With 2.8 million apps in the Google Play store and the Apple app store not far behind, the act of creating an app itself is clearly no longer the challenge it once was. There are plenty of frameworks providing streamlined developing, more developers than ever, and the channels are there to promote new offerings.
But while the process of how to make an app (opens in new tab) has got simpler, it’s harder than ever to find the idea that makes for a real game-changer. Below are eight of the most disruptive apps yet – these apps all turned their industries upside down and spawned myriad imitators.
Some of the most successful apps are those that started out trying to solve a single specific problem or common nuisance. In this case, the idea for a ride hailing app reportedly occurred to Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp after they struggled to get a taxi in Paris while attending LeWeb tech conference in 2009.
Ten years on, Uber is now responsible for 14 million trips a day and is the single most expensed vendor on business expense sheets in the US according to Certify (opens in new tab). The taxi industry was ripe for disruption and Uber got there first with a solution that was easier and more convenient. It provided an estimated final fare and accepted virtual payments – all from a sleek black and white UI that was initially as simple as “push a button, get a ride,” and which later evolved to start at the end of the process by asking “Where to?”.
As proof of its disruptiveness, Uber has led to protests from taxi drivers and legal challenges in many cities, but its success despite this has spawned many imitators and forced other taxi and ride services to react and modernise. Its also had some controversial redesigns over the years, the latest of which was in 2018 – read about it here (opens in new tab).
GrubHub is another example of an app that saw a chance to make life a little easier – and tidier, since it well and truly rendered obsolete the piles of takeaway menus piled up beside the landline. Restaurants have not always been very good at marketing their food online, often offering unwieldy multi-page pdf menus, while placing orders over the phone used to often involve frustrating calls with rushed workers.
GrubHub (opens in new tab) was founded in 2004 and changed all this with an app that allowed users to browse menus, see photos, enter discount codes and pay for delivery in a few taps. The problem for GrubHub has been that a host of competitors was hot on its tail, from Deliveroo in London to Glovo in Barcelona. These apps offered comparable UX and left GrubHub struggling to find a unique selling point.
03. Google Maps
The main use for physical maps and atlases now seems to be as vintage decor, while top-of-the-line GPS sat nav devices such as TomTom and Garmin have been rendered all but obsolete now that free apps such as Google Maps (opens in new tab) have turned our phones into personal navigators.
But Google Maps disrupted more than just the cartographic and GPS industries; it’s also had a huge impact on marketing, revolutionising how businesses can be found by enabling people to discover businesses on their own doorsteps that they might previously have never known existed.
There are many maps applications out there including Waze and Apple Maps, but with 1 billion downloads, Google’s is by far the most used. Its integration with other Google products makes it something of a panacea, as it incorporates Google calls, reviews, questions, photos and personal contacts into one map-based interface.
There can be no bigger target for disruption than banks. Loved by few, the financial behemoths have for a long time been able to charge hefty fees for sending money across borders with few other options available other than packing wads of cash in a suitcase.
Many startups have identified chances to increase access or reduce fees in financial services, making fintech one of the most disruptive areas of app design, with apps like Robinhood (opens in new tab) trying to open stock trading to the masses, Square (opens in new tab) revolutionising the payments sector and Venmo (opens in new tab) allowing people to more easily split the bill after an evening out.
Founded by two Estonian entrepreneurs, Kristo Käärmann and Taavet Hinrikus, TransferWise (opens in new tab) provides a very simple function, allowing users to transfer money internationally with much lower fees than those charged by the major banks. Users can do so with only a couple of taps thanks to an effortlessly straightforward UI that makes each step obvious, and simple animations providing for a smooth experience that lets you know exactly when your money’s arriving. It’s no wonder it’s now processing $4 billion a month for more than 4 million customers in 72 countries.
Spotify (opens in new tab) didn’t invent the wheel, but sometimes a great app comes from improving, simplifying or streamlining what has already been started. Spotify took the post-Napster iTunes Store concept and perfected it, introducing a pay-per-month subscription service for music streaming that could be used across devices to save physical storage space.
With millions of tracks and a free version for those who don’t mind ads, it’s become the go-to music service for 248 million active users, convincing even inveterate pirates that streaming was the way forward. The incorporation of some of the best features from other services, like jointly created playlists and tailored suggestions, makes for personalised access to a treasure trove of music at a scale not seen before. The latest redesign (opens in new tab) put more of an emphasis on podcasts, tapping into yet another blooming market.
Most of us were already taking photos on our phones before Instagram (opens in new tab) came along. What Instagram did was make us feel like talented photography professionals. With its myriad filters and styling options, the photo sharing app suddenly allowed us to transform the most mundane shot from our everyday routine – everything from breakfast to the bus journey home from work – into something beautiful and share-worthy.
It changed the way we take photos and share them with friends, but it also changed the way we interact and experience everything from eating out to exercise classes, making businesses need to think more than ever about presentation. With more than a billion users now, Instagram has provided an easily accessible method of promotion for small businesses, and in the process has created an entire new industry of online influencers promoting products, trips and experiences that has left marketers struggling to catch up.
While the internet had already pushed the speed at which news could be communicated, Twitter (opens in new tab) took things even further by cutting out the middleman – the media. The platform transformed the way news is broken and turned members of the public into citizen journalists, commentators and opinion formers.
We no longer need a TV anchorman or embedded reporter to tell us what is happening in the furthest corner of the world; news can be delivered by anyone with a Twitter handle and be found and explored thanks to the trusty hashtag. When a major event occurs many people’s reaction is no longer to turn on the radio, TV, or even to look to online news portals, but to turn to Twitter to see what’s trending.
Many of the most disruptive and most successful apps focus on addressing a single problem and doing it well, and when they start getting too bloated with tools and features, spin these off into separate apps such as Uber Eats, and Messenger from Facebook. But in China a single app has disrupted not just one industry, but almost all industries.
Initially understood by many in the west as a 'Chinese WhatsApp', WeChat (opens in new tab) is so much more, offering everything from file sharing to mobile payments, booking and more all within one single app. For most app designers, this would seem like a recipe for disaster with a bloated UI leading to sluggish, if not frustrating user experience, but WeChat cleverly packs things in. It also leaves most apps behind in terms of download numbers.
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