What Can We Learn from the App Unbundling Trend?

It seems like every big company is “unbundling” the experience of their core mobile apps these days. Google split up its Drive app into Sheets, Slides, and Docs. Facebook broke off its chat service into a separate app, Messenger. Foursquare, struggling with its direction, pulled half of its key functionality into a new check-in app called Swarm. The trend has been certainly been picking up amongst these giants, and the rest of the industry has started to take notice – even calling unbundling “one of the best things to happen to the app landscape since in-app purchases.” So why the sudden fragmentation of features – and is it good for users?

The Best User Experience

Successful companies listen closely to what their users are saying and how they interact with their products, and giants like Google and Facebook do it especially well. The primary benefit of unbundling an app into separate standalone apps is that it allows a company to hone in on one experience and make it truly great. In one mega-app that contains a range of features, users can get lost and in many cases even ignore valuable functionality available to them. By creating standalone apps, companies can build direct, fluid experiences that are completely intuitive for the user and potentially increase app usage.

Swarm: A Case Study in App Unbundling

At its core, the idea of unbundling apps makes sense: watch how users interact with an app, and then segment the app to make specific functions more accessible and useful based on how real people behave. In the case of Foursquare, the company realized only 5 percent of users were opening its app to both find friends and a place to go. In other words, 95 percent of users went to Foursquare exclusively to connect with friends or discover a new restaurant/shop. So, the company decided to move the social network and popular “check-in” features to Swarm, and allow Foursquare to exist solely as a discovery and recommendation app. The ideal result is two apps that don’t cannibalize each other, streamline the user experience, and increase Foursquare’s bottom line.

The Risks of Siloing Users

Of course, one consequence of splitting up an app is splitting up a loyal user base as well. There are a few ways this can become problematic. In Foursquare’s case, although the percentage of users that used both primary functions of the app was very low, these people are now in the somewhat uncomfortable position of having to navigate between two apps. Because navigation between different apps on mobile is not yet seamless (although deep-linking is on the way!), exiting one app and jumping into another is an ultimately worse experience than being able to access everything in one place. You never want to inconvenience your users.

Having smaller pools of users across different apps can also lead to a greater overall decline in usage. Flurry recently found that half of apps lose half of their peak users within three months, and unbundling risks accelerating that timeframe. If any users at all are lost in the shuffle of unbundling them to different apps, there’s a strong risk of losing a higher overall portion of them for good.

Create a “Constellation”

The good news is that unbundled apps can create their own feedback and usage loops. Back in the day, desktop software applications came in suites: Microsoft Office included Excel, Word, Outlook, and all the other tools necessary to succeed at work. Using one application fostered greater use of all the other members of a suite. And now, we have Google Apps, encompassing Docs, Sheets, and Slides, each of which works well with all the others – including cross-linking.

Fred Wilson at A VC recently wrote about how these types of apps are part of larger “constellations” of apps, and that each member of the constellation helps grow overall usage. He explained, “If you own a leading constellation, you can use your apps and your relationship with the users of those apps to promote and distribute new apps that you either build or buy.” This foreshadows a future where unbundled apps can not only provide a better user experience, but also foster additional usage of related apps.

Lessons for the Would-Be Unbundler

Huge companies absolutely have the flexibility to try new methods of product packaging like unbundling, but what about midsize companies and startups? Truthfully, unbundling likely isn’t something for smaller players to mess with, especially right away. A better strategy for small developers is to determine their product’s key value proposition, do extensive research around it, and build the user experience piece by piece outward from that core value. It’s not a good idea to jam-pack a new app with a ton of great features, only to find out later that your users get completely lost inside before you have the money and brand recognition to shuffle things around.

Also consider that app unbundling may simply add to the rapidly growing mountain of apps available. When app discoverability is already such a difficult issue, what’s the point of cranking out more and more specific walled gardens? How many of the 300 apps on your phone can you really use? Over-packaging or completely unbundling every app is unsustainable. Instead, the mobile industry needs to focus on building great user experiences and intuitive ways to funnel users into those experiences.