Simple expense tracking on the iPhone with Next

Keeping track of your expenses has to be this easy

Adapting productivity tools to work on mobile has traditionally been a hit and miss experience. Too cumbersome, too complex, too tedious. The simplest solution is often correct. I'm all up for apps that reduce the steps required to accomplish something. This is the direction noidentity, the developer of personal finance apps like MoneyBook, has taken with its latest app.

Next is a expense tracker stripped of any complex feature to help you to enter information quickly and make sense of it without pain. Thanks to a clever user interface, the app simplifies data entry in a dramatic way. The system allows you to add new expenses without having to bother with typing at all.

When you launch Next, a grid of icons invites you to chose the category or group where you would like add your expense. Once you tap on the icon, a numerical pad appears for you to enter the amount. Once that's accepted, you're done. That's it. You're ready to enter the next one — hence the name of the app.

Note how unlike other competitors with similar functionality, Next doesn't even ask you to set up a currency — it will just use numbers. You don't even have to create the categories you want to use; you get 27 preset groups that you can use in any way you prefer.

The short process is animated in a graceful manner, adding some quirkiness to the very modern flat design used throughout the app. The use of colours, however, isn't something trivial. The icons on the grid will change their colour to darker shades of blue as you assign more expenses to that category. In my case, public transport is dark blue. This helps me to realise that I'm spending more on my travel card than on drinks and restaurants combined.

The colour differentiation also adds to the usability of the grid with visual clues: I'm more likely to spend on dark blue categories than others that are still grey. The ones that I rarely use can go to the bottom. You can rearrange the icon layout to your preference, which is especially important on shorter old iPhones as the numerical pad hides half of the screen.

Making sense of the data

Swiping left of right opens more traditional list views with a summary of expenses sorted by date or by category. In reality, the right window is more useful to delete items (awkwardly swiping left), while the left window is the place to visualise the data collected.

The statistics view on the left arranges categories by week, month and year, presenting them from most used to least. The list itself is a horizontal bar chart, which helps to compare categories visually instead of using raw numbers. You can also tap on each of them to reveal a hidden menu with a line chart — beautifully animated — that compares the stats selected on a timeline with light touches of red.

Being able to see the past information you entered referenced there makes you realise that there isn't any way to export data on Next. I'm not asking for a cloud service companion like MoneyBook or support for Dropbox. Something as simple CVS file via email would have done the trick for most of its users.

The simplicity approach also means there's no way to add titles or notes to your entries. In fact, text is incredibly sparse in this app, being only used for dates. I can see how some people would like to have tags or labels there, but since you cannot export anything, I don't particularly care. What is a big omission is the absence of any way to customise categories. Not everyone is going to need the Amazon A, petrol or baby products. The issue is that you cannot customise it with a different icon (there are 27 spaces on the grid), so you will have to repurpose them if you run out of groups.

Overall, I like the attempt to simplify things. The work thinking the UI and the amount of taps or setup required is minimal. While Next won't satisfy power users, it is a great introduction to some type of expense tracking. Nobody is too keen to spend free time on their personal finances, so for me trying with something this approachable deserves a lot of recognition.