I realised recently that the bulk of the apps I use on a daily basis are very simple. They don’t have a lot of features and they don’t have a lot of customisation options. It turns out the featureless apps provide a system that works well for me.
Two years ago our own Adam Pash talked about “everything bucket” apps that you’re supposed to throw every thought into. A lot has changed since then, but feature bloat is still common.
Now, nearly every major service is an “everything bucket” of some kind. Google implores you to dump everything you own into it. Bookmarking services like Pocket now let you add video and images. Evernote is one of the most popular places to store everything you do, with executives saying in a recent interview with TechCrunch that the company’s goal is to become a storage space for everything in your life.
That’s all well and good, but for some of us, the Unix Philosophy of “do one thing and do it well” still holds true.
While many apps have grown bigger and more encompassing over the years, others have popped up to fill the single-service, hyper-focused holes. While these types of apps never disappeared, they’ve become more and more necessary as our devices — and our ideas — have grown more fragmented. I find myself using these nearly featureless apps more often when I’m on my iPhone and iPad. I want something that opens immediately and starts doing what it’s supposed to do without any additional taps.
Recent iPhone apps, like the simplified to-do list Clear, the notepad Pop, the sketch app Paper, and the slightly more functional notepad Drafts (just to name a few), all serve one specific function and serve it well.
On a mobile device, this is key. When you open an app like Drafts or Pop you immediately get a blank page to start typing in. When you open Clear, you’re shown a very simple to-do list. Paper opens up to a blank sheet of paper. None of these are complicated enough to manage your entire life, but that’s not the point: they’re efficient. You can get in and do what you need to do, and then back out of the app with a single tap.
For me, the “one thing well” approach is what makes a mobile app. I compartmentalise and organise with separate apps that each have their own function. Sometimes I want something to sync up across devices, but other times I just need a place to quickly drop an idea. I don’t need the ability to organise them into folders, or customise the text, or have a choice of pens to choose from. I want something that is simple and opens fast.
Here’s a confession: up until I found these apps, I didn’t track anything digitally. Try as I might to use apps like Remember the Milk or Evernote, they were always too much for me. Instead, I carried around an actual notepad. I used an actual calendar for tasks. It wasn’t until I found apps that functioned the same way as their paper equivalents that I started using my smartphone for idea and task organisation.
Of course, this is just my preference. Other people with far more complicated jobs need complex tools to manage them. But for the rest of us, features just get in the way. A notepad can just be a notepad. A sketchpad can just be a blank canvas. For me, the simpler the app is, the more likely it is I’m going to actually use it on my mobile devices.
As far as the “everything bucket” is concerned, that’s what Dropbox is for. It’s easy enough for apps to sync up data to Dropbox if you need it (and if they don’t If This Then That will probably take care of it). The thing is, you don’t always need it. Sometimes, an app and its data work best when they’re independent of the rest of your life.