iHobo vs iMutt: Charities in the iPhone era


iPhones have clearly become a revolutionary and widespread device, and obviously charities are jumping on the iPhone bandwagon to reach a wider audience and to try new ways to ask for help. Charities have tried to achieve this by engaging users through games or useful apps. This is the case with the Red Nose Campaign and the International Committee of the Red Cross. However, these apps seem to be designed as a way to collect donations but without a clear idea about what the app should do or how best to engage users to give money.

iHobo & iMutt

Some applications have gone beyond the fairly common "donate" application to try something different. That is the case for iHobo.

iHobo sitting down, having a sandwich


iHobo is an app commissioned by Depaul UK, the biggest youth homeless charity in the UK. The app places a homeless person in our iPhone, and we are in charge of taking care of him for the following 3 days. The application was created with the intention of raising awareness about homeless teenagers, normally ignored by passers-by, and to raise money for the charity. Due to the success of this application, Dogs Trust commissioned a similar application, called iMutt, where we have to take care of a rescued dog for 5 days.  iMutt was also created to raise awareness about abandoned dogs and to raise money for Dogs Trust.

iMutt screenshot, showing our dog in a garden


Both apps are charity-commissioned and both place users in a position with a certain level of responsibility to open their eyes to stories that don't usually receive too much attention from the media. They have similar goals and use similar strategies to get across their message, but we feel there is one big difference between them that makes iHobo more likely to meet those goals: the user experience. We will analyse next what factors take part in the construction of the user experience in each app and how one (iHobo) manages to engage the user in a way the other (iMutt) unfortunately fails to achieve.


Although a human being definitely needs more than this to survive, iHobo includes three different actions to take care of a homeless person: providing him with a sleeping bag, food or some change for his occasional expenses.

Screenshots of iHobo and iMutt presenting the different actions that can be performed on the subject

iHobo vs iMutt: actions to take care of the subject

On the other hand, our dog in iMutt needs a little bit more care. We can feed it, play with it, walk it, train it, love it (!) or groom it. Some of these actions have to be done at certain times of the day (like walking and feeding it), where others can be performed at any time (playing or loving it), unless it is sleeping, of course. We may consider that a dog needs more "maintenance" than a person due to the number of actions that are available in each app, but this is not entirely correct. Actually, iHobo takes advantage of the technology offered by the iPhone to perform extra actions. If we tap on the homeless person we will be actually "tapping" on his back to show our support, and if we open the application, which is usually running in the background, the character will appreciate us dropping by to see how he is doing. iMutt doesn't exploit these actions as much as iHobo, relying exclusively on buttons to interact with our dog. Although it could be seen as a minor detail, this difference is the tip of a bigger problem. Whereas the interaction with the character is intimate and credible in iHobo, it feels mechanised, less natural on iMutt. But why is this an issue? Don't we need buttons to do things on our iPhones? Yes and no. Let's see why.

Interface & interaction

iHobo presents a minimal interface that may surprise users. When the application is installed and launched, the first thing displayed on the screen is the character and a few on-screen text messages describing who he is and how to interact with him. Later on, three pictures representing three actions to take care of him appear at the top of the screen. And that's it. There is an extra section with information about the charity, the character's health condition and a way to donate money, all of them accessed through an additional small button on the left bottom corner of the screen, but for most of the app interaction this area is hardly visited. When iMutt is first launched (and in subsequent launches) we see a menu. From here, we can access an "About" section describing the charity's goals, a section where we take care of the dog, a place to share our progress on facebook or a diary "written" by the dog describing its experience at the dogs home. Once we choose to check in on our dog, we get to meet it and start the game. Then, we have the opportunity to give it a name and we are given instructions to take care of it through the different menus with actions and when to do each action according to a timetable. And that is when iMutt becomes a productivity app.

Screenshots of iHobo and iMutt showing the first screen presented after launching both apps

