The common error of overloading mobile apps with features

Summary:The crowded app stores drive developers to put lots of features in their mobile apps. This is a mistake, as simple, focused apps rise to the top.

It must be tough being a mobile app developer given the competitive nature of the business. It is difficult getting an app noticed in the ever-growing, crowded app stores for every platform. There are no doubt dozens of very good apps languishing in the stores where few are finding them. As tempting as it may be, adding gobs of features to get noticed is a big mistake.

A big reason that apps have grown so popular is due to the elegance in having very focused objectives. Users have come to appreciate finding an app that is designed to do a particular task, and that does it very well. The developers of these apps have spent a lot of time defining what it means to deliver a good experience doing that task, and making that the primary focus of the development effort.

You know these apps as soon as you see them, they make doing one thing very easy, without putting a lot of features or options in the way. They aren't basic apps, but they are dedicated to doing the intended function. The user fires up the app, and is instantly able to accomplish the needed task with ease. No fluff, no extra baggage in the way complicating the use of the app.

Lately I've noticed some developers are getting away from this focused approach. Apps I have used for a long time are gradually getting buggier and bulkier, as one feature after another are added by the developers. The extra features don't usually make the app better at performing the primary function, instead they add new capability just in case the user might find it beneficial.

Unfortunately, this rarely works for most users, especially the installed user base. It is jolting to update an app that one has used for a while, only to find that now the task it has always been used to perform is buried under new features and options. The user has to stop for a moment to see what the new stuff cluttering the screen may be. This is a failed effort if this prevents using the app for the original purpose, as it has turned the user experience from rock-solid to "now where did that go".

I do a lot of private beta testing for new apps, and recently I've run across this developer attitude with a couple of them. One app was designed to do a specific function, but do it very well. The developer had done his homework, and the early versions of this app were really good. Then, over time the urge to add functions set in, and every new version of the app got worse at performing the primary task. Feature after feature kept getting added, just in case they added perceived value, and with that the app got harder to use and in some cases failed to perform the primary function.

I had several conversations with the developer and came to understand that his fear was the app wouldn't stand out against the competition in the crowded app store once released. The impulse to add all of these features that didn't apply directly to the primary function was overwhelming and he kept adding them. The end result was a less compelling app, even though it had all sorts of bells and whistles. The app was in effect ruined, and when it was released to the market was far worse than it was in its initial beta version for doing what it was designed to do.

I see the same feature loading with apps I have used for a long time. Evernote is a good example, an app that took simple note-taking and information capturing to a high level. Besides working on multiple platforms, what made Evernote such a good solution for me was the simple text editor that focused on making it easy to create notes. That's a good approach for a note-taking app, making it quick to enter a note and get out.

I have recently shared my account of how Evernote broke so badly with a recent update that I can no longer use it. I had to abandon using Evernote on the iPad 2 as the update killed the way I use the program to create content. A big part of the update was to add features to the editor that turn it into a more full-fledged word processor. In other words, an update to provide features that are not a function of the primary task, made it impossible to continue using for that task.

I sympathize with the battle app developers face in the crowded marketplace. I wish your job was easier than it is. But, take my advice and write an app that does the main function simply, enjoyably, and does it well. The extra baggage doesn't win customers over the long run, when word spreads (reviews) that your app does a lot of things but none of them very well.

Image credit: Flickr user antwerpenR

Topics: Apps, Mobility, Software Development

About

James Kendrick has been using mobile devices since they weighed 30 pounds, and has been sharing his insights on mobile technology for almost that long. Prior to joining ZDNet, James was the Founding Editor of jkOnTheRun, a CNET Top 100 Tech Blog that was acquired by GigaOM in 2008 and is now part of that prestigious tech network. James' w... Full Bio

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