Dear App Developers

Dear App Developers,

Your application doesn’t need to be a Swiss Army Knife. In fact, I don’t want a Swiss Army Knife.

I really love my Leatherman’s tool. Having an all-in-one tool with me is really handy; over the years, I’ve tightened screws in my glasses and put a lens back in when it popped out on a hike. I’ve used the nail file on burrs on my trekking pole handles. I’ve cut ropes and strings and made pointy sticks, I’ve cut my nails with the scissors. I’ve measured things and used the tool as a straight-edge. I’ve held nuts and tightened bolts with the pliers end. I consider it an an essential tool when I’m on an adventure.

I’ve got a Crank Brothers all-in-one bike tool as well. It’s got an assortment of hex keys to adjust brakes, replace pads, or tighten my bottle cages. The phillips screwdriver is needed to replace new derailleur cables when one breaks, as the front one does every year or two. It’s even got a chain breaking tool, and yes, that’s been used too after the chain derailed, got pinched between sprocket and frame, and ended up mangled. I consider this tool as essential for bike trips as the Leatherman’s is for backpacking.

These tools are important to me. They allow me to make a lot of repairs and adjustments in the field, saving hassle or preventing being stranded. Without them, my adventures would encounter bigger problems.

BUT…

As much as they’re critical in a pinch, I don’t reach for the multitools when I’m at home.

If I want to cut rope or string at home, I use the kitchen scissors. I own a nice set of nail clippers. I use a tape measure, T-square, or Vernier caliper depending on what I’m measuring. I use one of several driver kits to screw things, or if it’s a big job, I get out the power drill.

Doing maintenance on the bike, I get out the big kit with the hex keys, spanners and sockets, screwdrivers and bit drivers.

Why do I bother, when my handy-dandy all-in-one tools have so much I need?

Because they suck at it. Don’t get me wrong; in a pinch, a tool is essential and these fit the bill. They’re small enough to carry around conveniently, and although I hesitate to call them lightweight, I suppose if you figure weight-per-tool they are.

But though both tools have Phillips drivers, neither is as ergonomic as a dedicated screwdriver.

Although the Crank Brothers multitool has hex keys, dedicated ones are easier to use when turning a hard-to-reach screw. They’re thinner, longer, and don’t have a clunky blob of multitool on the end.

I have a half-dozen rasps of various shapes and textures for smoothing, filing or shaping things, because the little emery board in the Leatherman’s would be an exercise in frustration.

These dedicated tools don’t try to fold up when being used and don’t need to be folded away when you’re done with them.

So what’s this got to do with App development? I suggest there’s a parallel in UI design. You can build an App that does one thing well, or you can fill it with bells and whistles that make it hard to use.

The iOS music application was a friendly little thing up through iOS 6. Then with iOS 7, it got a redesign that added lots of capabilities. Sure, it does more stuff—but it’s also become much more awkward to use.

iTunes hasn’t fared much better. Originally it was a trim app that played music and could transfer media to an iPod. Then there were more iPods for it to support. Then phones, for which it became the maintenance and software-reload tool. Then it grew a music store. Along the way it added additional, non-columnar views. iTunes has involved to a bloated, slow, cumbersome application.

Skype was an awesome telecommunication platform—easy to use with good call quality. I used it from 2011 through 2017, when they watered down its utility by trying to rethink it as a social media application. Not only is it a poor SnapChat rip-off, it has tainted its value for calling friends.

Do Uber or Lyft come with photo editors? No. And they don’t need to; it would add no value. And yet, there’s almost surely some idiot out there who thinks these apps should: why wouldn’t you want to take pictures on your trip? And wouldn’t it be convenient to manage them with the taxi application?

Does SnapChat come with build-your-own database support? No, they’re not related things. But what about the person who wants to organize information about their friends history and pictures/stories they’ve shared? Actually, that’s probably something for a separate application.

Do restaurant recommendation Apps come with spreadsheets? No. A spreadsheet might be handy to track expenses or split a check, but these are a separate issues from locating a venue.

Even word processors are afflicted with multitool-syndrome. I use several, choosing one based on project scale and needs. But for something like this article, I write using plaintext with a simple, sleek, lightweight editor: IA Writer, Textedit, or vi. Because right now, I don’t need tables of contents, font controls, drawing tools, or page layouts. These things just get in the way.

So if you’re building an App, think about what it needs to do. Stick with it; do that one thing well. Put in all the features needed to do its things, and skip extra fluff.

If there’s another thing to be done, create another App. Make them both robust and reliable, packed with everything needed to fulfill their purpose and no unrelated cruft to get in the way.

Thanks, and happy developing.