Mobile app product wisdom: the start screen

Yesterday Hunter Walk, a VC at Homebrew, tweeted a product insight that I’m still pondering almost 24 hours later. As someone who doesn’t use any ride-sharing apps (suburbia!) his comments about what Uber is currently featuring in its app, what it signals, and what it can do in the future prompted a lot of thought about how to apply those principles to the app I am currently working on. But first, the tweets themselves:

Requesting a ride in San Francisco.  Source: Uber

Requesting a ride in San Francisco.
Source: Uber

So what is Uber’s start screen? It’s a local map showing the user’s location and the location of Uber cars in the neighborhood. It’s not obvious from Uber’s screenshot but there are usually many more Ubers available in San Francisco’s civic center. As Hunter Walk stated, the goal of showing all available cars is to ensure users that a driver will be available to pick them up in a few minutes, all they have to do is request a pickup. Mr Walk suggested that after using the service for a while, users will already be confident that an Uber will be available whenever they want one and the start screen can change to offer reasons to use Uber, demand creators such as events happening only short ride away.

This prompted me to think that many apps are not doing a good job thinking about their start page, what purpose it serves, and what actions it can drive. With many, the start page is just the quickest way to enter the main functionality of the app. This isn’t necessarily bad product design, but the questions regarding intent and desired outcomes are especially relevant for the start page and might deserve some more thought. Many times mobile product managers focus on functionality and flow, and occasionally on onboarding. The start screen might not receive the attention it deserves.

Taking a look at my most popular apps, most of them lead with a list of entries, be it a newsfeed, timeline, or emails. More apps take me to the screen I used as when I last used the application, which is convenient for the user but might not serve the product well, hindering further exploration. Yet another set of apps just starts at the same, boring splash screen that asks me to “start over” no matter what I was last doing with the app. This, in my opinion, is a waste: I don’t have the convenience of using the app to continue doing what I did before and neither does it give me my latest updates. Rather, I have to make the same choices every time I use the app. Some location-driven apps act like this as well: making me navigate to a point where I choose “current location” as the information I want to see. For some of these services, such as parking, I’m guessing that local use far outstrips non-local use.

Finally, an app that get it right. Youtube gives me personalized recommendations for videos based on my viewing history and it makes it easy to just watch something without too much searching and browsing, activities that are much less fun to do on mobile than they are on a computer. Smart recommendation algorithms paired with what Youtube wants me to see (the topmost video was an ad, clearly marked as such) and quick gratification make this app fun to use.

Regardless, thinking about the start screen as more than a navigation tool to your app is great product advice. Thanks for the gentle prod, Mr. Walk!

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