The Rise of Superpower Apps

Franco Varriano
March 10, 2021
 min read
We shape our tools and then the tools shape us.” - Winston Churchill

There has been no shortage of progress in the field of creative technology. Many of those leaps forward have been simplified, embedded into our everyday apps and tools, and democratized.

First generation apps have made it easier to create text, audio, video, and more, making it possible for everyone to become a creator! These tools raise the collective bar of what’s possible in the Creator Economy.

Now, a new generation of tools is bridging the skills gap of users in a subtle and automized way.

Welcome to the rise of superpower apps.

The evolution of creative apps

Let's look at a simplified example of these changes:

  • Adobe Photoshop is a big, powerful desktop app with lots of features designed for professional users.
  • Canva is a template-based web app with a much smaller set of features. It's designed for a different set of users, let's call them "everyday people at work or at home who want professional-looking graphics without needing to hire a designer or learn a bunch of stuff."
  • Unfold is a smartphone app that offers a very specific experience. It grants users a limited set of actions and the ability to produce template-based, collage-style visuals for vertical social media stories (mostly Instagram Stories).

As new factors emerge (i.e. technological, social/cultural expectations, new platforms, formats of expression, user needs),apps and tools are created to cater to those changes.

In the example above, several trends happened at once:

i) The product platform: Shift from desktop software > web app > mobile app.

ii) The target customer: Shift from professional designers > everyday users >mobile-native creators (likely a younger demographic).

iii) The product feature set: Shift from multiple complex tools accessed through menus and submenus > simplified core features in a simplified interface > very limited feature set that is accessible using a fast, intuitive tap/touch/swipe experience.

iv) Pricing model: Shift from expensive annual licenses > free to use (with a monthly fee for features like more templates, higher resolution, etc.) > free to use(with micro-transactions for other features).

Simply put, the needs of customers are changing and so are the places and ways in which they want to access creative tools.  

This change coincides with another important shift.

The casual creator

In 2019, Dr. Kate Compton coined the term "Casual Creator." Dr.Compton is a creative technologist, researcher, and futurist.

She describes Casual Creators as a class of software or experience designed with casual users in mind.

Exploring the experience a Casual Creator tool provides, Dr. Compton writes:

“Casual creators do not provide the user with the total control of a"traditional" creativity tool like Maya or Photoshop. Instead, they empower the user with some combination of automation, generativity, surprise, or social/community features.”
“A Casual Creator is an interactive system that encourages the fast, confident, and pleasurable exploration of a possibility space, resulting in the creation or discovery of surprising new artifacts that bring feelings of pride, ownership, and creativity to the users that make them.”

One of Dr. Compton’s most important points relates to the skill level of users:

“The user of a casual creator is a casual user, and the system can expect no previous domain knowledge, no previous technical experience, or adherence to a long learning process. All of the learning and creativity described above must occur in the first few minutes, and provide a good experience even if the user never spends time to gain mastery.”

Doesn’t this sound like the trends listed earlier? But there’s one key difference…

Dr. Compton mentions empowering users with some combination of automation and surprise.  

This is when we find ourselves in the realm of superpower apps—when our tools surprise, delight, and enable us to do more than we expected or knew how to do. This new class of apps turns users into superheroes.  

The rise of superpower apps

Superpower apps aren’t a completely unexpected or unknown trend within the technology community, but it is one that’s still emerging.

Low-code, human-assisted, or artificial intelligence (AI)-powered apps have existed for years. With further advances and democratization of these technologies, we're starting to see powerful features make their way into more of our everyday apps, especially ones that help us create.

A few examples:

  • Lightricks offers AI-powered photo and video apps like Photofox.
  • Descript offers AI-powered audio and video editing(and can even clone your voice to fill in gaps!).
  • Spotify's "Made for You" playlists have the uncanny ability to hone in on your style and tastes.
  • SketchAR combines augmented reality (AR) andAI to help you learn how to draw.

Superpower apps let us complete a wide range of tasks—regardless of whether or not we have the required skills or education.

"The best tools make simple things easy, difficult things possible - and they scale linearly along this spectrum. They deliver on their promised features, and then they get out of my way."

-Ken Kocienda, former principal engineer of iPhone software; author of Creative Selection: Inside Apple’s Design.

From launching businesses, to creating products, to growing an audience, more tools are being designed with superpowers to enhance and accelerate your workflow, all without adding any visible complexity!

Superpower apps for product personalization

There’s a distinction between customization and personalization—i.e. adding text or a logo to a standard t-shirt versus having users deeply personalize products based on their personality, tastes, and information.

True product personalization is a collaborative, co-creative process that happens alongside peers, a creator or brand, and within a system or tool that enables you to effortlessly do more. We can expect the sophistication of these personalized experiences to evolve over time.

Josh Constine, principal investor and head of content at SignalFire, recently Tweeted that:

"The future of social is multiplayer, where creation & consumption is collaborative and you're not isolated in feeds lobbing Likes & comments at each other."

Creative Layer believes product personalization sits further along this multiplayer experience spectrum.

Fans, followers, and modern customers are looking for experiences that create something unique and tailored to them. The data backs this up.

But for these experiences to be enjoyable and enduring, they must seamlessly blend an intuitive and playful Casual Creator tool with unexpected, highly rewarding superpowers that automatically fill in the gaps of users’ skillsets and imaginations.

This is our mission at Creative Layer.

We're building tools that will give you and your community superpowers when it comes to creating personalized products.

Whether you're a solo creator, an entrepreneur, or a brand looking to share something truly unique with your audience, our mission is to empower your creative world (with superpowers!).

Come build with us, sign up for early access, and follow along on Twitter and LinkedIn.