How apps broaden utility while staying simple

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Stay true to a mission and take away the burden of complexity

Close your eyes, and imagine a time in the not-so-distant past. A time when technology finally made the leap from research facility to the living room. When the future vision of what daily life would become started to include a lot more robots. That time was called the 1970’s, and it was magical. It introduced a whole new concept in helping humans connect with technology without needing to be a software engineer. It was called being “user-friendly”

The idea still rings true half-a-century later as technology increasingly pervades every aspect of our daily lives pre-robot revolution, including talking virtual assistants, smartphones, VR headsets, tablets, and, of course, mobile apps.

There’s around five million apps available for download on any given day and in one quarter alone more than 17 billion of them were downloaded. Or roughly 5.7 billion a month, 188 million each day, 131,000 each minute. It’s a crowded world, and people very quickly developed a sense of what was worth their time as 80 percent of all downloaded apps are deleted after a single use. It’s like dating, am I right?

Vying for a piece of one’s valuable time and space (quite literally the precious space on their phones not taken up by pictures of food) you have to fight for that quick “A ha!” moment. For Timehop, that’s the moment we show you your first photo from this day last year. It’s surprising. It’s delightful. It makes sense, instantly.

Our main goal has been to get users to that moment as quickly and painlessly as possible. It’s the apps that really know their “A ha!” moment and focus on it that rise above the noise. Apps that you just know what to do, like Lyft, Uber, Instagram, and Google Maps. What’s common across these apps is that certain je ne sais quoi. Except we do know what. It’s being “user-friendly.”

And such is the big challenge for companies trying to grow or broaden their functionality while staying elegant, simple and frictionless. It’s a constant concern staying true to a clear overall mission while tackling real complexities of a problem for your user. Oh, and it should feel personal. And delightful. And innovative. Easy enough, right?

Staying on the golden path and avoiding impending doom 

It’s incredibly easy to be distracted by shiny objects and new opportunities. When you’re working towards growth, every idea is a siren song, pulling your ship towards some rocky outcrop and impending doom. That may seem dramatic, but many underestimate how important it is for an app, or company as a whole, to have a clear vision of what they are solving.

If you don’t know that yourself, how can you be sure you’re communicating it well to your users? (This sounds a lot like RuPaul’s advice for a company Mission.) With Snapchat, for example, they’ve talked ad nauseam about leading with a live camera feed, steering users to always be creating and sharing.

Raj Kapoor, Chief Strategy Officer at Lyft, refers to this lead-to-action flow as “the golden path.” It’s where the app leads its users and, no matter what features or functionalities are added, this path never changes.

“We never want to interfere with the simplicity of the main process,” said Kapoor, adding that Lyft’s golden path is getting customers from point A to point B, while providing the most delightful experience throughout. “But when we do create new features, the final implementation is highly-debatable as the additional functionality shouldn’t ruin the golden path.”

Sounds easy, but consider that even the smallest change to the initial experience can reverberate throughout the app. Even the smallest of new features threatens to disrupt the balance of added value with your golden path.

“The challenge in all of this is that every action has a reaction. It’s like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, whereby just observing an atom may cause its location to move because the energy of the observation moves it,” Kapoor illustrated. “The same thing applies here: by changing a feature, you’re impacting something else. People love to say that you can isolate it but if you really truly look at all the data, there’s nothing you can do in isolation.”

Of course, as always, there’s a downside. Staying too focused makes it easy to feel accustomed and accepting of non-change, thereby reinforcing the status quo vs encouraging out-of-the-box thinking, said Jack Chou, Head of Product at Affirm, a financial services app to buy products.

“By holding ourselves to such a high bar in terms of not adding features that clutter and detract from the existing experience, building something new can require a bit more inertia,” he said. “Another downside I can see is that you could become narrow-minded and myopic rather than open to to other opportunities and other ways people could be using the app.”

Apps have to find a middle ground, a way where they are able to open up new experiences for their users, while also not messing around with what makes that app special in the first place.

Take away the burden of complexity, and put it on yourself

But obviously it’s crazy to think about shutting out all new opportunities and experimentation. There’s a world of experiences to explore surrounding nostalgia at Timehop and we give ourselves freedom to have fun all the time. But how do we find that balance? For starters, we default to simplicity. We kiss: keep it simple, stupid.

“As long as it seems simple to the user, then we’re doing our job,” said Niki Sri-Kumar, Chou’s colleague at Affirm and Senior Product Manager focused on building out the company’s biggest feature rollout yet: Affirm Anywhere, which turns the Affirm app into a mobile phone credit card.

