When it comes to the mobile strategy of social media companies this year, one notable trend is the rise of “unbundling.” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg touted the company’s decision to separate Messenger from its core app as a way to give its users discrete, distinct experiences. Foursquare announced earlier this month that it would break apart its existing app into two new ones: the “new” Foursquare focused on location discovery, and a check-in focused app called Swarm. The decision to break a larger, bulkier app into smaller, sleeker experiences could help many social media companies tap into new countries while providing richer, more focused experiences.
But that doesn’t mean that unbundling is the cure-all for every mobile experience. An article on Business Insider last week half-jokingly suggested that Twitter would be a better service if it split itself into 10 different apps — including specialized ones for video, news and sports. While Twitter does pack plenty of service into one app, excessive unbundling won’t fix that experience, and breaking down apps for the sake of doing so ignores the risks that come with the practice.
Splitting the Audience
The biggest risk of unbundling an app is splitting its audience. A smartphone only has so much space available, and developers struggle to gain and keep users: a study from mobile app company Flurry indicates that most apps see decays in user rates after four months. By breaking down one central app into multiple, smaller apps, a company runs the risk of cutting up its user base. A smaller initial user pool may make for more decay over time.
Right now, users of Foursquare interact with the app in two distinct ways — checking in and discovering locations. In creating Swarm, Foursquare will silo those who use its current product for check-ins. CEO Dennis Crowley has said that the split isn’t meant to deemphasize the check-in — rather, it’s to make it easier for users to interact with the platform in the way that they choose. However, that strategy carries with it the hazard of pushing a smaller audience to the new Foursquare and also setting Swarm up for potentially devastating drops in user base as the early adopters move on. It’s a risk that could potentially devastate Foursquare, which has struggled in the past to prove itself to investors in both revenue and growth.
In addition to splitting the audience, multiple apps can divert attention. As a user of Facebook’s Messenger app, nothing bothers me more than seeing a banner that invites me back to jump back into the traditional Facebook experience. Unlike standalone apps that fall under a social network’s umbrella, like Instagram or Vine, unbundled apps can still be tied to the hub app that it came from. It’s easy to feel compelled to jump between them all, searching for a satisfying experience among a pool of apps. It’s exhausting, especially on the eyes, and often makes me feel like I’d much rather stay in one place.
Juggling between apps is the reason why Tumblr chose to incorporate new layout-editing features into its current app, rather than making it a completely new experience. Simplicity doesn’t innately mean that apps need to be broken down into their most basic form, like atoms. When a group of features work well together, for example, in both creating and consuming social media, users stay engaged in one app for longer. That engagement could be spoiled if users are forced to cycle between many smaller apps in order to get the experience they want.
While unbundling can make apps more straightforward and easy to use, it’s also very easy to mix messages about what kind of experience the company wants users to have. While the product itself is still very niche, I’ve written before that Facebook Paper arguably goes against everything that Facebook has established in its main experience, and shows just how frustrating the main app can be at times. While it seems logical to create different apps based on how users preferences, it can confuse users about the most authentic way to experience the app and shut them off from certain features.
Take, for example, the new, messaging and live video-focused SnapChat. The app’s new, ephemeral chat system, which includes a snappy live-video feature, could have easily been pushed out into its own app that would have been closer to its intended competitors, like WhatsApp or Line. But in doing so, SnapChat could have risked confusing users about the best way to use the app: is it meant for keeping in touch with friends, or creating spontaneous, creative messages? By keeping it all in one place, SnapChat has actually done a very good job showing how text can coexist with its photo and video-based messaging — particularly by threading that buzzy “ephemerality” between all three. In doing so, SnapChat has altered its mission without alienating or confusing its users about how to best experience the platform.
Unbundling clearly has its rewards, particularly in offering light, straightforward experiences that are accessible to users in countries where smartphones are just starting to take off. But the strategy will never be a catch-all answer for social media on mobile — there is a time and place to unbundle main apps, and being prudent about when and how it will work is the key to its success.