Everyone is extolling the virtues of ‘simple’ on mobile – but how simple should simple be?

By July 11, 2012Mobile

The meme on mobile at the moment is definitely ‘keep it simple’. My newsfeed today was full of bloggers reporting on Dave Morin’s talk at MobileBeat where his message could be summarised as ‘mobile needs to be simple, but it takes great design to make simple work’. He also said that v1.0 of Path didn’t work because it was too complex. For those that don’t know Morin is something of a celebrity entrepreneur, having worked at Facebook from early on, at Apple and now founded private social network Path which is backed by some top VCs.

Fred Wilson was saying the same thing a couple of weeks back when he wrote that ‘Mobile does not reward feature richness’ and predicted that Facebook will break it’s mobile offering into a bunch of small apps.

When I was thinking about this post I flicked through the home screens on my Android (I have four now, it’s time for a tidy up) and found that bar one, all the apps I use daily are single purpose, with one pretty repetitive user action:

  • Email – reading, replying, composing, and filing email
  • Calendar – managing my diary
  • Chrome browser – browsing
  • Financial Times – reading the daily news as written and curated by the FT
  • Taptu – reading daily technology and chelsea news from a list of blogs I curated
  • Bloomberg – check the stock markets and share prices
  • WeatherPro – check the weather every morning so I know whether to ride my bike and what to wear
  • Google Maps/Waze – finding my way around
  • Hailo – book taxis in London (I’ve been using this a lot recently but now my achilles are better and I’m back on my bike I will be taking cabs less often)
  • Kindle – reading my book

MyFitnessPal is the exception to this rule. I use it daily, but it’s a pretty rich app with tabs that allow recording of food diary, exercise, personal measurements and viewing of charts that show progress. That said, circa 90% of my usage is for the single purpose of recording my food diary, and the other 10% is recording my exercise, the other features are complicated to use and not really necessary on mobile.

Look at this list a little closely though, and it becomes clear there is a level of complexity in all the apps.

Email is a good example. Calendar, It is simpler than on the desktop because calendary, contacts, tasks and plugins have been stripped out, but it is more than single function. Single function would be to read emails, but the app also allows for replying, composing and filing. The email experience on mobile is optimised for reading, but with a bit of patience you can figure out how to complete the other activities pretty efficiently (although filing could be much better – I’d love for the app to guess where messages should go, Blackberry have been doing this for years, so it can’t be hard).

Something similar can be said about many of the other apps I use. On Taptu (one of our portfolio companies) I occasionally save articles to Instapaper and share them on Twitter and email, and I periodically update the blogs included in my feeds. Those advanced features are a large part of the value I get from the app, but the whole thing only works because I get blinding fast access to my news feed every morning.

It seems the key to mobile design then is to optimise the experience around a single simple action but allow access to a small number of other features that are key to the mobile experience. These features will most likely be the one your advanced users love to use.