It’s a debate that’s been going on for a decade now. Industry experts, systems architects, developers and others have been discussing which approach is best in terms of creating apps for mobile platforms. The primary question is whether it makes more sense to develop multiple single-purpose apps or to create one multi-purpose app.
The conversation has been low-key for the most part. However, the “app unbundling” concept came into the spotlight a few years ago, raising the volume on the discussion. Let’s look at what each approach involves and what each offers.
Purposes and Features
Like a department store, a multi-purpose app is one that has everything the user needs in one place. In contrast, single-purpose apps are more like boutiques; they are specifically designed to accomplish one thing.
A point of clarity is needed here: purpose and feature are not the same thing. For this article, we’ll define features as characteristics that describe what the software does and/or how it does it. Purpose defines what the user wants to achieve or accomplish, not how or which way they want to accomplish it. Hence, single-purpose does not mean single-feature. A single-feature app does one thing; a single-purpose app is for one thing.
To Bundle or Unbundle?
Unbundling simply means breaking apart the individual features or functionality of an app and offering those as entirely separate apps. During the 2013-2014 period, a trend emerged as many high-profile companies implemented unbundling strategies.
Foursquare’s one app became Swarm and the new Foursquare. Facebook split off Messenger as a separate app. Dropbox, Evernote, Twitter and Google Docs also executed similar strategies.
As with many trends, a reversal ensued between 2015 and 2016 in which single-purpose apps began to bundle to create multi-purpose apps. Today, there is no clear winner. So, what is the best strategy for custom app developers?
Choose Your Advantages
Developers can go one of two ways, each with its advantages:
- Build many single-purpose apps, each designed to accomplish one specific thing.
- Re-surface features: Features hidden deep in tabs are lost to most users. By unbundling, you can re-surface features that were once buried, lost or forgotten.
- Aligned to rapid iteration: Single-purpose apps tend to allow for more rapid iteration due to their simplicity.
- The home screen is the new portal: The touch interface of smartphone operating systems makes it easy to scan multiple applications to select from.
- Build one monolithic, multi-purpose app that includes everything the user needs.
- Unified experience: Different modules can work together sharing data and resources.
- Aggregate data: It minimizes the danger of producing data silos.
- Single environment: Users have everything they need in one place.
One Possible Approach
Clean, easy-to-use interfaces that allow users to engage and solve problems quickly tend to be more popular. This is usually easier to accomplish with single-purpose apps. However, too many apps can create app saturation and excessive jumping between them. This is aggravated if the apps don’t work well together and produce data silos.
So then, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. But one way to approach this might be to combine both strategies to leverage their unique advantages. Start by first assuming that all incoming mobile projects are single-purpose apps - especially if they focus on a core activity.
Next, group lesser used functions together, either by engagement timeline (e.g. purchasing ticket vs. in-flight amenities vs. satisfaction survey), subject (e.g. HR vs. finance) or user role (e.g. customer vs. vendor). Functionalities that prove to have significantly higher use rates than others should be considered for splitting off into their own apps.
Ultimately, the User Is King
Whichever way you go, the app experience should express what is ultimately important to the user. Mobile app efforts almost always fail when they don’t take into account the user’s needs.
As it turns out, the bundle/unbundle question has no definitive answer. Instead, it’s about users and use cases. Invest as much pre-development time as necessary interacting with users to get their input. This will help you understand the real needs of users. With this in mind, and armed with a rapid app development platform, design and test a prototype until you get enough feedback to know if one app or several are the best choice for your situation.