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Is simplicity the key to a hit app?

One of the biggest stories in the world of the iPad last month centred on the success of the app released for The New Yorker.  By turning their back on interactive features and the ‘Bells & Whistles’ approach to digital versions of offline media, The New Yorker’s developers essentially put all of their efforts into making the app clean and readable.  Simple, huh?

Impressively so.  With over 100,000 readers (and 20,000 paying in excess of $50 for subscriptions) these numbers are dwarfing those being reported for others in the magazine app category and are signalling to developers that app consumers – for all our keenness to adopt emerging technologies and try new things – are still creatures of simple tastes.

So, is simplicity the key to a hit app?  And if so, why?

These are intriguing questions.  After all, in this era of ‘the long tail’ do we really care about hits anymore?  Surely, there are as many folk buying a variety of the numerous niche and complex magazine apps available as there are buying The New Yorker for iPad.  With no limitations of shelf-space in an increasingly niche-orientated world, developers, in theory, could invest the same amount of time and money into a variety of non-simple magazine apps to similar success as they might putting the same efforts into one very simple hit app.

I needed to do a little more research so I reached for my iPhone 4, clicked through to the App Store and went in search for the hit app of the moment.  Although I wasn’t expecting something overly complicated, I was perhaps expecting something kind of new – or at least something with more than one function.  But lo and behold, at the time of writing this, the top free app (and second to top paid-app) on the iPhone is none other than… Snake ‘97 – not only a very simple app (it doesn’t even have a menu screen), but a version of perhaps one of the simplest games that remains popular to this day (at least 30 year since its original release).

Unsurprisingly, the trend is similar across paid and free apps on different devices and I believe if we were to take all the applications produced to date and plotted them on a graph, the left side (head) of the curve would be home to more of the simpler apps, while the tail would be where we’d see the non-simple apps.

So, is the reason for this simply because the majority of app buyers are keen on simple things – in the same way that the straightforward pop of Justin Bieber appeals to more people than the latest prog-funk album by Destroyer?

Maybe.  Yet additionally, I think the fact that apps are still a new media to most people means that when we start searching around the market (where we are, of course, initially presented with ‘the hits’) we’re keen to test it out with things we can understand quickly.  What might be a surprise to developers, is that this young market may need to go through a period of hit making with ultra-simple apps – especially when looking at emerging app categories like magazines – before ‘the tail’ is long enough to really invest in ‘non-simple’ niche apps.

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