February 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

App Awareness: What to look for in an app

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With apps, it’s important to keep abreast of what’s available and be able to discern what makes one app a better choice than another for a particular task. While each category of apps requires its own criteria for evaluation, there are some constants to bear in mind.


This might seem like a no-brainer, but is the app available for your operating platform? For iOS compatible devices, does it work on both the iPhone and iPad? If so, are there differences in how the app performs from device to device? For instance, sometimes an iPhone app used on an iPad doesn’t convert well and the look and feel just doesn’t work on a larger screen.

Similarly, are there different versions for different operating systems, and if so, what are the distinctions between versions? For example, there might be both iOS and Android versions of an app, but a great application on the iPhone might not be so great on an Android device.


Is it worth spending $100 on an iPad or smartphone app? Maybe, maybe not. The adage “You get what you pay for” doesn’t always apply. There are a lot of different apps that do the exact same thing, but at a cost of anywhere from free to hundreds of dollars. Free apps can often be just as good as their counterparts with a price tag. The key is to evaluate the the differences between the free app, the $9.99 version, and the $100 one.


The app stores (Android and Apple, for example) provide reviews by real users. Pay attention to these. Look for reviews of products that answer the kinds of questions you have about your particular needs. And, look for reviews that assess the range of capabilities of apps within a particular category (writing, media creation, and so on). See what reviewers say about the customer service of the company behind the app. If something isn’t working, do the developers address problems promptly, or do they take a long time to push out a new update with a fix?

User interface

We’re getting better and better at understanding what makes a good user interface for apps. Tools such as the recent Nielsen Norman group report on iPad usability help define what makes for a good experience. As you look for apps in a particular category, think about your own needs. Would you prefer opening a menu by swiping across the screen or scrolling horizontally or vertically to access content? Can you easily adjust the font size?


How often is the app updated? Does it matter if that’s not very often? In the life of apps that have a social component, such as uploading to YouTube, it’s important that they be updated regularly in order to take advantage of new methods users have to interact in mobile environments. Sometimes updates are required to maintain interest, as with game apps, for example, which commonly add new “levels.” Look at the list of features added, changed, and refined in a recent update to get a sense of how the app developers respond to user needs and the ever-changing digital environment.

There are a lot of apps available for carrying out a variety of tasks, from media creation to productivity. A great way to keep up with what’s new is to read technology blogs such as Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, and School Library Journal’s own app review blog, Touch and Go. (Why not subscribe to one or all of these by using one of the personalized magazine apps discussed above?) By reading just one of these on a regular basis, you’ll learn about apps that aren’t always specifically geared toward librarians, educators, or students, but might have a lot of potential for supporting the needs of children and teens in your greater community.

Keeping up with a wide variety of apps will also give you the chance to provide reviews and recommendations to the children, teens, and adults with whom you work. So when someone’s in search of an app for notetaking, photo editing, or blogging, you’ll have just the right information to provide them. And that user will be a bit happier and better able to function in her digital environment.

Linda W. Braun About Linda W. Braun

Linda W. Braun (lbraun@leonline.com) is an educational technology consultant and a past president of YALSA.