Why single-use apps like Yo could take over your smartphone

Incredibly simple, minimalistic, and with only single-function, the latest app trends is towards apps that do one really basic thing. Yo! was a hit because of its extremely simple communication style, literally only pushing the word ‘Yo!’ to other users. Surprisingly, it’s not alone. Similar single-function apps have been appearing in app stores, including La-la, Emojli, and Yo. The big questions is, why? What’s so good about an app that can only do one thing?

I decided to take a closer look at the reason behind the popularity of these apps by asking the developers themselves about their appeal. More than just single-tasks apps, it looks like there may be more than one valid reason to start using these so-called single-function apps.

What do these apps do?

The common thread of every single-function apps is a hyper-simplification of something that seems to go against the evolution of technology (and  common sense). No one buys a smart-phone to simply send a ‘Yo!’ or a goofy emoticon to friends. It seems almost counter-intuitive if you consider the enhanced level of communication that smartphones are supposed to bring.

The single-function or ‘one-task’ app changes slightly from one app to another, but when you consider it, they’re not all that different. They all serve as a way to facilitate communication between users. What changes, however, is the method.

As already mentioned, for example, Yo lets you send only one message to your contacts: ‘Yo!’. With La-la, on the other hand, you can chat with friend, but only through music.

La-la app screenshot

Another app is Lo, which you can use to send your location to friends. In the vein of simplicity, a friend asks for your location, and you answer with your position. That’s it. Very similar is 1MinLate, which lets other people track your movements on a map for half an hour. It’’s  like telling your friends, “I’m on my way.”

With Emojli, you communicate with smileys. Even user names are emojis.

And then there’s This. It’s a social network where you can share only one link per day.

Push for Pizza, which is slightly different, lets you order delivery pizza with a couple of taps on your smartphone’s screen.

The simplicity of these apps’ functions is matched only by the simplicity of their interface. With big buttons and bright colors, they’re a reference to the bi-dimensional flat design we first saw with Windows 8, then iOS 7 , and finally with the new Material Design in Android.

Real apps for real needs

But how do these developers go about designing these kinds of apps? What need drives these apparently useless apps? They’re all legitimate questions that you might have asked yourself, which I in turn, asked it’s developers.

Suprisingly, apps like Yo and Lo where created from real needs. Or Arbel, Yo’s developer, got a request form his boss to make an app so that he could send notifications to his personal assistant. “After dismissing him at first because I thought it was not worth my time, I thought about it and remembered I have a friend who I communicate with in the same way– by texting each other content-less messages. Like, for example, ‘Yo’”.

Lo, on the other hand, was developed by 4 people living in a 2 bedroom apartment. “One day while we were discussing our remote working strategy and how we typically communicate, someone asked the question ‘What’s the most common message we send each other?’ We all thought about it, and the obvious answer was ‘Where are you?’” said Evan Bullington, Base Forty’s co-founder, the company behind Lo.

The smartphone on the left requests the localization, on the right one the notification appears

Jason Hadjioannou’s idea to develop La-La, on the other hand, came from a daily event: “I was about to send my girlfriend a text message one morning and just thought it’d be cool if I sent her a short audible song snippet instead of writing it. I’m not really a chatty text messenger and normally run out of things to write, but a song snippet would say everything I needed without sounding boring. I made an early version of the app and sent her the 17 second chorus of ‘Hello’ by Lionel Richie”.

Other apps, like Emojli, were created as more of a fun idea. Matt Gray and Tom Scott, the app’s developers, told Softonic that the idea came from Yo and the new emojis. “The two of us had the idea at about the same time — we weren’t sold on it until we realized that usernames should be emoji too. At that point, we burst out laughing and realized we had to build it”.

Why should you choose a single-function app?

While they may be fun, you might be asking yourself why you should choose a single-function app instead of a more robust one that does all of these things. If you think about it, you can easily say ‘Yo’, send your location, an emoticon, or a song via iMessage or WhatsApp. Is it really necessary to have different single-function apps?

Well, behind all these apps there is one common motto: keep-it-simple. As Or Arbel puts it, “Why complicate things when they can be simple?” Bullington agrees, saying that the advantage of these apps comes from their simplicity “The value of apps like Yo is that users can go in and perform the task they want to perform without distraction or friction. It’s just get in, and get out”. Gray agrees: “I downloaded Yo! It didn’t stop me using anything else, but it was an amusing brief addition to the apps I already use”.

Why complicate things when they can be simple?

But it’s not just that. These apps have immediacy on their side. They respond to daily concrete needs. If I want to do one simple thing, and there’s an app that lets me do just that, then why should I go through a more complex one?

Hadjioannou poses a comparison with social networks: “We don’t all want all the features of a complex social network, but certain elements can appeal to different people. With single-function apps, users can pick and choose a social media outlet that fits who they are and how they wish to express themselves”.

