The (super) app revolution

The (super) app revolution

Stefanie Bilen
Thought byStefanie Bilen
September 01, 2021
The app revolution FFW Agency

In Asia, so-called super apps have emerged with We Chat & Co. Is this trend now upon us too? We asked people in China why everyone is chatting there and why the app is extremely helpful in Corona times. And we explain why a super app is still rather unlikely in a European country. 

The messaging service "We Chat" from China registers one billion active users per month. Almost 1.2 million Chinese use the services of Tencent Holding Ltd. every day. Besides communicating with friends and family, they call taxis, buy cinema tickets, order groceries, pay electricity bills and send money to relatives. More than 1.2 million mini-programs ensure that users never have to leave the app. "We Chat is a cultural revolution," says Beijing-based UI expert Ziqi Hu**.

Especially in the Asian region, the technology trend of self-proclaimed "super apps" has emerged in the past five years. Instead of just one central function, the super apps offer numerous applications and thus virtually become the operating platform of the device. It's quite possible that this is why the trend is now also appearing more and more frequently in European design blogs. We take this as an opportunity to take a closer look at the phenomenon from a designer's perspective.

First of all, from the user's point of view, the advantages seem obvious: super apps mean fewer apps on the smartphone and thus fewer registration processes, more storage space and a simple as well as diverse user experience.

From the provider's point of view, it is data sovereignty and immense advertising revenues that speak for the all-in-one app.

Facebook, Google, ... Who has the potential to become a super app? 

A counterpart to We Chat does not yet exist in Europe or the US. Instead, there are platforms with a similar range of functions across several services. 

From a data perspective, the tech company Facebook has already created a huge market power with its Whatsapp and Instagram services. If the payment function in Facebook Messenger, which has already been activated in the USA, is also rolled out here, further relevant user touch points will be created.

Google, too, obviously does not yet offer a compressed super-app, but in fact the technology company stands for a convenient ecosystem of the future. One example: if users find a restaurant in the search engine, they can book a table via Google Assistant. Their Google Calendar reminds them of the appointment, Google Maps shows them the way. (The fact that public transport tickets can now be booked via the map service is the result of a project that Cellular realised together with Hamburg Hochbahn AG as the world's first public transport partner with this type of Google Maps integration). In the restaurant, they finally pay with Google Pay - and so on...

App Clips as an alternative

Beyond super apps on the one hand and ecosystems on the other, there is a third variant: the so-called iOS App Clips or Android Instant Apps. These outsource app functions and thus enable faster use. For example, if users want to rent an e-scooter, they can activate the vehicle with App Clips by scanning it and pay with Apple Pay without having to download the app of the e-scooter provider and register beforehand. 

Smart services sought 

It remains to be seen whether a super app will also become established in European countries. Experts are sceptical, however, because large platforms - at least in Germany - do not need a self-contained user experience, as they already have enough constant points of contact with their users, as described above, and see potential for more.

And the users?

In Asia, super apps work well because they help users to make their everyday lives easier. (See interview below.) People in Germany also have this need, but they don't necessarily need an app within the app. In the first step, they would appreciate it if existing apps make the user experience more comfortable and do things automatically or offer services automatically. 

If you go to a restaurant, you’ll want to have a bill at the end, the amount of which is securely and justifiably debited from your account. Anyone who books a train ticket is happy to receive a reminder to arrive on time at the platform. And those who travel by bus and underground ideally want a digital bill at the end of the day, without having to fiddle with small change.

In short: before companies spend immense resources on bundling numerous functions in a single app, they should consider how they can relieve users of tasks through smart services. We therefore do not need a super app, but a solution that becomes the operating system of our needs.

**What is the appeal of super apps? Why is WeChat so extremely popular in China? We asked UX expert Ziqi Hu, a former colleague of our senior concept designer Kathrin. Here is the interview in full length: 


Ziqi Hu studied design in Milan and Beijing before working in various agencies. Since last summer, he has been Assistant Manager, UX and Product Design, at the Universal Bejing Resort theme park in Beijing.

"WeChat, it's a cultural revolution"

Ziqi, how often do you use We Chat?

Ziqi Hu: Not a day goes by that I don't use it. 

What are the main advantages from your point of view? 

Ziqi Hu: The app is very convenient. I use it to contact my family, friends and work, or to pay for shopping. Currently, it is important for scanning QR codes so that one can enter certain places, such as the underground, the entrance to my flat or the office building. This results in a so-called safety report, which is a tracking report that shows where you have been in the past weeks. Currently there is nothing comparable to We Chat, it is a cultural revolution. 

Which We Chat functions do you use the most? 

Ziqi Hu: The chat, the QR code scanner, Pengyouquan - in English it's called Circle, basically it's an Instagram built into WeChat and insanely popular because you can share content with your friends - the payment function and so-called mini apps, for example from Starbucks and McDonald's, these are official accounts built into We Chat. 

Why is there nothing comparable to We Chat in Europe? 

Ziqi Hu: Good question. For example, I would have expected Paypal to launch something similar, because they obviously have a solid user base and as a payment service provider they could integrate a lot of cool features into the app. However, it would then have to work across many country borders, which is where the challenges would probably start. For WeChat, on the other hand, it is easier: with the Chinese market, there is only one currency, one legal system, one language, etc. This makes it easier for the operating company Tencent.