One app vs. multiple apps: what can we learn from Facebook Messenger?

Jean-Francois Hector
By Jean-Francois Hector under Insights 01 August 2014

Facebook is making a bold and controversial move this week.

Now, if you want to chat with your friends on your phone, you’ll have to use Facebook’s separate Messenger app. After being prompted to download Messenger a few times, users will then simply be unable to send messages on the main Facebook app.

Facebook’s rationale is that they’re seeing users respond to messages 20% faster on Messenger than on the main app. That’s good for them, obviously. But, is it good for users – forcing millions to transition to a different app? Is it crazy? Is it smart?

Well, it’s certainly interesting. Especially at a time when here at The App Business, a lot of our clients ask us whether they should put all their features into one app, or spread them across multiple apps. And with that in mind, it’s worth asking: what can we learn from Facebook’s move.

Well, firstly, it doesn’t mean that multiple apps are always better but clearly, for certain key interactions, creating a separate, simpler, more focused app can be worth it. The topic of this blog post, and the key question is, how do we decide?

It’s not easy. From our point of view, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer but it helps to look at the question through the lens of behaviour-driven design. So I’d say it depends on:

1. The behaviour you want users to perform

2. The situation and mindset they’re likely to be in when we want them to do it.

1. Behaviour

The behaviour we’re dealing with here in the Facebook example is sending and answering short messages. This behaviour needs to be so easy and quick that people will do it immediately, on impulse. It needs to be quicker and easier to answer the message – right now – than it is painful to put off answering it.

There’s a simple way to think about this. For a behaviour to happen, this equation needs to be true:

The time and effort of doing the behaviour right now

must be less than

The pain you feel right now by putting it off

For example, I’m pretty good at answering short, private messages instantly (e.g. SMS, Snapchat). My pain points are that I’m not so good with long email or letters (requiring time, and mental effort); tweets (so much pressure to sound smart), or Linkedin messages (the pain of needing to log in, and those slow web views).

This little equation is really useful. It helps us understand just how easy and instantaneous we need to make a behaviour if we want it to happen. And of course it’s not just about making the UI simple: it’s about making the whole behaviour quick and easy.

So whether we should recommend a separate, quicker and simpler app – or not – really depends on the behaviour we want people to do. If you’re talking about a behaviour that needs to be as impulsive as sending and answering messages, then you might have a strong case.

2. Situation and mindset

And of course, it’s no use thinking about a behaviour if we don’t think about it in context.

What situation and mindset are people likely to be in, when you want them to perform the behaviour? Are they in a lean-forward, ‘getting stuff done’ mindset, or in a more relaxed, lean-back mindset? Are they quickly looking for directions or answering a message while on the go, or playing with their tablet while watching TV at home?

This is why designing for smartphones is often very different from designing for tablets.

It’s not just about what features to offer on each device, but also about rethinking the interactions around these same features so that they fit the situations and mindsets people are likely to be in when using each device.

This is probably why Facebook is using a different strategy on tablets than it does on smartphones: tablet users will still be able to send and receive messages through the main Facebook app.

So if you’re trying to decide whether to create a separate, simpler, more focused app for a key feature, it really helps to think about it in terms of the user’s behaviour rather than just a feature, and to think about that behaviour in context.

But of course there are plenty of other considerations. Here are a few that came up as we were debating this around TAB HQ today:

The most important thing is probably to organise your apps and features around a very simple, very intuitive mental model. If people have to think, they won’t use the features you’ve spent so much effort building.

The story that you want people to remember about your app needs to be incredibly simple, too. Foursquare is learning this the hard way. I suspect that their recent decision to move the ‘check-in’ feature to a separate app was about simplifying their positioning rather than simplifying any behaviour.

One of the reasons Facebook is trying so hard to ‘unbundle’ is to stay relevant the growing number of people who don’t want to do the whole social network thing any more, but still want a convenient way to message their friends.

If users need to do the same behaviours differently on different devices and platforms, how do you keep their mental model of your apps simple?

Facebook is buying Whatsapp, and although it’s taking a while, they’re obviously thinking about their portfolio of mobile products as a whole.

Overall, thinking about what we can learn from other companies’ product decisions is a useful exercise. But hey, let’s not try and read too much into Facebook’s move. For all we know, they might just be messing about to see if people get upset. Maybe it’s some sort of social experiment or something. Oh, wait a minute…