“If we’re not extraordinarily careful we’re going to start putting some of that burden of complexity on the user,” said Sri-Kumar. “We say that you can come to our app to manage your loans or to take out a new loan to pay for anything you want online. That sounds simple but, in reality, it’s complex from a technology perspective because we have to know how each change impacts everything from our handling of interest accrual to regulatory compliance.”

This sentiment was echoed by Chris Erickson, COO & Co-Founder of Apartment List, a popular app to find apartments. Part of keeping an app simple is to still tackle the complex and tedious problems for the user so they don’t have to do it themselves, he said.

“As it relates to keeping things simple while adding functionality, I think there’s two ways to do it: first, make sure your UI is intuitive and easy for people to accomplish the primary task,” Erickson said. “Second, take any other steps away from them that they’d likely have to do to accomplish that task. Do this in the background for them, so they don’t have to.”  

To personalize or not personalize, that is maybe the question or maybe not

Stay focused. Got it. But that doesn’t mean that simplicity is the same for all your users. The nuance of nostalgia is a little different for everyone. We’re humans with different lives, experiences, and technology. Not everyone wants the same Timehop experience and understanding this world of difference can make a big difference in the way they use your app.

“If you talk to a million different Lyft users, you’ll find a wide variety of potential improvements as transportation is so personal,” said Lyft’s Kapoor. “The challenge in product development is that if you solved every single problem, and applied it to everyone, you would make the experience potentially worse for everyone because the problems are not relevant to all use cases.  That’s where the art and skill really comes into play”

For example, in some areas of the country, particularly more rural parts, they tend to use the scheduled ride feature more than those in the city, where there are plenty of cars at any given time. “The question is: how do you deal with that? Do you change the interface if we know someone’s in a rural area? If you change it for everyone it distracts from the experience. So those are the kinds of tradeoffs that we have to go through,” he said, adding that the interface isn’t changed for rural users.

There’s a whole life of experiences every person has before ever opening up your app that makes for a different way to tailor to them. On top of that is an effort to understand how society’s collective habits may be changing and what that means for you.

“In general, we focus on where we think the world is heading,” said Chou. “We don’t really focus on showing different things to different folks or different demographics. But, there’s a reason that millennials are more scared of credit card debt than their own mortality, which is obviously born from many years or decades of seeing other generations of folks fall into credit card debt. When you combine that with the mobile expectations that they have, we really try to skate collectively as a product to where it’s all going and build for the larger audience that we expect to have over the decades.”

While doing that, the company goes on a journey with its users, building up a history of experiences. “Our goal hasn’t changed -- connecting renters with the best place for them,” said Apartment Lists’ Erickson. “What has changed is our ability to go deeper into the experience with them. As we stay with renters for a longer and longer time, we can add functionality that helps them, not just from that search for a place, but to communicate, decide and actually move into that place. 

In this case, the company’s main goal has not strayed, but it has more data, a richer understanding of people’s context, and better expertise to understand how to make that core use-case better.

Less is more

Apps have to walk a fine line between staying true to their mission and evolving to stay alive. But for every Facebook, which has embraced become something like 10 businesses in one, there’s a Twitter, a company that has openly admitted that it needed to be less confusing to entice more users. We’ll obviously see how that goes.

Clearly, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all rulebook for how apps evolve. Sorry if you came here looking for that. 404. It doesn’t exist. But underlying best practices and collective experiences, not the least of which is staying on that unfettered golden path and delivering on your promise, before promising more.

“The biggest factor in terms of growing is ensuring that people are excited about hiring you for one thing,” said Affirm’s Chou. “If you do a great job with that one assignment, it’s a lot easier to get them to hire you for a second job.” Erickson concurred: “Until we feel like we’ve really solved helping renters find the perfect place, we are going to be building features that solve tangential renter problems like managing their utilities or scheduling maintenance requests.”

There is a sense of calm and purpose in focusing on one job, one problem, one golden path--not only for the end user, but also for the teams trying to deliver who want clarity of mind. It’s a fascinating challenge for designers and engineers alike, as our instinct sometimes drives us to build more, not to build better. For Timehop, this means learning more about our collective experiences and focusing on the simplest path to reliving those memories together.

There is truth to the late 19th century mantra: Less is more. For app developers, this means having a clear vision of what your golden path is. This means embracing the beauty in how different every person’s experience is before they ever open your app. This means, every step of the way, asking themselves, “Are we making this easy for them?”