Failing the tube test

As a Londoner working in the city, I (along with hundreds of thousands of others) catch the tube to work every day. Although you’re typically crammed in a carriage with hundreds of other commuters, the journey is a solitary one, and many passengers turn to their iPhones, iPads and Kindles to pass the time.

For me, it’s a pretty long journey, up to an hour each way to get from Parsons Green to Canary Wharf — a large portion of which is spent deep underground, with no mobile or 3G coverage on my iPhone 4. During this time you can really tell which apps’ data strategies have been properly thought out and designed, and which ones have been hacked together in a hurry.

I’m not going to mention any offending games or apps by name, but these are the sort of things developers should be shot for:

Apps that don’t cache downloaded data for later viewing

Except in special cases (e.g. streaming audio/video, realtime or sensitive content), all downloaded data must be cached locally, and able to be viewed again without an internet connection. Apps that don’t store downloaded content are just crippled web browsers.

Offline App Store reviews

It is unacceptable to nag me to rate your app in the App Store when there is no internet connection. Honestly — don’t ask users to do the impossible.

Repeated connection attempts and repeated error diaglogs

It is unacceptable to repeatedly show error dialogs when there is no internet connection. By all means, try to continuously download updates, but do it silently and in the background. I do not need to be told every 30 seconds that it (still) couldn’t connect.

Locking the UI when checking for updates on startup

When launched, It is unacceptable to block the user in the UI from reading previously-cached data while downloading updated content. By all means, check for updates on start up, but while that is happening, the user must be able to read the previous cached copy, unless they explicitly asked for a refresh from-scratch.

Throwing away cached data then failing to update

It is unacceptable to leave the user with a blank screen because you threw away previously-cached data THEN failed to update. Local data caches should not be cleared until new data has been 100% retrieved successfully and loaded.

Lost form data, please retype

t is unacceptable to ‘lose’ form values and force the user to retype a message when a submit error occurs. Form values must be saved somewhere — either automatically requeued for resubmission, or as a draft that can be edited or cancelled by the user.

Ad priorities

It is unacceptable for an ad-supported app to crash, refuse to start or behave weirdly because it couldn’t connect to the ad server. Are you worried about people using your app, or seeing ads?

Occasionally connected apps

It is unacceptable for any app to refuse to start without an internet connection. Users should always be able to change settings, view and edit previously-cached data and enqueue new requests where possible (to be submitted when a connection is available).

Final thoughts

In general, occasionally-connected computing is a good model for iPhone/Android apps that push/pull data from the Internet. It just needs to be implemented correctly. Like web designers assuming no javascript and using progressive-enhancement to add improved behaviour on top of basic functionality, mobile developers should assume no internet connection is available most of the time — jump at the opportunity to sync when possible, but don’t interrupt the user or assume it won’t fail.

So please, if If you’re a mobile developer, think about us poor Londoners before you deploy your next version!

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