Crossing app boundaries

Working between multiple apps is still much harder on a smartphone than any desktop computer. On a desktop machine, you can jump between the apps seamlessly, allowing you to focus on the task, instead of about how to get from app A to app B.

On iOS, going from one app to another and back again involves at least 4 home button presses and 2 taps. If you need to take information from one app to another, you have to think about what’s already on your clipboard and what you might be losing. Pressing the home button always feels particularly disruptive to the flow of work.

To clarify: just about every single website you visit nowadays has a banner somewhere urging users to download their app. That’s not what I’m looking at here — those types of ads tend to be disruptive, whereas creating cross-app workflows should reduce workflow disruption.

Find your app’s boundaries

Check your app for boundaries that your users will encounter. Example of incoming boundaries will typically include web links or links from other apps. Outgoing boundaries might include authentication requirements or sharing workflows in content-creation apps.

Let’s look at some examples:

Storehouse – the impressive new iPad-based story-creation app can also share all content through their website. The site offers an Apple Smart Banner, but all this does is open the app, there’s no deep link to the specific content you were reading.
( EDIT: It looks like Storehouse does implement the deep-linking correctly, but a bug in iOS 7 is preventing it from working properly at the moment.)

Tumblr sites offer a custom banner that includes “Install app” and “Open in app” options alongside a menu bar with other options. The deep link works as expected, opening the particular tumblog you’re on in the app.

So if your product includes a website where users can share and view content outside of the app, make sure that site includes a deep link back into your app — it’s annoying to have to find content a second time.

iOS Smart Banners

Apple’s Smart App banners offer a basic way to implement this kind of behaviour. They offer an app download to users without the app, but also support deep linking into your app.

Custom solutions

Alternatively, you can roll your own javascript solution. Drawback: There’s no good way to detect whether or not an app is installed from MobileSafari, so users without the app will also see the link and get an error message if they tap it.
Advantages: Smart Banners look like ads, a custom solution can be designed to integrate with your website and can also include support for Android or other platforms if required.

Other App Boundaries

Some other typical boundaries you’ll come across are:

3rd party service authentication

If your app integrates with a 3rd party service, investigate whether they offer an app-based authentication workflow, instead of just requiring a username and password. Pocket and Dropbox offer good examples of this – adding your Pocket account to Tweetbot only takes 2 taps – one to jump into Pocket and one to confirm and jump back to Tweetbot.

Cross-links between related apps

Our Live TV app for iOS includes a deep-link into our TV Pro app, allowing users to look-up more information about the particular show they’re currently watching, or find out when it’s airing next (we don’t yet offer the obvious link back, but it’s on the board for a future update).

Final thoughts

Let’s hope as smartphones improve, we can all come up with better ways to enable seamless workflows across multiple apps, but until that happens, my goal is to look at our apps and see where some of that boundary friction can be reduced.