Jun 11, 2014

Thoughts on Mobile App Unbundling and the User Experience

A glut of companies have recently unbundled their mobile apps. Google, Facebook, Foursquare, and the The New York Times have all started splitting their apps apart like a reverse Voltron, each addressing a specific task. Each company has unique motivations driving its decision to unbundle: Microsoft’s release of Office apps for iPad may have had some influence on Google’s move, and Foursquare says studying customer behavior lead them to split off their social features. But there are some common threads in the trend.

Single, monolithic apps don’t lend themselves well to rapid iteration in competitive markets. Small, task-focused apps, however, can be developed quickly—and maintained under shorter release cycles. Small apps also have the advantage of targeting customer cohorts, and delivering on the specific jobs to be done without the bloat of extraneous features. But the benefits can come at a cost.

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of unbundling.

What’s in the box?

Customers who use unbundled app suites may find jumping between apps tedious. It adds extra seconds to a workflow, which isn’t appreciated in the short sessions so common to mobile devices. Lots of small apps clutter up your home screen, making it harder to find what you’re looking for. Sure, you can put them all in folders—but that adds yet another tap and makes icons harder to recognize at such a small scale.

Keep it simple, stay nimble

While MailChimp hasn’t split our mobile apps apart, we have developed them in parallel, thinking of them as a connected suite. It’s been tempting to add lots of features to MailChimp Mobile, our most popular app, now with more than a half million downloads. We briefly considered rolling the functionality of Editor, our tablet app for editing email Campaigns, into MailChimp Mobile as well. But in the end it didn’t make much sense. As a stand-alone app, we can iterate on it independent of MailChimp Mobile. Editor is the type of app that’s used when relaxing on a couch with a tablet that affords the space for email design. MailChimp Mobile, though it’s universal and works on tablets, is used far more often for small tasks on a phone. In this case, keeping the two apps separate helped us stay nimble, and avoided the kind of bloat that could affect the user experience.

Connect the disconnected

As a user experience designer, I have mixed feelings about how the unbundling trend may unfold. I love that it breaks the complicated problems of feature-rich apps into small, easier-to-refine pieces. I can see a lot of companies using this strategy to create little experiments that quickly test market fit. But if we’re breaking apps apart, we need to carefully consider how they work together.

google-unbundled

Unbundled apps often pass the user back and forth, which can be disorienting: It’s not always clear where you’ve just landed, nor is it obvious how to get back to where you were. An icon shown as the receiving app loads can give a sense of place, but offering the user a visible way to return to the previous app makes the workflow elegant and effortless.

Google does this well: Search for a place in the Google app, tap Directions, and you’re passed to Google Maps, where a bar at the top gives you the opportunity to return to your search results. Google Maps even shows you this back bar when you’re coming from Safari. It’d be great if a design pattern like this were standardized with Extensions in iOS so all apps could take advantage of it.

Unbundling into the future

For now, unbundling is really only a viable strategy for large companies with brand recognition that can drive users to seek and download a bunch of apps at once. Small companies have a harder time helping customers discover all of their apps, but that may change soon. iOS 8 will support app bundles, so a user can download a whole suite of apps with one click. And Extensions in iOS 8 will make it easier for apps to work together, passing data back and forth. Building separate-but-connected apps on Android is easy, too. These changes could soon make unbundling more than a passing trend.