Comment: Are We Over-Complicating Apps?


Software engineer and user interface designer Lukas Mathis, has published a blog calling for a back-to-basics approach in a current technological climate where app developers try to be all things to all people.

He advocates clean, small, simple applications geared towards perfectly solving one problem, rather than a complicated “behemoth” of an application that tries to solve every problem every customer ever suggested the app should solve. The key to Mathis, is quality solutions to single problems. An app developer has to learn to draw the line and say no, for the sake of maintaining an elegant application. Inevitably, some of your customer base will not have their needs met by your single-solution app. They will leave and seek solutions to their problems elsewhere but, as Mathis says: “you have to let some people be customers of your competitors.” He is correct: a single application cannot cover the needs of the entire market.

This subject is touched upon in Kathy Sierra’s humorous blog ‘Featuritis vs. the Happy User Peak,’ which argues that there comes a point where you deliver so much, you become incomprehensible (she even provides a graph to illustrate where “I’m so glad they added this!” becomes “Guess I better look at the manual…..)” She proposes a simple reason for packing too much into a product, and that reason is fear. The fear is that if a product doesn’t have more features than the competition, it won’t be able to compete. This is based on the assumption that customers always choose the product with the most features, which isn’t true. A customer purchases a product because it solves a particular need they have – not always because it solves a whole list of needs. She proposes a novel idea:

“What if instead of adding new features, a company concentrated on making the service or product much easier to use? Or making it much easier to access the advanced features it already has, but that few can master?” Kathy Sierra.

Surely, improving usability is better than continuing to cram in new features? Her mantra is:

“Give users what they actually want, not what they say they want. And whatever you do, don’t give them new features just because your competitors have them!” Kathy Sierra.

This plays perfectly into Mathis’ advice that an app developer ruins their application by taking on board every customer suggestion.

Steven Frank is in agreement that over-complicating products is damaging the IT world, particularly for users with less-than-perfect computer skills. “Since the days of the Apple ][, C64, and Atari 400, all we’ve done is add, add, add…..I’ve watched firsthand as people who’ve struggled to do basic computer tasks as long as I’ve known them pick up an iPhone and be cruising around within hours, if not minutes.” The implicit message is than the iPhone is a simplified, streamlined system that is accessible to a broader scope of users, whereas computer systems have become increasingly complex, to the point where entire sections of the market are struggling to utilise them. How can this be good for sales?

NewsGator Technolgies employee Brent Simmons agrees that developers could learn a thing or two from the iPhone: “iPhone apps, and now iPad apps, have always reminded me of what I want Mac apps to be: focused, carefully-designed, with every feature carefully considered and usually thrown out instead of included.” Again, the subtext is that the computing world has a tendency towards producing bloated, overly-complicated, ‘everything-but-the-kitchen-sink’ applications. But he goes one step further and claims that simplicity isn’t just something those with less than perfect IT skills are after. Even those with a firm grasp on technology, want less complexity in their lives when it comes to their apps. The only people wishing for more complexity, are those “who want to waste their own time” – and it’s difficult to argue with that.

Acknowledging that just because an app can have a feature, doesn’t mean it should, could potentially create apps with higher usability, that are accessible to more people, and make even the most IT-savvy developer’s working day so much easier. All the blog posts neglect to lay down a magic formula for working out which features will be popular in advance of its release date, but it’s difficult to argue with the basic principle that we’d all welcome a little more simplicity in our lives.

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