Bullington goes further, saying that “the user advantage of using Lo is all in the request-respond format and the 1-tap user flow. […] The world is responding to a new phenomenon– technology as a time-waster. We’re realizing that we spend too much time attached to feature-packed apps. With a push-heavy app like Lo, you can perform actions without gluing yourself to complicated app interfaces”.

The world is responding to a new phenomenon– technology as a time-waster.

Moreover, these apps stimulate creativity by giving you new challenges, as Grey points out. “The added constraints of only being able to use emojis  in our app gives you a challenge and a prompt to be creative”.

What else can you use them for?

If I hear a song on the radio that me and my girlfriend always listen to, for example,  and I want to tell her, sending her part of the song could be worth much more than telling her about it. Asking a friend you’re meeting up with where he or she is is much simpler with Lo, and the same goes for trying to get someone’s attention with Yo! or by sending them an ‘I’m happy’ Emojli. These are the primary intended functions of these apps.

But single-function apps can actually have alternative uses too. Apart from communicating with friends and family, they allow users to “get notifications about things they either can’t get anywhere else, or have to download a whole app just to get,” says Arbel.

Yo app screenshot

On Yo’s website, you can subscribe to many different feeds that notify you with a Yo each time something happens. Earthquake Yo warns you if there is an earthquake larger than 6.0 magnitude,while RedalertIsrael warns Israelis of rocket strikes in Israel. You can also use Yo! to check if you’re drinking enough water throughout the day with Yowater, or meet happy people with HappyYo.

We believe smart people from around the world will keep create amazing use cases with Yo.

Aside from these serious uses, Yo’s own offices have a vending machine that employees can Yo! to get a soda. They even have a toaster that you can Yo! to turn on, notifying you with a Yo when toast is ready.

La-La, on the other hand, can even get you free drinks during a concert. “A band declared on stage one night that anyone who sent them a La-La message with the lyrics “Buy Me A Drink” would get one on the house”, Hadjioannou told us.

Single-function better than multi-function?

Installing and uninstalling apps on your smartphone is so quick and simple that it’s almost effortless. Storage space keeps getting bigger and bigger,  and the ‘there’s an app for that’ mentality isn’t far from the truth these days. If single-function apps really fill the gap of some need, could these apps be the standard in the future? Think of apps as big as Facebook, which has moved it’s Messenger function to a standalone apps, or Foursquare, which separated it’s glaringly different functions into two separate apps: Foursquare and Swarm.

These apps’ developers all agree on the fact that the ‘keep it simple’ philosophy works, and that there is a trend towards more simple and immediate apps, although this isn’t necessarily coming at the expense of more complex apps.

It’ll be interesting to see how they’ll integrate with wearables, where screens are smaller and the possibility to do more than one thing with an app is limited. “If I want to know how far away my brother is, but I know he’s biking over, I know I won’t get a text response while he’s riding. If he just has to tap a button on his watch or say a command to share his location, it’s safer and easier, and that’s a real value added”, says Bullington. As a matter of fact, Yo is already available for Google Glass and will soon be available on other wearable. Arbel’s idea is to make it available on all devices.

Single-function apps could be ideal for wearables

The key concept of these apps, and what their success on wearables depends on, is linked to the immediacy of push notifications. “Yo brought us the notion that apps can exist primarily within the context of push notifications, and with Lo, we’re trying to further that idea by making push notifications complete simple actions. It’s very easy to see push notifications becoming the primary hub of these one-function apps, simply because of how easy and instantaneous they are to use,” Lo’s co-founder Darshan Desai told Softonic.

It’s very easy to see push notifications becoming the primary hub of these one-function apps.

Even further, during a time where people are increasingly concerned about privacy, these apps give the advantage of being less invasive compared to more complex ones. Not only do they request (and require) fewer permissions, “they don’t hold much personal data”, Hadjioannou says.

Simplicity and minimalism could mean success

Yo can activate real things in the real world, and Lo’s developers “want to see these ideas improve the world, so that’s what we’re working towards”.

Basically, the success of these apps will depend mostly on how they’ll improve our relationship with technology, expanding its use in some cases, adapting to devices in others.

Hadjioannou has the impression that he “can digest and understand a single-task app’s full service a lot more easily and without much of a learning curve”. If hyper-semplification means accessibility and immediacy, then why shouldn’t this be a standard for apps?

Bullington forecasts that simple apps will converge with more complex ones, and it won’t take long before we’ll discover if the future will develop in this direction, or multi-function and single-task apps will continue to coexist. Only time will tell, but if Facebook and Foursqaure, Yo, La-La, and Emojli are any indication, it looks like that’s where we’re headed.

Related Articles:

Foursquare and Swarm division points to new trend for standalone apps

Why Facebook Messenger permissions aren’t unique or dangerous

Why we do (and don’t) like Facebook’s Messenger app

Follow me on Twitter @zoltan__v

Loading comments

Latest articles