I have app overload. There are too many icons on my phone, too many web apps on my Chrome dashboard, too many passwords to remember and screens to view and react to. Too many push notifications and pop-ups. Like most people on earth, I have a finite amount of attention and I’m tired of the racket of apps clamoring for their cut.
Every new app-based business model requires me to be interested in something, or add one more thing to the list of screens I need to log in to, view and do something about. Gamify this or SoMoLo that. I want apps that just solve problems.
Every new app I download has a new user interface (UI) that I have to learn on top of the embedded transaction cost of creating an account, remembering the password, and logging in every day. Why should I have to log into 50 different UIs when I have already conceded access to my attention via phone calls, emails, SMS, Tweets, Likes and pop-up notifications? I want apps that use existing channels of communication.
Example #1: Umbrella, coat or delayed flight.
I have 3 different weather apps on my phone that I never use. I honestly could care less about the 10-day forecast of highs and lows and have no interest in watching some time-lapsed doppler radar imagery. As an urban-dweller there are exactly three and only three weather-related questions that I care about: 1) Do I need to bring an umbrella? 2) Do I need a coat? Or more specifically, will the temperature be very different from what I expect it to be? 3) Will weather affect my travel plans? So here’s my ideal weather app: it syncs with my Google calendar and TripIt and I give it access to watch my phone’s location. Between those it has a good idea of when I’m out of my house or travelling. If I need an umbrella it sends me a text, email or phone notification, as I’m about to leave. If the weather is going to be significantly different from previous days tell me I need a coat or not (e.g. don’t tell me every day in Winter in NYC that I’ll need a coat, but warn me if it is going to drop 20 degrees tonight). Finally, tell me when that tropical depression is likely to delay my flight at JFK so I can stop and grab a coffee and tell me when it’s about to start pouring rain so we can cut the last round short and all get cabs. I would pay a lot more than $0.99 for that. (####Update: I was actually able to create most of this functionality for free using triggers on the awesome www.ifttt.com, check it out!)
This is why I love businesses like Twilio, which enable people to build entire apps around using text messages (SMS). I recently heard about a similar business for emails called MailGun, which I’m very excited about.
The instigator of this line of thought was this article (hat tip: Nat Bullard). The crux of the argument is that the next big hurdle for changing the world will be solving our energy crisis with a way that doesn’t require motivated early adopters. Pricey solar panels and extravagant smart-home systems are fantastic innovations but the vast majority of people world just don’t give a crap about energy. So how do you scale energy efficiency while conceding consumer engagement as mostly a lost cause?
Example #2: Hey dude, your lights are on.
There are a zillion companies out there trying to make energy efficiency and smart devices fun, engaging, social, or gamified. Badges and point systems, head-to-head competitions, beautiful data visualizations and interactive dashboards are the arsenal du jour. The problem is basically nobody is going to care about this stuff… much less pay for it. You think I’m ever going to want to sit in with my iPad and spend a few hours reviewing my energy usage and devising time-of-day efficiency strategies!? I have 40 books to read on my Kindle app and better shit to do. Here’s my smart-home solution: A few wifi-enabled devices (thermostat, fridge, and some outlets) are connected to my “app.” It sends me text messages like this: “Hey dude, I see you are at work, mind if I turn down the A/C for the next few hours? Reply yes or no.” or “Hey dude, looks like you left your TV on, wanna turn it off?” or “Hey dude, this utility guy is freaking out about peak demand or something, they’ll give you $10 if you sweat it out with no A/C for the next hour. Cool? Go grab a beer while I switch it off for you.” I would pay for and more importantly, definitely use that app.
Tech innovators who have zeroed in on a great problem to solve shouldn’t always be so quick to think the solution is another app. I think there is a huge opportunity in apps or services that stitch together various services or fill in the gaps between existing apps seamlessly. A fantastic example of that is If This Then That, which allows you to program actions across various services like Twitter, Facebook, Email, Craigslist, and dozens more (hat tip: Eric Shutt). I’m still working on all the uses here but I just scored a great lamp for $5 after tell IFTTT to send me an email any time a new posting came up on Craigslist with lamp in the title, in my neighborhood and for less than $20. Took about a minute to set up and maybe 5 minutes cumulative of my attention span over a week.
Example #3: Your name is listed six times in my phone with a photo that isn’t you.
Right now I have contact information for people on Google contacts, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, Highrise, Gist Apple Contacts, my iPhone, people in Gmail that I haven’t added to anything. There is a massive opportunity still to be solved in contact management but I tell you what I don’t need is another contact management app. What I need is a service that I would gladly pay for that syncs in to every one of these services and makes sure every contact is available on my phone or computer, removes duplicates and suggests where I could improve the connections. I’m sure there are lots of opportunities for products and services that have no UI whatsoever and simply serve to disentangle the existing jungle of apps we have been interacting with for just a few years now.
So that’s my rant on apps. The next time you have an idea for the next great app, take a few seconds longer to see if you can find a solution that “just works” instead or risk being ignored.