In the mobile-first 21st century, apps have become one of the most important elements of any product or brand. But as the users of millions of crappy apps can attest, designing a good one is tricky. So what separates a great app from shovelware?
After receiving hundreds of submissions for this year's 2016 Innovation by Design Awards, our jury selected the apps that landed on that magic formula. Check out this year's 33 finalists, and two winners, below.
Adobe Experience Design CC (XD)
Designers have used Photoshop to mock up their prototypes for ages, but it's hardly a tool that was built for the job. Now, they finally have their own app—thanks to the launch of Adobe Experience Design CC (XD). An all-in-one digital platform built atop Adobe Creative Cloud, Adobe Experience Design CC was built from the ground up to give designers the tools they need to design, prototype, and test their websites and apps.
How will virtual reality change the way creatives work, and the tools they use to bring their designs to life? Look no further than Google's Tilt Brush for the answer. The app allows users to paint in 3D virtual space with a near-infinite palette of brushes and colors, including simulated materials such as fire and snow. As Co.Design's Mark Wilson put it, "It's like Microsoft Paint for the year 2020."
Airbnb's New Guest Experience
Airbnb's app serves a similar function to a hotel's front desk staff, so it's got to set just the right tone. As part of its new app experience, Airbnb simplified its interface, introduced new filters, and created a whole new search algorithm that better matches users with places to stay, according to their preferences. And like a good hotel concierge, Airbnb can now tell you about the best sights and experiences in the neighborhood, thanks to newly introduced in-app Guidebooks.
Company: Bitfinder and R/GA
Created for the environmental wellness startup Bitfinder, Awair is a smart indoor air quality monitor that keeps track of the air you breathe where you live. Think you smell gas? Awair can tell you if you're just imagining it or not—as well as keep track of your home's temperature, humidity, dust levels, and other contaminants.
Company: Plethora Project
Can video games teach urban designers how to build better cities? Designed by an architect-turned-game developer and inspired by The Whole Earth Catalog, Block'hood is a construction game, somewhere between Minecraft and SimCity in feel, where the goal is to build sustainable communities. By doing so, the creators of Block'hood hope to inspire a whole new generation of urban planners, as well as give them the skills they need to design the cities of the 21st century.
Mobile ads aren't much more than an annoyance to most users. But the company Button thinks they can make them a lot more useful. Button's software development kit allows developers to integrate actionable software buttons into other developers' apps; for example, a music app could contain a Button that sends you to the Ticketmaster app. Once the Button is tapped, the referring app gets a small cut of the transaction. It’s an alternative to traditional ads—one that actually adds functionality for users.
Capital One Mobile
Company: Capital One
Banking websites are notoriously poorly designed, so for its new app, Capital One wanted to create a streamlined experience that allowed customers to manage their finances as easily as they might order a Lyft or book a reservation on OpenTable. The redesigned app united all of Capital One's products, including credit cards, auto and home loans, and banking, into a single experience, driven by Apple's TouchID. It even includes smart geolocation features, allowing users to easily find their local ATMs or branch locations, without entering any information.
Never endure a mass email chain from the PTA again! A social network for classrooms, Class Dojo gives parents an easy way of keeping tabs on their kids throughout the school day. Moderated by teachers, the app lets the educators share photos, videos, upcoming school events, and important announcements with the parents of the children in their class. The app can do the same for the entire school, alerting all parents about snow days, special nights, and more.
Company: InVision App, Inc.
When a designer creates an app mock-up, they typically need plenty of filler—from lorum ipsum text to fake addresses to sample images. Craft is a suite of five free plug-ins that work in Sketch or Adobe Photoshop CC to take the pain out of finding and placing filler design elements, as well as sync design assets across every user on a particular project.
Company: Anything Is
Design is still a desktop-first process, but Create hopes to change that. Billing itself as the most powerful and easy-to-use graphic design tool, Create is a mobile-first design app that makes it painless to develop sophisticated mock-ups, all in one interface that makes it feel as easy as drawing.
Detour San Francisco
Most commuting apps aim to get you to where you're going as quickly as possible, but Detour wants you to meander. This walking tour app provides an experimental guide to San Francisco, encouraging users to go off the beaten path and follow unexpected detours that explore the city's hidden stories.
Smart homes represent new opportunities for hackers. DOJO is a home security system that protects your little corner of the internet of things from cyber attacks, thanks to a smooth, pebble-like device that connects to your router to monitor network activity. If something suspicious is going on, the pebble will change colors and start buzzing.
Giphy is the Google of animated GIFs. But the company's first app isn't about searching for the perfect GIF. It's about making them. Giphy Cam makes it easy to create your own meme-worthy looping animations, with a range of quirky, Snapchat-like filters designed to help each GIF uploaded to the service go viral.
Goals in Google Calendar
Busy calendars are where life aspirations go to die. To help combat this, Google Calendar launched Goals, an always-on digital assistant that manages your schedule in real time, and tries to find appropriate time windows where you can squeeze in a run, some yoga, or even some time to work on your novel. Something more important come up? No problem. Goals will automatically shift things around.
