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How to not build a useless app

I’m all about goals. Without them, you can’t know if you’ve made a good decision or not, because a decision is good if it maximizes your chances of getting closer to your goals. By definition. Well, my definition anyway.

If your goals are small, that’s still something. No one said you had to be President. You just need a target. Without one, then you may as well roll the dice. Who cares. Because where you end up doesn’t matter.

When I came across an app that helps you set goals, I was excited. OK, excited is a strong word. Sit me down and set me straight if I ever get excited about an app. But I was intrigued. I downloaded it and started the onboarding process. I gave it my name and my email address, because that’s what it asked for (as many apps do). And then, in the second frame, it asked me several questions about my goals. Questions that required long form answers. Questions that required a lot of thought.

“Too much,” I thought. “Fuck this,” I said. I deleted the app.

Now I’m getting emails. Long ones. The latest one offers five tips for setting goals, and two of those tips have 8-10 bullet points. That’s a lot of tips. In all, that email is longer than this tip right here, that I’m writing now, about that email full of tips.

“Too much,” I thought. “I’m not reading this.” Not because I didn’t have time. I have time to write about the email so I should have time to read it. It’s just that… well… people expect apps to move fast, to get to the point quickly. If I wanted to read a book or a blog post about goal setting, then the content of that email would have been a good start. I’d gladly spend hours learning about how to set goals if hours is what I expected to spend.

Apps aren’t about that. You don’t expect to spend hours on an app. Unless it’s a game.

A lot of business owners default to creating an app. It’s… what the cool kids are doing? Or something. If you’ve hired a web designer, they might push you to pay them to design an app. If you use a web design tool, they’ll do the same. They want your money. Everyone has an app. Just like everyone has a podcast. But neither of those things are for every business.

Apps aren’t necessarily a sign of business legitimacy. They take time and energy, and they better be worth it. They better not have users downloading it only to say, months later, “What’s this doing on my phone?”

If you’re thinking about offering an app for your business, think on this first.

The brain likes to categorize things, and it likes to do this automatically. Putting things into categories makes them easier to remember, easier to process, easier to make decisions around. Apps do X, e-commerce sites do Y, stores do Z, and so on. Everything in its right place.

Categorizing is how we end up stereotyping. Profiling. Discriminating. There’s a dark side to how our brains work, but for now, let’s focus on the fact that this tendency is part of our wiring. When we’re designing public policy, or trying to rectify inequality in the workplace, we can work hard to override this tendency. But when we’re a business thinking about creating an app, we need to get real about the fact that this is what people are likely to do: to put everything in its right place.

Specifically, apps are meant to help you accomplish things quickly. You should be able to open an app and do whatever you need in the time it takes to wait for your coffee at Starbucks. That’s the category that people put apps in. If you want people to log in their weight so they can track how much they’ve lost day after day, then an app is awesome. But if you’re asking people to sit down and write a college-style essay about your life goals, ditch the app and write a blog post. Or a book. That will mentally register.

Now, it’s worth noting that TurboTax has an app, and doing taxes is not typically a quick thing. But also, sometimes it is, depending on you and your situation. So, note the nuances in consumer behavior.

Also, apps are meant to be used over and over. It’s like putting your favorite website on speed dial. If you aren’t going to be dialed often, consumers may download your app then delete it. Or let it sit on their phone like leftovers they forgot were in the back of the fridge. Then, one day, as they scroll through their phone, they’ll ask, “What’s this app doing here?” And they’ll toss it. Like leftovers.

In short, if your app doesn’t do what an app is expected to do, then it won’t fit into that nice, neat little bucket that apps go into. And people may not dig it – not because you don’t offer something valuable, but because it doesn’t belong where people expect it to go.

Also keep in mind that every option you choose has an opportunity cost. Which means that whatever time, energy, and money you put into building an app (or a podcast, or whatever) is time, energy, and money you can’t put into something else. If you’ve got millions burning a hole in your pocket and nothing but time, then sure, if it makes you happy, build a useless app. But if you’re trying to grow a business, you’ve got to care about earning enough revenue to keep that business alive, to pay your employees, to fund the development of more products and services that will actually help people.

If what you’ve got to offer fits nicely into the app bucket and will likely earn your business revenue, then go for it. Either way, the more you get used to thinking about opportunity costs – about all the other stuff you could be doing if you didn’t do the app (or podcast, or whatever) – then you’re more likely to keep your eye on the prize. And when you keep your eye on the prize – when you make decisions that get you to your goals rather than imitate what everyone else is doing – your business is more likely to thrive.

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