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Jun 26, 2015 | 8 min read


Invisible Apps: Service is conversation

Caroline Pandraud

Director Customer XP

At FABERNOVEL INNOVATE, it’s our job to design new products and services for our clients. These products provide user experiences that are as simple and intuitive as possible, in order to maximize adoption, despite the inherent complexity that lies in the diversity of communication channels today (web, mobile, social networks, physical, etc.). For us, invisible apps provide a fantastic opportunity to build closer relationships with our end users and show them the right information, at the right time. So we wanted to decipher this trend and the added value it creates for our clients.


When the iPhone 3G was released in 2009, Apple famously declared that, no matter what a user needed, “There’s an app for that.” Six years later, there are 14,000 times as many applications available on the App Store.
And on our smartphones?

To answer that question, I decided to sort through my own iPhone apps:

• My collection now includes 148 applications (a reasonable number for a geek like me).
• 29 have the honor of appearing on my home screen and being used every week (the average, according to a Nielsen study, is 26.8).
• Another 31 linger on the last pages and have only been opened once (if at all).

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An orderly life

The facts are clear (and have been verified by a qualitative study performed on myself): although we do spend 86% of our time in applications whenever we use our smartphones, 1 in 5 of our installed apps are only ever launched once.

Faced with the problem of app cemeteries, a trend emerging in the US and China claims to have found the solution: invisible apps.


Invisible Apps FABERNOVEL 5Feeling better…

Invisible apps aren’t – strictly speaking – apps.
They represent a new way to interact with a service, by using classic communication channels that have proven to be particularly effective. I can access the service I want (concierge, banking, e-commerce, etc.), simply by sending a text message or an email.
No app to download from the App Store or Google Play. No account to set up. No new password to remember. No tutorial. And no interface (this is the invisible part of it): these “apps” blend in with the ones we know and understand so well: texts and emails.

To explain the concept in more concrete terms, nothing’s better than a real-life example.
And so, for your benefit, I tested out the French text-message concierge service, Clac Des Doigts (“Snap of the Fingers”).
My goal? To have two copies of my building’s bike storage room key made, without moving from my desk.
The experience broke down into four steps, all done by text message, in less than three hours:

1 – Registration: I started out by sending my request to the service by text message, which required me to sign up online (and to provide my payment card information 😉 ).

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2 – Processing of my request and price quote: I provided additional information regarding my needs, and the service sent me a quote.

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3 – Getting tricky: I added conditions to my request, to test their flexibility.

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4 – Delivery: I accepted the quote and had my keys delivered to the office.

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In less than three hours and just a few texts, my two keys were successfully delivered to me at the office… for €32! Laziness comes at a price.


As you can see, invisible apps are there for when downloading an application wouldn’t make much sense. They offer a temporary, dedicated communication channel to satisfy occasional needs.
In recent months, a growing number of startups have been created in this niche, covering every imaginable sector:

Concierge services: Clac Des Doigts, one of the many French copycats of the US startup Magic, can satisfy your every last-minute needs, day or night (flowers, meals, dry cleaning, shows… and duplicate keys).
Event planning: Cloé will find the best place to go out with your co-workers, or the perfect restaurant for a romantic Valentine’s dinner. Julie and Clara can find your next meeting date, juggling all of your participants’ schedules.
• Banking: Digit will help you to save money and manage your bank accounts and transfers by text message.
• E-commerce: Stefan’s Head offers limited-edition items at discount prices, through text messaging.
• Health: Talkspace lets you chat with a psychiatrist.
• Employment: Miley offers you odd jobs, paid at $15 to $20 an hour… for some extra spending cash to fund your next occasional need!

Large groups are also jumping on board:

• Deliveries: Chronopost’s Predict service finally gives you flexibility as to when your packages are delivered, allowing you to reschedule up until the morning of the delivery date, by text or by email.


Value proposals are often quite similar. They are performance-oriented, offering to perform simple but time-consuming tasks for users: you could easily do it yourself, but you’d rather have someone else handle it, so that you can do something else. Users of these services aren’t necessarily tech-savvy or geeks: invisible apps target a mass market by simplifying the communication channel to the extreme, in the most stripped-down form possible: text messages and emails.

What this trend tells us is that we, as consumers, are constantly on the lookout for a simplified and, above all, personalized customer experience.
Using communication channels that are typically reserved for friends and co-workers quickly creates closeness between the user and the service. There’s a reason for giving these services human names: Cloé, Luka, Clara, Stefan, Jeffrey and Nestor all want to be included in your address book.

Although, in most cases, real people respond directly to users’ queries, a growing share of these services are leaving things in the hands of artificial intelligences, relegating human beings to reviewing and approving their work. It is interesting to note the divergence between the simplicity of these services’ interfaces and the complexity of the artificial intelligences needed to provide relevant, contextual responses.