iHobo vs iMutt: first launch

When we look after our virtual homeless friend we deal with him, directly. The actions we can perform are placed above the character, and when they are tapped, his reaction is presented right away. When we receive a notification from iHobo because our friend needs help (and that will happen quite often), we can reach him with a simple tap on the app. We can even "tap" on his back to show him our support. However, our pet is tucked away in its own area of the app. We need to go to an extra menu to see our dog, which can be seen as an extra barrier between the user and the pet. Once we get to its kennel, feeding, playing or training it is done through a pop-up menu of actions. As the iOS Human Interface Guidelines suggest, direct manipulation of an item using the touch screen instead of separate controls helps the user engage with the task, something iMutt fails to take into account but that Nintendogs on Nintendo DS implements successfully (see a video of Nintedogs in-game footage). Also, some of these actions produce a clear reaction from the dog (feeding it, playing with it) but the reaction to others is not meaningful (grooming it, loving it), removing any interest in performing them again. Regarding the gameplay, we can go through the five days that it takes us to finish iMutt just launching the app twice a day to perform all of the actions. It becomes a routine, a nearly automated habit. Instead, iHobo's gameplay lasts three days, but it is a demanding one. The character will ask for attention at anytime, which can be quite common taking into account the difficult situation he is going through. Failing to attend to him can have severe, even fatal consequences. We are consequently given the responsibility of saving a person's life, whereas our virtual pet can be "withdrawn" from us to be given to a more responsible carer. Overall, iHobo manages to immerse the user into a real-life situation through a simple but effective interface, whereas iMutt follows a more traditional, productivity-oriented app design to deliver a less intense experience. The former has also managed to gather comments on iTunes that are either largely negative or largely positive (see iHobo's page on iTunes Preview), with the latter receiving positive reviews but in a far smaller number (see iMutt's page on iTunes Preview). This difference in the amount of feedback received is also perceived on the Internet. On the screenshot below we can see the reaction on the web to both apps. The graphs compare the relative volume search index (top graph) and number of news references (bottom graph) on Google for iHobo (blue line) and iMutt (orange line). As we can observe, iHobo has clearly drawn the attention of the media and audiences, successfully raising awareness about homelessness, but iMutt has gone practically unmentioned.

Graph representing search index and news index for iHobo and iMutt, the former with a really high index and the latter not even shown

Google Trends graph: iHobo vs iMutt

However, raising awareness about a cause is only one of the goals these applications try to achieve. The other one is raising money for a cause. Again, both applications follow different strategies to gather donations. Let's see how.

Raising funds

As most charity web sites do, iMutt includes a donation button on every screen or section in the app. This is usually done to provide a donation point to the user in case they are willing to give money while they browse the web site. While this seems reasonable, it may not be directly applied to an iPhone app.

Screenshots of iMutt, used to describe the excess of "donate" buttons

iMutt: "donate" buttons on each area of the app

A screen on a mobile device is tiny compared to a desktop or laptop screen. Therefore, screen estate is valuable. Including a button on each screen constantly reminds the user about it. Moreover, the users are asked to take an action using commanding language ("Donate"). However, if they feel urged to give money, especially if they haven't had the time to know why or what for, they will be less likely to do so.

Screenshots of iHobo, presenting donation points at specific points in the gameplay

iHobo: donation points are presented in the information area and when the game is over

iHobo follows a different approach. As explained above, iHobo revolves around an immersive experience, with a constant and direct interaction between the user and the virtual homeless character. This experience increases its intensity half way through the gaming experience, roughly 48 hours after the game is first launched. If things have not worked smoothly (you have missed a few alerts at night, or took too long to react to them) your character will be in a "life or death" condition. Only after 72 hours of game play, when the experience is over (for better or worse) and the level of engagement has reached its pinnacle, the user is explicitly asked to donate. That particular moment is key to capitalise upon the level of user engagement achieved, as users can relate to the cause and feel more willing to give money to help. However, this is done by evoking guilt, blaming us, for instance, if we could not cope with the level of attention our character required. iHobo successfully builds a relationship with the user (a key step to make people feel inclined to donate, as described in the excellent article The Science of Persuasion in Web Design) but it may fail to raise as much money as it could due to the use of unsuitable language. The app may get more and better donations if the user was encouraged to give money freely. If the app described how the money would be used or has been used to help homeless people, the user could feel more inclined to give a donation because they feel they can make a difference, but they decide to do so by themselves. Guiltiness, however, can make the user feel defensive and uneasy, and unwilling to help the charity because they feel attacked.


iHobo and iMutt are part of a new generation of charity apps where users are placed in a richer, more immersive experience, compared to older "news and donate" apps. This interaction is used to educate and engage the user, using this connection to better relate the user to a cause, to raise awareness and to raise funds. iHobo is a prime example. It was (and still is) able to create controversy and to generate polarised opinions by giving us the responsibility to look after a homeless person for three days. A unique user experience combined with a simple and straightforward interface has helped DePaul UK communicate the difficulties young homeless people go through and how hard it is to help them. iMutt has tried to replicate the experience to raise awareness about abandoned dogs. However, the core experience presented in iMutt is more mechanised, less intense game, positioned more as a marketing tool instead of as a unique experience. These apps (especially iHobo) show how the principles behind persuasion and collecting donations can be applied not only to websites but also to mobile apps. However, the strategies defined for one specific platform may not be directly applied to another, as iMutt shows. Theoretical principles should be translated into practical guidelines through a deep understanding of the platform, leveraging the tools it provides and taking into account its limitations.

Add a comment

Fields marked with an asterisk (*) are mandatory.