Why Most To-do List Apps Are Doomed to Fail

As the iOS, Android, and Windows mobile platforms mature, the devices themselves are becoming more and more useful directly out of the box. The makers are building more features into the OS so users aren’t required to download several apps before finding their devices useful. Of course, the success of 3rd party apps is a key part of the strategy of success for the platforms, but over the last couple of years, we’ve seen the devices include more and more features and apps of their own to raise the Day-One-Experience bar. The continuing commoditization of basic functionality will only increase, sometimes blurring the line between the platform and 3rd party apps. As a consequence, the overly simplistic, one-trick pony apps will continue to lose the most — especially in the categories of productivity and social networking, unless your software is a platform like Evernote, Toodledo, Dropbox, Google, Facebook, or Twitter — and not just an app.

Various interconnected factors lead to commoditization risk for these one-trick ponies.

The Novelty Factor

The latest to-do list and simple notes apps are cool — and clever. Hats off to Clear as being one of the latest examples of “coolness.” The novelty of an app that is different and fun brings in many users in the app world, and sustained success – for a few weeks. Then another even cooler list app comes out and the current cool king is dethroned. The cycle continues. They inspire new usage paradigms, and copycats emerge — a little too late to the game with no new innovation, and get lost in the crowd. With new innovation, the cool kings also raise the bar on simplicity of use, the fun factor, and user delight. Once the bar is raised, the user wins. However, novelty is a just feature and it cannot sustain an app forever because it eventually wears off.

The Task Factor

Tasks are mostly transient, meaningless after they are done and checked off. Sure, in business, metrics enthusiasts want to historically analyze completed tasks to understand a team’s performance across types of tasks, across skills, across teams, and across long lasting projects. The typical person, using to-dos to track things they don’t want to forget to do, could not care less. The simpler the task or to-do app, the less interesting the completed tasks become. Some cleverly designed to-do list apps simply get rid of the completed tasks for that reason, leaving the user with less clutter and a happy sense of a clean plate. But ultimately, tasks are a feature, not an app.

The Note Factor

Notes are a different beast. Notes are forever. Evernote gets that (the elephant never forgets). So they chose to be a service/platform for notes, allowing browsers and other apps to easily get information into Evernote, making the information available from anywhere. The act of note-taking is also made fun in apps like Paper and Penultimate. For people who make a lot of free-flowing notes (classrooms, meeting rooms, and boardrooms), those are the killer apps since they make free-style note-scribbling and picture-doodling fun — and useful. For capturing simple text notes, there are 1000s of overly simplistic apps. Message to them — text notes and checklists are a feature, not an app.

The Completeness Factor — Features versus Apps

Users tell us that they want more from their apps — one or two features doesn’t satisfy their needs. They also tell us that they want “simple” apps. Keep in mind that “simple” should not be confused with “simplistic.” Simplicity should not be accomplished by sacrificing power. Simplicity is the user experience. With a clutter of apps on their device that just do one or two things, users constantly switch between them — which is counter-productive. In fact, users tell us that they can’t even remember what information is in which app. The users are demanding more simplicity and completeness in their apps, and these two concepts should not negate one another. In addition, due to the nature of simplistic apps, they don’t have stickiness with users and are constantly replaced.

As devices such as Smartphones and Tablets become more popular, users will expect more from their apps — apps that do one thing will no longer cut it. According to ZDNet in an article about mobile madness, the amount of time people spend on their mobile devices has significantly gone up. In fact, half of workers take their phones to bed with them. The desire for more powerful apps has only gotten stronger. Tablets will become the “preferred, primary device for millions of people around the world” by 2016, as not only consumers, but businesses gravitate towards convenience over computing power, according to a new report from Forrester Research.

Unlike desktops, people use mobile devices throughout the day in short bursts, making the loss of context even more of an issue when there is significant app clutter on their device. Nothing is in context when each app does just one thing, and the user is constantly replacing each one with the next cool thing.

The Apple Factor

Apple introduced the very simple, but very precise Reminders app in iOS 5.0. If I was a simple to-do list app user, my search for an app would be done upon finding an app that includes built-in reminders, iCloud sync across devices, and location aware assistance. I’m not, but if I were, this app would be it. For others who seek simplistic list apps and to-do list apps, when they find Apple’s Reminders app, where does that leave Clear, Any.DO, or the 1000s of other to-do list apps?

For simple note-taking, assisted by dictation and Siri, the built-in Notes app is good enough for folks with simple needs. Heck, many people I know manage their to-dos and checklists in it as well. So unless it is an actual notes service (platform) like Evernote, or an amazing new way to capture notes like Penultimate or Paper, what differentiates it from the 1000s of simple note-taking apps?

Game On

The app explosion has barely begun. Apps have not yet matured, but I expect to see users demand more usefulness and completeness over time. Consider the desktop software of the 80s and 90s. It was simplistic and incomplete — as adoption increased so did the usefulness of the software. The super app era should be fun for the next few years — the platforms surely have been doing their part. We’re looking forward to see how app developers balance usefulness, completeness, usability, and simplicity as the bar is raised. This is the time for app developers to raise their game.

-Adi Mishra, CEO, LightArrow, Inc.

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