There’s an interesting phenomenon that happens with apps and technology as it matures such that when you look back, old versions appear to be nothing more than app features today. For example, Facebook evolved from a simple “hot or not” web app as detailed in the biographical drama, The Social Network, to a place where you could build a simple profile and post status updates, to the behemoth it is today. Over time, our apps become outclassed by more comprehensive solutions, generally speaking.
Today, apps that are basically just a feature (i.e., it does one task like early Facebook) are easy to replicate, both for other startups and especially, for colossal organizations like Apple, Google, etc. This and other factors make such apps less viable on the market in most cases. Of course, there is some fine print to all of this so let’s take a look a handful of apps and other snappy examples of why you need to be more than just a feature.
Devil’s advocate: the good and the bad of apps that exist as “just features”
Chances are, you read the title of this blog and felt one of a few ways unless you disagree – the statement hit you right in the beliefs and your first thought was, “Yeah, but.”
There are several apps on the market that thrive, even though they really only do one thing. The chat app, Discord, which is designed for gaming communities, is a privacy-minded, communication platform (think Reddit but for real-time conversations) with social aspects for messaging and voice for users, allowing users to connect one-on-one or in rooms called servers. One of the longest-standing sites on the web, eBay, is a C2C service for buying and selling all kinds of things through either auction-style listings or as a more streamlined, direct sale. Craigslist is perhaps an even better example, serving as an incredibly stripped-down classifieds platform – it’s just text, links, and pictures of people’s used Toyotas who are trying to capitalize on the recent pricing spike.
While each of the above examples is a robust solution made up of several different pieces (minus Craigslist, which is pretty bare-bones), they only serve one main function. However, each works because of highly specific conditions that are hard to replicate, even though you could easily reproduce the software and slap on a different label.
The catch is, you’re more likely to be affected by replication efforts from others who will put their own spin on your idea when it’s clever and simple. No matter your size, others will replicate you which means you do it better and offer more value by making your feature better and logically scaling with new features. And that’s just business – remember how Myspace was just minding its own business until Facebook came along and usurped the social media throne? It happens.
What goes up, must come down
We know that all objects thrown into the air need an upward force greater than or equal to gravity to not fall. Apps are much the same, at least in the sense that they’ll fall if they don’t have some kind of force driving them. Here, that “upward force” usually manifests in improvements to existing features and the addition of new ones, except in certain notable cases.
Craigslist and eBay got away with it because they were gaining traction while innovation largely spreading out across on the same “plane.” Now, we still have novel innovations emerging but most of what we see today is developing solutions that interconnect services as well as much more vertical growth on top of existing technologies. Digital products need to grow by getting better, offering more, or both, otherwise, they lose that which keeps them afloat.
When an app deflates like a balloon
A couple of good examples of products that haven’t grown accordingly are the apps, Turntable, which has been around for about a decade, and the newcomer, Clubhouse.
Turntable is a music-centric web app that mostly caters to a small group of faithful users as you can see by its sparsely populated rooms where “people, not algorithms” share music. A decade ago, another writer at an agency I worked for tried to turn me on to it – It was kinda cool, but just not for me. Fast forward ten years and it’s much the same: it’s still just kinda cool. The layout is different but it doesn’t do much more than it did when it first came out.
Then there’s Clubhouse which is a mobile app that operates on a similar premise but it’s more diverse and conversation-centric. It works like an interactive broadcast or web meeting where the hosts maintain control and users can tap a button to chime in.
During the pandemic, Clubhouse boomed like other platforms that many used to virtually connect with each other like Houseparty. But now, both are a lot like a Mylar balloon from your kid’s birthday party several weeks ago: it eventually hits some kind of stasis where it calmly floats a couple of feet off the floor. Clubhouse content is highly fragmented and there’s no real indication as to what kind of quality to expect from the various “rooms” you’ll encounter while in the “hallway.” It has more users than Turntable but its growth has significantly tapered since earlier this year.
Everyone is quick to add their astoundingly astute insights about how the “decline is pandemic-related” but no one talks about the deeper reason that. At its core, it’s a borderline cacophony of people sounding off about various topics on a platform that’s almost too level and indexed weird: there’s little meta to any given room beyond the title where you kind of need to poke through each speaker’s profile to get a sense of who they are and what qualifies their input or, flip through rooms like they’re TV channels until something clicks. A big problem is that while it’s easy to find content, it’s like anything else in the sense that great content is few and far between. Plus, it’s just audio – this model works for video (e.g., Tik Tok, user stories on social media, etc.) but this is clearly much more niche.
Clubhouse is an example of something that simply needs to be better to grow again. There needs to be a way to distinguish content quality at a glance, rather than hopping into the middle of random conversations. The UI is solid but the content feels too random, even when only selecting a few topics to follow.
Perhaps the biggest issue is that several companies have created their own spins on Clubhouse with big names like Facebook and Twitter capitalizing on the trend. Even though Clubhouse started the trend, they’re just another face in the crowd.
While you can sometimes get away with offering a single flagship feature, it has to be well-polished and rich. To keep growing, unlike Turntable or Clubhouse, the platform needs to evolve to “do more” with added functionality over time. Of course, there are times that a new feature ends up flopping but that’s a subject for another day.
We build growth-centered experiences
Growth can be fickle and plateaus are to be expected. Blue Label Labs’ experiences in defining strategy and creating effective solutions for the long term allow us to bring value to all phases of a product’s lifecycle. For more information or to talk to one of us about your app idea, get in touch with us here.
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