AppSuration and Unique Traits

App Saturation and the Lack of Unique Features

On episode #8 of the B&B Podcast Shawn Blanc and I discussed the hottest new Twitter client: Tweetbot. While I have yet to decide if I like Tweetbot any more, or less, than I like the official Twitter app — I did note two annoying things:

  1. The app doesn’t have the “one” single feature that is unique to it.
  2. The app feels like a nice wrapper of eye candy applied over the existing apps out there (mainly the official Twitter app).

This though is a very common problem that I see over and over in the App Store and I think it comes from the amount of saturation that app categories like RSS feed readers, note taking apps, and Twitter apps are experiencing. It’s not a factor of bad development — it’s groupthink, or perhaps more accurately lack of innovation.

Being Unique

I don’t want to pick on Tweetbot, but it is one of the best examples of what I am referring to, it enters a very well populated landscape — Twitter apps for iPhones. What is fascinating is that if you really boil an app like Tweetbot down, there is no innovative feature — there is not a single feature that you can point to and say: “yeah you only get that on Tweetbot”. Yes there are uniques gestures, and taps, but those are all performing the same basic actions as other Twitter apps.

It is not that Tweetbot is the same as every other app, its just that Tweetbot is like a new Honda Civic — it’s new, but it’s not really new. Still a great car, but hard to say if it really is any better than the last model.

You could also argue that the ability to set a list in place of your timeline is just such a unique feature, but I would argue that it is just a different way of showing the lists (instead of making me drill through a menu like the official app does, I can view these lists on the main screen — even though you still view them relatively the same once you find the lists). The two examples I gave in the podcast of good, unique, features was for Twitterrific and Echofon.

The former has a unified timeline where you see mentions and DMs all in the timeline with your ‘normal’ tweets. That is something that (as far as I know) is only done in Twitterrific and while I don’t care for that feature, it is compelling to many users — it is a reason to buy the app — a way to differentiate itself from other Twitter apps.

Echofon has a similar feature (one that it alone does not have) which is to sync the place of your timeline across all other Echofon apps that you are using (iOS and Mac). That’s a fantastic feature and one that has made me wish that the rest of the app was better so that I could use it. That’s a feature that is incredible compelling compared to the rest of the Twitter apps out there, it is more unique than it is common.

Too often though — as I believe the case may be with Tweetbot — we get a new app in a crowded category that offers no unique feature, thus they just serve as more clutter. They may still be good and still look better than other apps, perhaps even they are cheaper, but if they weren’t in the store it wouldn’t be a huge loss, because they aren’t offering features that can’t be found in other apps.

This type of problem is seriously apparent in the note taking app market where every app seems to sync with Dropbox and there is really very little difference between the apps out there. Writer for Information Architects differentiates itself with a crazy 3-line-only view and a custom designed, iPad optimized, font. Notesy gives the user the ability to switch between fixed width and variable width fonts. The built in Notes app gives you the ability to sync with iTunes…

Why release an app if you aren’t going to add to the existing offerings something that will be truly useful to ,at least, a select few users?

A Wrapper

The last complaint I lodged against Tweetbot was that it just seemed like an incredibly beautiful wrapper that was put over the official Twitter app. That is, everything is too similar in layout and functionality 1 that it just seems like you are using the same old app with a lovely new theme applied.

This all sounds rather horrible, like I am accusing people of swiping someone else’s work — that’s not what I am saying. It’s no different than if someone built another WordPress theme with the text down the left and a small menu on the right, but different colors and fonts — they aren’t copying the theme I use, they just employed a similar layout without a slightly different wrapper.

The more likely cause is that they chose a similar layout because they liked the way it worked and the user familiarity with that layout. Nothing wrong with that — except that I have to again ask where they are adding value that didn’t already exist?

We all like to theme things, but is such a theme really needed in a crowded marketplace?

Is a Kia automatically better if it is made to look like a Ferrari? Perhaps to a few people who want a slow Ferrari, but to most I would guess they wouldn’t care all that much — most are buying a Kia for reasons other than looks. 2 Especially if the one that looked like a Ferrari is a more expensive option.

The Question

Is your app a Ferrari, or does it just look like one?

If you found yourself reading this wondering what compelling features a Twitter app could add, or that a note taking app could add — then you are asking the right questions. The questions that need to be asked before a developer starts coding a new app. This isn’t saying that Tweetbot is bad, or that it isn’t worth the $2 — all I am saying is that time and time again it seems I am testing the same app with an improved color scheme.

  1. Again, excluding those fancy gestures and tap controls.
  2. Over generalization perhaps, but they have killer warrantees with very low prices. I would think that this is the main reason people buy Kia’s, and not performance or looks.
Originally posted for members on: April 18, 2011
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