediocrity. There’s already app stores that do that.

  • Hermit

    We will get there.. going to start my 3rd app.. wondering whether i shoud update the existing WP app first and then start on Win8 app or do both at the same time. UX challenges are the main challenges for existing WP Developers.

  • TheRomit

    Wait, wasn’t your next app going to be Newsblur? Pretty please? :-)

  • Hermit

    Okay i will look again :) getting lazy now a days.. half 10 and i can barely stay awake :(

  • TheRomit

    Come on. You can even charge for it. No worries :-)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=688372141 Bedrija Hamza

    Hi

    Great articel.

    With Mind8, we did excatly what you discribet in your articel.

    You can see it for yourself by grabing a copy of the software from the Windows 8 Store.

    http://apps.microsoft.com/webpdp/en-us/app/mind8/47207167-f4a2-42a7-ad6c-36d0ec1c88b5

    Your feedback is much appreciated!

    Cheers
    Hamza

  • gyurisc

    Great advise! I am going to publish my first app in Windows Store soon and I will make sure that it will have search and sharing enabled.

    My only gripe about this system wide features that they are not so easily discovered by the average user. If I cannot put out a share and search button on my app then how they will find it?

  • http://www.winappupdate.com wmiller

    Indeed – it will take time. I’d just much rather see developers taking a proactive “do it right” approach instead of trying to make a run at “doing it first”. In the end, the apps that users will fall in love with, and recommend to friends, are the apps that do it well – not necessarily those that did it first.

  • http://twitter.com/getwired Wes Miller

    I’m a fan of MindManager, so I’m somewhat biased. But I like what you all have done!