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Reality Friction

The last couple of weeks saw the sad demise of a really great app, How Do. It allowed you to take pictures of the steps involved in doing something interesting and leave some audio commentary along the way. It was a treasure trove of wonderful little tips and tricks, but sadly it's no more.

The thing is, I never properly used it. Yes, I browsed what was on there, and I had it installed on my phone. But never once did I leave a tip myself. I don't know what caused its founders to pull the plug but I'm sure I wasn't the only one to like the idea without fully engaging.

When you're looking at your phone all the time, when it's your window on the world, it's very easy to use those apps that involve nothing more than your brain and your phone. There's little to separate a thought and a tweet. It's even easier to engage with something that starts and ends at the same interface; we can all retweet and we can all share links.

But when an app requires you to engage with the real world and create something that starts somewhere else, like when you're cooking, we end up with a sort of reality friction. We forget that the app exists. We remember when it's too late.

Marketing people grapple with a similar issue: Top of Mind. Companies like Coca Cola devote almost their entire marketing spend to one thing. When you go into a shop with a thirst they want you to think of Coke. At the crucial point they want you to associate Coke with Quenching. It's a split second decision; millions spent on a moment.

Most apps don't have that kind of budget, or the inclination to invest in what it takes to achieve that traditional ubiquity. So what do they do? Beyond the initial flurry of interest, how do they stay in our thoughts?

Recently I've noticed more and more Push Notifications in Foursquare, a company that seems to be working on Top of Mind through direct action. And the technology works well for this purpose, however annoying it might be. GPS is the natural friend of Top of Mind for a geo-location app.

For many apps, however, there's a greater challenge. How do they know I'm baking a special cake? How do they know I'm tying a tricky knot? Technology gets us so far, like in the Foursquare example, but some of these challenges need deeper consideration.

If we're going to discover amazing things we need apps like How Do to thrive. It's not enough to know where someone is or what they're thinking. We want to engage vicariously with the physical world, the amazing things people can do, in ways that make us feel part of it. And yet it feels like we're still a long way off.