The Death of Three Apps
In just a couple of months, three of my favourite iOS apps have ceased to exist: Tweetbot, V for Wiki, and Apollo. These three Apps had one thing in common: they were exceptionally well designed and they were a much better alternative to their official counterpart. In case you don’t know them: Tweetbot was a Twitter client by Tapbots, Apollo a Reddit client by Christian Selig and V for Wiki a Wikipedia client by Frank Rausch. The reason for their demise was not their lack of popularity — all three apps were very successful! They ceased to exist because they were no longer supported by their respective services.
I miss them — very much.
For me, V for Wiki was not only a convenient way to look something up on Wikipedia. It was one of the best reading experiences on my iPhone. Instead of skimming over articles or quick fact checking, I spend hours reading and learning about things. It was a great remedy against doom-scrolling. Spending time with V for Wiki was actually part of my daily routine. Before going to bed, I would often use V for Wiki to read about people, events, concepts, ideas — whatever I came across that day. It was both an engaging and relaxing way to spend the evening.
This, however, no longer works with the native Wikipedia app. The app does not offer a very pleasant reading experience — so I am back to fact checking and skimming. I no longer read Wikipedia entries just out of curiosity or for enjoyment.
To be honest — I don’t miss Tweetbot that much simply because Twitter no longer exists and Tapbots published Ivory — an excellent client for the Fediverse. But I have stopped using Reddit. The Reddit community can be a bit dodgy (to say the least) but Apollo made it fun and slightly more respectable. Furthermore, the Pixel Pals were very sweet! Apollo was less concerned with typography than V for Wiki but it combined the qualities of the iOS Human Interface Guidelines with innovative design ideas.
It is important to note that all three apps were clients for larger web services. The developers were not responsible for the content and the technical infrastructure. Instead, they used application programming interfaces (APIs) for accessing data and interacting with the services. This enabled them to focus on the app design and the user experience.
And this they did. It is almost shocking how much better these three apps were, compared to the official apps provided by the services themselves. Reddit has about 2000 employees, the Wikimedia Foundation ca. 700. It’s pretty unclear how many people currently work at Twitter / X — so I won’t give you a number. More importantly, I don’t know how many designers and developers work on each official app.
But the simple fact that very small teams or even individual developers were able to come up with a better app than entire cooperations or institutions shows that a couple of things went seriously wrong at Reddit, Wikipedia and Twitter. It’s obvious that nobody really cared about aesthetic integrity and user experience.
Big companies and institutions have a tendency to produce mediocre software. This goes beyond dysfunctional management and design-by-committee. Comparing Tweetbot, V for Wiki, and Apollo with the respective official apps demonstrates that a small team of dedicated designers and developers with a clear vision and good taste can create software of remarkable quality.
As I have said before — designing for yourself is sometimes the right approach for creating software. I believe that all the aforementioned app developers were simply unsatisfied with the status quo of the official app and wanted to create something better. They had a distinct idea of what they wanted to achieve. They obviously listend to their users — but more importantly they had a crystal clear vision of the design. They knew what they wanted and they could tell which feature requests made sense and which went against their design vision.
And while all three apps differ in their visual appearance, they all had a very high level of aesthetic integrity. This aesthetic integrity is essential for good software design.
Steve Jobs famously said: ‘[Design] is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.’ While this statement is certainly correct, I sometimes feel that the ‘not just’ needs a bit more emphasis — especially in software design. The aesthetic part is just as important as the conceptual part. To paraphrase Steve Jobs: how software looks like and feels like is an essential part of how it works.
Which brings me to the main point of this essay: I strongly believe that user interface design is an art form. I am not the only one who thinks so — but it is a conviction that needs to be repeated and reiterated.
Art suffers if too many people are involved and too many opinions are taken into consideration. Art is being clear of what you want to achieve and how to achieve it. To be able to distinguish between good and bad. To follow your intuition.
Craftsmanship is essential for any art form — and this is also true for the art of software design. It is not enough to understand user needs, design patterns and interaction flows. You must be able to translate these concepts and ideas into a tangible, relatable artefact. This translation is the core process of design. Elegance, appeal, and delight are qualities that originate here. For me, it is highly irritating that this incredible skill is often designated as ‘pixel pushing’ — a clearly derogatory term.
Christian Selig, Frank Rausch and the Tapbots team understand the importance of craftsmanship. Their apps are simply very well designed and represent a sophisticated and uncompromising approach to software design.
As mentioned above, large companies tend to produce mediocre software. Not bad — mind you — they are too professional for that. But software that is easy to maintain, runs on all operation systems but is also undecided, uninspired and bland. (I am looking at you, Electron apps!) Quirkiness, individuality, delight are distinctiveness are usually eliminated in the process and in meetings and committees. (‘We kept it gray.’)
In an ideal world, this gives individual developers and designers the opportunity to come up with more original apps and opinionated design. In the best sense of the word, these apps challenge their official counterparts, spurring innovation and cross-pollination.
V for Wiki, Apollo and Tweetbot were killed because the big players changed their APIs and made it difficult, expensive or simply impossible for them to access the services. To be fair — Wikipedia just changed their API. Twitter / X and Reddit were downright malevolent when they cut off Tweetbot and Apollo.
However, it is important to note that the three apps were in no way a business competitors. V for Wiki, Apollo and Tweetbot were design competitors — and successful ones! But any kind of design competition was obviously undesirable for the big players.
Software has become an integral part of our culture. For better or worse, we spend a large part of our daily lives interacting with software. Every one of us deserves well-designed software. Software that is not only useful but also delightful! Software that not only tolerable but enjoyable! Software that you love.
The disappearance of V for Wiki, Apollo and Tweetbot is not the end of good apps. And I am convinced that there will be a renaissance of great software design. But I am still sad to see them go.