The Simplified Complexity of Apps

On a recent episode of CMD+Space, Russell Ivanovic, one of the creators of Pocket Casts, discussed the competition that has grown around his app:

I think the downside though of us kind of being one of the bigger players is that a lot of these new apps that are coming out, their selling point is that they’re super simple. We started with that concept originally. In fact there’s an app that came out recently, Castro, and the way that app is laid out, obviously not the way it looks, but the way it’s laid out is very, very similar to version 1 or version 2 of Pocket Casts, even down to the podcast and episode toggle thing at the top. I’m not saying they copied us, I don’t think they would have ever seen those versions of Pocket Casts. But more that a lot of the ideas these guys are having are ideas we’ve had originally, and we’ve kind of refined those ideas and changed them over time. But the benefit they have is they can come into the market and they can say – here’s something super simple, way simpler than Pocket Casts, and so much easier to understand, and not many features and nothing to get sort of tripped over by. Where as we can’t really do that.

Once you have a customer base and once you’re supporting all of them and once they come to love all the different features that you have, it’s never easy to try and pare that stuff back. But I mean on the flip side of that is I see a lot of those apps that launch and people are like “I love his app, it’s so awesome, so simple.” And then they’ll request every single feature that they have in Downcast or Pocket Casts or Instacast or whatever podcasting app they use. It’s interesting to see what those guys do with that then. Do they keep their app simple or do they start slowly adding those features in?

CMD+Space “87: Developing a Podcast App, with Russell Ivanovic” 1:03:00

For years I’ve noticed that most applications slowly evolve from simple to complex. In some ways it’s just the natural order of the universe, that things will always evolve over time and become more complicated. However, the rapid pace of technology seems to push apps extremely quickly in this direction. Something like a stapler can pretty much remain in its original form for decades. However, a word processing application can’t remain the same for even a year or two without people complaining and wanting updates and new features and more functionality.

Therein lies the difficulty in making an app with the intention of having it be simple – can you keep that up indefinitely? Say you want to make a simple, elegantly designed photo editing app. You release it and it’s popular and widely praised for its simplicity. Then what do you do? Can you just decide you’ve achieved your vision and leave it in the app store, untouched, for the next five years?

Past history seems to give a resounding “no” to that question. Apps that aren’t updated or changed are seen as languishing or even dead. Users usually quickly flee and something almost always steps in to corner the market. So app developers are always under this constant pressure to iterate and improve an app – the biggest way being to add more features and complexity. Yet, that then quickly takes away the minimalistic aesthetic that made the app so appealing in the first place.

The quote about Pocket Casts shows the churn that this type of app development causes. You first have the super simple and elegant app that becomes a hit in version 1.0. However, as the versions continue, features are added, the interface is overhauled, more settings are added, more options, more of everything. At a certain point, a competitor usually tries to swoop in with a “simple” alternative and many flock to that. However, that simple competitor than will undergo the same evolution as the original hit app, and the cycle continues.

This isn’t exclusive to apps either. A great example of this churn can be seen in the evolution of Apple’s operating systems. Look all the way back to the early 80s and Apple had the rather complex and hard to use Apple II system in place. However, it ditched that for the Macintosh, a much simpler, easier to use OS. But the Mac OS followed the usual pattern of gaining more and more complexity over the years.

So what eventually happened? The churn continued when Apple introduced the super simplified iPhone, a complete break from all the complex baggage of the Mac. Version 1.0 of iOS (then simply called iPhone OS) didn’t have apps, multitasking, or even copy and paste. Yet, seven years later, iOS is tremendously more complex compared to the original 1.0 release. Yet, users wanted that, they cried out for features every year, and Apple added them back in every year.

I don’t see an easy way to solve this problem. It seems users have this conflicted nature of wanting both simplicity and complexity, and app developers can’t keep both sides happy. You can initially satisfy the simple side, but soon users shift their focus and clamor for complexity. It’s contradictory behavior, as is much of human nature. It becomes a game of tug of war – the developer pulling on one side to keep his or her app’s ideal minimalist vision, and the users pulling on the other side by requesting more and more functionality. There doesn’t seem to be a clear cut answer to this issue, and instead we are left with the ever present churning of simple to complex, simple to complex…