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The 3 Types of Mobile Apps


After a while, I got really, really tired of the catch phrase, “There’s an app for that.”

But it’s true! No matter what you’re looking to do from your smartphone, it’s almost guaranteed there will be an app to help you get it done. As users, we actually see 23 individual categories for apps to download in the App Store, from health and fitness to weather.

But there are also general design patterns that apps fall into, and that’s where I want to focus, including some thoughts from the great book Designing the iPhone User Experience <link to post on this>. Where those patterns are concerned, apps fall into three main categories: utility productivity and immersive.

Utility apps

Utility AppsLet’s consider utility apps first. These are your no-nonsense, quick-access apps that get you to the information or tasks you need performed right away. Apps featuring weather reports, stock prices, traffic reports and sports scores are great examples of utility apps.
From a programming perspective, hallmarks of most utility apps include:

  • Minimal setup
  • Simple flows and layouts
  • Standard user interface elements
  • One or two screens

Productivity apps

Then there are productivity apps, which are more complex and fully featured than utility apps — and easily the most varied of the three categories. Anything from social media monitoring and updating apps to Spotify and Instagram would technically be considered productivity apps.

Though they’re a diverse bunch of apps — from Facebook and Apple’s Mail and Calendar apps to Netflix and Safari — most productivity apps can be identified by the following characteristics:

  • Hierarchical structureProductivity Apps
  • Accelerators and shortcuts
  • Lists and detail views along with toolbars and tab bars
  • Text entry capabilities
  • Content creation and or management
  • Alerts

Productivity and utility apps both follow the human interaction guidelines (HIG) for iOS or Android, though Android’s aren’t enforced.

Immersive apps

Immersive AppsAnd finally, there are the immersive apps, which focus solely on content. These apps are designed to create a unique experience without standard controls or reliance on the iOS Human Interface Guidelines.

Each immersive app is a unique snowflake, so there are no defining characteristics of this category. (But they’re very often video games or other super-interactive apps like music-making apps: Angry Birds, Plants Vs. Zombies, Ocarina and Figure.) Creating that unique experience can be tempting across the board, but as a user, the ability to jump in and do what you need to do is more appealing — when you’re developing an app, be sure you’ve exhausted your other options before jumping into immersive design.

If a utility or productivity app better suits the need you’re looking to fill, go with it — those standard controls and operations will make users feel more at ease within your app.