Are Single-Function Apps Better?

There’s no doubt that the iPhone serves as a general-purpose tool, allowing you to customize it to the way that you like it by adding different apps for different purposes. There are two different kinds of apps: those that do one thing well, and those that try to do many different things within one application.

Is one way better than the other? That’s what I would like to explore with you today.

The Philosophy of Each Method

It’s easy to trace the idea that iOS apps should do one thing well back to the core of OS X, UNIX. Mike Gansarcz famously said of UNIX  “Make each program do one thing well” and that ideology has stuck with many Mac and iOS developers  to this day. Single-function, well-designed apps are the best, according to this school of thought.

The iPhone only offers so many spaces for your apps on each page; it's important to organize them wisely.

The iPhone only offers so many spaces for your apps on each page; it's important to organize them wisely.

On the other hand we have applications that try to do everything, or “umbrella” apps. These applications are generally for something broad like “writing” or are for a service with a lot of different parts, like Twitter or Facebook. The idea is that it’s better to have one application cover all of the functions of a service than to have eight different applications taking up space on someone’s home screen.

Both of those schools of thought have valid points, and bring us to our first problem in regards to an application’s function.

Digital Clutter

The problem with having an application that does one thing well is that it can take many different tools to get one job done. Say, for example, that I want to have the best possible experience with Twitter. Arguably, my best bet for tweeting something is Birdhouse, while my best bet for a minimal, hands-free reading experience is an app like Trickle.

It’s no doubt that these two apps are very good at the one thing that they aim to do, but the problem arises when it comes time to arrange your home screen. Are you going to prioritize between either saying something or reading something, or do you devote more than one space to Twitter?

Tweetbot offers a lot of functionality in one package, taking up less space on your home screen.

Tweetbot offers a lot of functionality in one package, taking up less space on your home screen.

In this instance, we can safely assume that anyone pressed for space would prefer an all-in-one, umbrella solution like Tweetbot. Tweetbot handles tweeting, reading and much more in a very good manner, replacing some of the functionality of those two apps within one space. Umbrellas place a lot of functionality into one space; what, though, if the umbrella isn’t as good as a single-function utility?

Optimization

Where single-function applications really shine is in their optimization. Because the developers decided to focus on one thing, they were able to take that one thing and really bring it to a polish. One recent example of this would be with Facebook launching their new Facebook Messenger app.

While it’s possible to access your messages in the Facebook iOS app, Messenger makes it faster to get in, talk to somebody, and get right back out of the application. It’s no doubt that the Facebook app offers more functionality out of the box, allowing you to read your news feed, post a status, add a photo, etc.

Facebook has many different functions in one app, while Messenger does one thing really well.

Facebook has many different functions in one app, while Messenger does one thing really well.

The optimization is where it counts. When you have something as important as messaging lumped in with other things that you may or may not use, it’s hard to create a really excellent messaging experience. Facebook Messenger really shows that a single-purpose application can be home screen worthy, despite not covering all of the bases that its older brother covers.

Finding a Balance

It’s not necessarily an all-or-nothing type of thing. Finding a balance within an application is more important than deciding that you’ll only use single-function applications or umbrella apps. That balance can be hard to find.

With the Twitter example, what really affects which application(s) you’ll choose to use is how you prioritize what each application does. Trickle may only be useful when you’re charging your iPhone, for example, while Birdhouse is handy for those not-quite-hatched tweets and Tweetbot can handle your non-specialty needs.

Another example might be Evernote. Evernote is an incredibly popular “anything bucket” that keeps your digital life synced across practically any device you can get your hands on. It’s a powerful umbrella app that does many things well. Does that mean that you can’t use something like Simplenote that aims to hold only plain-text notes in the cloud and on your devices? Absolutely not.

Building Your Own App

Where this article may be particularly useful is with developers. It’s important to consider what you aim to do with an application, and whether you’ll have the time or resources to do a lot of things in an OK manner or one thing in an awesome manner.

It’s important to consider the service that you’re building, who your market is and each individual user of your app. Is your application designed to be used in conjunction with other applications? Is it an all-in-one solution that can handle all of your users needs? This needs to be decided early on and clearly presented to a potential customer.

There’s no doubt that it would take less resources to build an application that does one thing well than it would take to build one that does a bunch of different things well. It’s important to take the bigger picture into consideration before you start building, and to think of your customers as people instead of markets. Don’t promise to have eighteen different features that will make the rest of the applications on someone’s phone obsolete unless you can back it up.

Conclusion

It’s fairly clear that this whole issue is a mixed bag that depends on personal preference. I, for one, don’t mind having a couple of single-function apps (Messenger, Definitions, and others) on my home screens, but I also make use of some umbrella apps as well (Facebook, Tweetbot, Evernote).

This really comes down to you. What do you want in an application: a single thing that gets done in the best way possible, or the ability to do multiple things? What types of umbrella apps do you have on your phone and how many? We’d love to hear from you in the comments in order to get a better idea of how people feel about these two different types of applications.