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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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