Data Dead-ends

In my Mountain Lion Reminders post I touched upon the frustration I have with apps that can be described as data dead-ends. A data dead-end is any application or website which allows you to import, upload or create data, but then makes it hard or impossible to get it back out for the purposes of backup or interoperability. This is usually due to lack of export functionality, lack of connectivity options or undocumented file formats

Whilst data dead-ends have existed since the dawn of computing, in the age of web and mobile apps the inconvenience that they represent really starts to become apparent. On iOS there are a number of examples of excellent applications with one key deficiency - there is no way to transfer the data which you created to other applications or devices.

One example of this is Path, the beautifully designed “private social network” which allows you to share photos, location, status updates with a closed circle of close friends and family. It is an excellent app, with attention to detail and pioneering several new concepts in user interface campaign. The one small problem is that once you upload a photo, there is no way for you download or save that file.

In the context of the application, exporting data is certainly not a core feature - it is not required to fulfill the goal of social sharing - but what if I lose the original? It is safe within Path, but I have no way to download it and re-add it to my master photo library.

In this case it makes me nervous about adopting a new product. If I am expected to invest time creating or curating content then how do I get it back out again?

In some cases this kind of design is forgivable. In my last post I talked about the benefits of syncing todo lists across devices, but if your product is intended as perhaps only a simple shopping list or has a specialized user interface for the task at hand, then maybe thats okay. It had better be a damn good app to justify that kind of forgiveness, but I can live with it!

Where it becomes unforgivable is in apps touted as enabling content creation, and in these cases the problem is often subtlety different - it is not just that you want to be able to export data, but you also want to use that exported data afterwards.

I have been a long time user of both Moodboard and iMockups on the iPad. Both well-designed apps that allow me to work on projects when I don’t have a laptop with me. The downside? I don’t view them as serious content-creation applications. I primarily use them for sketching ideas.

Both allow me to export what I’m working on as images to my camera roll. Thats rubbish! I have no way of editing my creations on another device or computer so their utility is somewhat limited. In the case of iMockups, thankfully, they have recently added Balsamiq export functionality so mockups can be edited on the desktop.

Another app that I have been using lately is Perspective - a unique storytelling tool which allows you to create data visualizations and then present them. Its example presentations are fantastic and is something I can certainly see myself using the next time I’m presenting. The only problem is that I have to create the entire presentation on the iPad, jumping through hoops to import data and tediously designing slides and adding content. There is no desktop client (currently) and until that exists I don’t know if I want to invest the time.

Some may argue wether an iPad is truly a device for content creation. I’d say that it definitely can be. Usually if I have something to design or write, I’ll make a quick draft on the iPad and then later make tweaks and refinements on the computer. This workflow is perfect for me, and is brilliantly realized with Apple’s iWork apps and a few others which tend to have good integrations with iCloud or Dropbox for syncing files.

For serious content creation apps you cannot afford to be a data dead-end. Developers need to be conscious of this and ensure that users have a good way to export data, and move it between different devices.


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