Are we approaching the age of the single-purpose app?

For years, developers, systems architects, industry experts and others have been debating about what the right approach is when it comes to building apps for mobile platforms. Is it better to create a multi-purpose app or develop multiple single-purpose apps?

This debate has been going on, mostly quietly, for the last 10 years. But a few years ago, the “app unbundling” concept came into the spotlight, raising the volume on the discussion. Let’s look at what each approach involves, what each offers and how to determine which approach will best serve your organization’s unique needs.

What’s the difference?

Multi-purpose apps are a monolithic app that has everything the user needs in one place. Like the name suggests, these apps have multiple purposes. In contrast, single-purpose apps are specifically designed to accomplish one thing.

However, it is important to understand that feature and purpose are not the same thing. Features are characteristics that describe what the software does and/or how it does it. Purpose defines what the user wants to achieve or accomplish, not how or which way they want to accomplish it. Single-purpose does not mean single-feature.

A single-feature app does one thing; a single-purpose app is for one thing.

What is “app unbundling?”

App unbundling is simply breaking apart the individual features or functionality of an app and offering those as entirely separate apps.

In 2013 and 2014, we saw what many called “the great app unbundling,” where Facebook split off Messenger, built Paper and Slingshot, and bought Instagram and WhatsApp. Foursquare cleaved itself into two with Swarm and the new Foursquare. Twitter, Dropbox, Evernote and Google Docs also executed similar strategies.

Then, between 2015 and 2016, a reversal occurred. Single-purpose apps began to bundle to create multi-purpose apps. Today, there is no clear winner. So, what is the best strategy for custom app developers?

Bundle or unbundle?

There are two options, and each has its benefits:

1) Create a multi-purpose, monolithic app that has everything the user needs in one place:

  • Single environment: Users have everything they need in one place
  • Unified experience: Different modules can work together sharing data and resources
  • Aggregate data: It minimizes the danger of producing data silos.

2) Develop multiple single-purpose apps, each specifically designed to accomplish one thing:

  • The home screen is the new portal: The touch interface of smartphone operating systems makes it easy to scan multiple applications to select from
  • Re-surface features: Features hidden deep in tabs are lost to most users. By unbundling, you can re-surface features that were once buried, lost or forgotten
  • Aligned to rapid iteration: Single-purpose apps tend to allow for more rapid iteration due to their simplicity

This last point is particularly salient because, according to research from Gartner, more than 50 percent of businesses need monthly or weekly app releases. Of those, about a third said IT was not delivering fast enough.

Preferences and pitfalls

In general, users tend to favour mobile apps with clean easy-to-use interfaces that allow them to engage and solve problems quickly. This is usually easier to accomplish with single-purpose apps. However, too many apps can create app saturation and excessive jumping between them. This is aggravated if the apps don’t work well together and produce data silos.

No matter what route you choose, the app experience should reflect what’s important to the user. Mobile app efforts almost always fail when they don’t take into account the needs of the user.

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. However, one approach might be to assume all incoming mobile projects to be single purpose apps, especially if it’s a core activity.

Then bundle together low-frequency functions by either subject (e.g. HR vs. finance), engagement timeline (e.g. purchasing ticket vs. in-flight amenities vs. satisfaction survey) or user role (e.g. customer vs. vendor). Functionalities that prove to have significantly higher use rates than others should be considered to be split-off into their own apps.

Next steps

Clearly, there is no cut and dried answer to the question of which approach is better. It depends entirely on the needs of the user. To decide which is better for your use case, spend a lot of pre-development time interacting with users to get their input. Using a custom app platform and the information above, create prototypes and then test rigorously to determine whether users are better served by one app or many.

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