What radio serials were to the Greatest Generation, Hooked wants to be to millennials. This service doles out mobile-first micro-fiction in bite-sized exchanges, told in a text message-styled pastiche.
Looking for a flight on your smartphone stinks. Hopper aims to take the pain out, analyzing "billions" of prices daily to alert would-be travelers when the trip they want to take is cheapest—and giving them forewarning when they're about to rise. Want to buy? A ticket's just a few taps away.
With a whole generation being raised on mobile devices like smartphones and tablets today, how are kids going to learn to code? Hopscotch is a visual programming language for iPhones and iPads that makes it easy to learn by dragging and dropping blocks of code. When your app's done, it can be easily uploaded for the rest of the Hopscotch community to enjoy.
M for Facebook Messenger
The world's largest social network envisions a future in which you're just as likely to text an AI as you are your family and friends. M for Facebook Messenger is the first step toward that future: a virtual assistant that lives within Facebook's messaging app, combining human and machine intelligence to do things like shop, find reservations, or even plan events.
MightyTV Video Discovery App
In the era of thousands of channels and à la carte streaming video services, figuring out what to watch next is harder than ever. MightyTV's Video Discover app aims to make this easier, offering custom suggestions for what to watch based upon a viewer's preferences and the services they subscribe to.
Kids love to dance. Monster Moves is an app by Ideo that leverages kids' natural booty-shaking skills to choreograph a virtual monster's dance routine. In doing so, kids not only learn some new steps, they get a fun lesson in rhythm.
Practicing mindfulness can help relieve stress, depression, and anxiety, but it can be hard to learn. Moodnotes is a new app by Ustwo that hopes to instill healthy emotional habits by training users to be more mindful during their day. The app prompts users throughout the day to record how they're feeling on a seven-point, emojified scale, then prompts them to spend some time on further introspection.
Pinterest Product Design Standards
Through Pinterest, 100 million users bookmark the stuff they love. To make sure that experience is great for everyone, the social network has established a new set of product design standards, guaranteeing that the Pinterest experience is the same on iOS and Android as it is on the web.
Quip Inbox and Slack Integration
In the Slack age, what does an office productivity suite look like? It looks like Quip, a workspace collaboration plug-in for Slack that combines a team's documents, spreadsheets, and checklists into a single living document that can be edited and commented upon in real time.
Named after the emerald knave who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, Robinhood is a mobile-first investment app that aims to make buying and selling stocks simple. In this user-friendly, intuitive app, trades are done with a swipe, Tinder-style, making public markets more accessible than ever.
Creator: Zach Gage
Solitaire is one of the most popular computer games ever, yet until Sage Solitaire, there wasn't a version of the famous one-player card game designed specifically for smartphones. Sage Solitaire is a fast, beautiful game that bulldozes through the inherent design problems of poker-based solitaire games—the pace, the predictability—while perfecting the genre for the mobile age.
SAP Tennis Analytics for Coaches
If a player in a Women's Tennis Association match is losing, her coach only has 90 seconds to provide on-court counsel to turn the game around. SAP Tennis Analytics gives those coaches the data they need in the moment by processing real-time game info from 10 on-court cameras, then visualizing it in real time in a way that's easy for players and coaches alike to understand.
Smart Reply in "Inbox by Gmail"
Most emails don't require much of an answer, but ignoring them can send the wrong message. With Inbox, Google's eventual Gmail successor, Smart Replies make it easier to quickly respond to an email by leveraging machine learning to automatically compose a grammatically correct response. Just click on one of the three options, hit send, and you're done!
Fancy yourself a CMYK super-taster? Specimen is a mobile color-matching game that invites you to match an increasingly subtle palette of hues with colors in a slow-moving petri dish of chromatic blobs.
The Ultimate View of the Masters
Company: IBM iX
Adapting a game as slow-paced as golf for the faster mobile age is tricky, but that's just what IBM set out to do with the Ultimate View of the Masters. It's a digital golfing experience that provides analysis, overlays, leaderboards, and 4K live stream of every player on every hole of the Master's Tournament.
Company: Toca Boca
Aimed at kids between the ages of five and nine, Toca Blocks is like a digital Lego set that lets kids create their own digital worlds by pushing blocks together, which then transform into different objects like chairs and diamonds. When they're done, three virtual characters can explore these new worlds by flying, climbing, and running over kids' creations.
Tribe is a messaging app for iOS and Android that's the best of both text and video messaging. It has all the immediacy of FaceTime, but also the asynchronous, take-it-when-you-want-it quality of text messaging. And because it works like a face cam walkie-talkie for your smartphone, it's easier to use than both.
Spreadsheets are notoriously hard to read. Vizable, a new app from Seattle-based software house Tableau, converts spreadsheets into easily manipulatable charts and graphs, making it dead simple for small businesses or individual users to parse and understand large amounts of data.
Zero Click Ordering
If you thought ordering a pizza was already too easy, don't set up Domino's Zero Click ordering, which makes calling in your regular pie as easy as opening the Domino's app and watching its 10-second countdown. Talk about dangerous.