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Text 1 to 72500 to save Anthony on Secret Story

Using text messaging as a temporary communication channel is nothing new. In France, for example, Loft Story viewers were able to vote to keep Loana or Jean-Edouard in the running by sending a text message with a surcharge, back in 2001.
But let’s not mix apples with oranges. There is a major difference between TV voting and invisible apps, which aim to provide a value-added service to their users by means of two-way communications.

There are two reasons for this sudden revival of the text message:

1 – Free texting: the increased use of text messaging has been accompanied by plummeting prices and the advent of the unlimited text plan. Sending a text today doesn’t cost a thing, either to the customer or to the service.

2 – The end of the momentum for native applications: when the App Store was launched in 2008, every company wanted its own native app. The mobile web craze overshadowed technologies that, albeit less sexy, were incredibly effective in some cases. This obviously applies to text messaging, but also to low-speed cellular networks like Sigfox, which developed and grew while classic telecoms carriers were focusing on 3G and 4G.

But the rise in text messaging is, above all, the manifestation of a deeper trend: the boom in messaging applications and their transformation into service platforms (Messaging as a Platform).
Messaging apps are used an average of 9 times a day on smartphones and engage their users 5.6 times as much as the average for other types of apps (according to Flurry). As a result, the suppliers of the most popular messaging systems are naturally transforming their products into veritable platforms, allowing third-party applications and brands to use a communication channel that has been hugely successful with consumers:

• Users of WeChat, the highly popular Chinese messaging service, have been able to open a store on the app since May 2014.
• In March 2015, Facebook announced the launch of its developer platform for Messenger, particularly “Business on Messenger.” For example, it is now possible to track orders on the e-commerce website Everlane.com, without exiting Messenger.

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A single channel between the brand and the customer on Messenger


For designers of services, offering a conversational service rather than a native application is a bold choice, going against the tide of what appears to have become a standard, but it can also be a particularly appropriate one.

It allows them to:

Focus more on the actual value provided to customers, rather than on the user interface. Opting for an invisible app makes to easier and, especially, much faster to bring an idea to market, test it out on target customers, and then further enhance it to transform it into a true innovation. And there is always the option of offering a complete app later on (for example, Sunrise started out with a nice little email digest of each user’s daily schedule, before developing an application that was bought out by Microsoft two years later, to the tune of $100 million).
Not have to worry about application stores’ rules, simplifying the release of possible innovations to market, as well as their adoption by users.
Target a broader market than just smartphone owners (according to Deloitte, 41% of the French population were still using a basic cell phone in 2014).
Create customer relationships based on trust and proximity.

For all that, invisible apps are still no substitute for visible (“traditional”) apps.
The two approaches are complementary and should be seen as points of contact for a unified customer experience.
The challenge is clear: using the right channel at the right time, without clogging up users’ phones, to give them the best possible experience.

 Traditional apps: for frequently-used services, to keep in touch with customers in the long run.
 Invisible apps: a temporary, dedicated communication channel to respond to customers’ occasional needs.

While we have become accustomed to receiving daily application notifications and spam via email, messaging (via SMS, Messenger or WhatsApp) remains a very sensitive, almost intimate, channel that must be respected.


At FABERNOVEL INNOVATE, we work each day to design services that will provide continuity between the physical experience and the digital experience of a place.
We strongly believe that invisible apps can play an important role in this arena.
To illustrate this concept of a temporary customer communication channel, we came up with Anthony, the Occar hotel group’s text messaging service.

1 – In preparation for a customer’s trip to Berlin, Anthony suggests two hotels in the guest’s usual price range. Once a selection has been made, a dedicated communication channel is opened between the hotel and the customer, for the duration of the stay.

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2 – Before arriving at the hotel, Anthony sends useful information about the customer’s trip (hotel address, weather forecast, etc.) and offers additional services (taxi, breakfast, and so on). This information is accessible in the customer’s text messaging thread, even when offline.

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3 – While staying at the hotel, the customer can interact with the hotel staff over the dedicated channel.

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4 – At the end of the stay, Anthony asks the guest to fill out a qualitative customer satisfaction survey. And then the channel shuts down, until the next reservation.
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Although all of these actions could have been handled by a dedicated application, the time aspect of the need makes the use of text messaging much more relevant and interactive. The information is sent to users when they need it the most, throughout their stay (before, during and after).


The examples given above focus on the B2C applications of conversational interfaces. However, these interfaces also offer a multitude of opportunities for developing new types of B2B services.
The best example today: dozens of professional communities are being built through Slack, a corporate messaging service at the crossroads between Skype, Yammer and IRC. These communities are already enabling developers, designers, traveling freelancers and others to connect and share.

And what if Slack, positioning itself as the ultimate in professional messaging, were to become a platform for invisible B2B apps? Let’s leave that for another article… 😉


Interested in the subject? Let's talk!

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