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I'm designing an app that, due to its nature, has 3-4 absolutely distinct but interacting role-types. However, importantly, a single person can be tagged with any combination of these roles. One possibility is to have a single app where a user can select the role-type through which they are currently interacting, and another approach is to have separate apps for the roles that coordinate data appropriately.

I'd personally lean towards distinct but communicating apps, but there are scenarios that will force a user to switch roles, hence in the multi-app scenario, switch apps. I am curious if anyone has looked at the effects of switching apps on how usable the "ecosystem of apps" is. Does having to switch apps occasionally affect usability, engagement, retention, confusion, initial uptake, etc? If so, is it known how much the number of switches per day/week modulates the effect?

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  • You will probably not receive a satisfying answer here. For the first question, Yes, switching apps or tasks of any kind is associated with costs which will decrease usability, engagement,... Users would prefer to not have these costs. For the second question, if somebody (miraculously) finds data on this it will be very specific to their use case and probably not applicable to yours. I guess the question is more: Is the UX better if users switch in-app vs. between-apps? You can only find that out yourself with your users.
    – Nash
    Jan 14, 2021 at 9:00

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You haven't given so much details about your apps. But here's my general answer.

When switching apps there's always the risk of users getting distracted or deciding to use other apps instead. Consider the scenario where you register and you need to verify your email address. even for this, you will be switching between your own app and the email app and also trying to remember the code so you can enter it into your own app. Switching between apps isn't a great user experience, but still, users have given accustomed to doing this.

If you do decide take go this route, consider for app1 to automatically launch app2 in the exact screen where the user can continue their journey with minimum extra steps. For this, the pre-requisite is that both apps need to be installed. To make this happen you will need to have a plan.

In terms of performance, you will need to consider how having 2 apps running together will consume more resources on the user's phone.

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User testing is the way to go - test it out, see the results, see what works the best for your case.

These are the usual considerations:

  • Cognitive Load: Constant switching between apps can increase cognitive load, leading to frustration and decreased productivity.
  • User Engagement: Users might be less inclined to engage deeply with any single app if they feel the need to constantly switch.
  • Learning Curve: Multiple apps require users to learn multiple interfaces, which can be a barrier for new users.
  • Retention: If switching between apps feels cumbersome, it could negatively impact user retention.

Here are some pros and cons for each of those options, hopefully, it'll help:

One app

Pros:

  • Seamless Experience: Users stay within a single app, reducing the cognitive load associated with switching contexts.
  • Consistency: A unified interface ensures consistent user experience and learning curve.
  • Simplified Management: Easier for developers to manage updates, bug fixes, and user support.

Cons:

  • Complexity: As functionalities increase, the app can become bloated, making navigation and usage less intuitive.
  • Performance Issues: Heavier apps might be slower or consume more resources.
  • Role Confusion: If not designed carefully, users might struggle to switch between roles or understand the capabilities available in each role.

Multiple apps

Pros:

  • Specialized Functionality: Each app can be optimized for specific tasks, offering a more focused experience.
  • Performance: Individual apps can be more lightweight, potentially offering better performance.
  • Targeted User Base: Easier to tailor each app to the needs and expectations of specific user groups.

Cons:

  • App Switching: Switching between apps can disrupt workflow and increase cognitive load.
  • Inconsistent Experience: Varied interfaces and interactions across apps can confuse users.
  • Maintenance Overhead: More apps mean more potential points of failure and a broader maintenance requirement.

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