In a different year, this piece could be titled “You Don’t Need A Website”, or “You Don’t Need A Bot”. In the near future I’ll probably refer to this same piece to talk about virtual reality or the cryptocurrency. I started writing this in 2016; at the time I was working with some small businesses who kept coming back to app ideas, which is how it earned its current title. You don’t need an app.
In 2010 I started working as a web designer for what was then a small, local web development company near Portland, OR. At that time the team was all programmers except me, which meant that–due to reading a few Smashing Magazine articles–I was the “design expert”. There were many disadvantages to this, but one of the upsides meant that I became involved very early in the sales process.
There was a lot to learn in these early meetings. I came in midway through the web app frenzy. Almost everyone who came through the door wanted to build the next Facebook. Everyone wanted to build a web app, and every person we met with was certain that their particular idea could change the world, be it a blogging platform for families or a dating site with music.
Unfortunately for many of these people, web applications don’t sell themselves. Technology may be the wave of the future, but once it’s in the present it functions according to the laws of economics and the mechanics of social sharing. After a few large projects crashed and burned, we became cautious of endorsing ideas. The drive to create was a strong one, though, and many insisted despite our apprehensions and warnings.
Fast-forward to today. The focus has changed, but the assumption remains just as faulty as ever. In meetings, phone calls, and emails multiple times a week, I hear–from dreamers, wantrepreneurs, and even conventional business owners–a starry-eyed wonder at the mystery of technology. These people see mobile apps as the secret sauce: that elusive recipe for success that will change everything for them.
If that description perks your ears, this post is for you. You don’t need an app. Most of you are looking for one of four things, and–for the vast majority of you–an app is probably one of the least effective ways to get it. Let’s talk about what you’re actually asking for: Innovation, Process, Communication, and Scalability.
In the early days of both the web app craze and the mobile app craze, this was the overwhelming logic behind every new request. There were no more details: you didn’t need them. Apps were the future, and that was all there was to it. Like the idealized versions of inventors from the 19th century, no one expected there to be rules to how innovation worked. It was innovation; it defied the rules. “Build it and they will come”, they said.
In actuality, there are rules for what makes a successful app. The market decides whose ideas are innovative and whose are worthless, and the market is not kind. For the first thousand app creators, the app itself was innovation. Now, it’s commonplace. It’s not enough to have a cookbook app or birdwatching app or monster truck racing app. We already have those. What valuable thing are you doing in a way no one else has done? That is innovation. You don’t need an app for that.
Once the initial app fervor had faded a bit, people started realizing that you needed to build something useful. Processes and systems were the key. Businesses were a mess, but a web application would change all that. Now we’d have a place for everything, and everything in it’s place.
In reality, while applications may force systems development, the advantage of well-tuned systems and processes has existed for centuries. With few exceptions, process is not a technology problem. You can build a process on the back of a napkin or on a whiteboard in the office. You don’t need an app for that.
The bond of human connection is strong, and communication may well be our biggest advantage as a species. Historically, the introduction of new technology has enabled entirely new forms of communication. It’s undeniable that apps have enabled another significant shift in how we communicate.
However, communication is not restricted to technology, and properly adapting technology to foster communication is a difficult nut to crack. Communicating better requires thought, planning, empathy, common ground. You don’t need an app for that.
Building a business that scales well has always been incredibly difficult. Technology has normally had an advantage in this respect: it reduces the cost of money or time to create or provide goods and services.
For most businesses, problems of scale encompass much more than a single technology can provide. How will you handle the increased workload? How will you maintain quality? Who will respond to customer questions? What will happen if something changes unexpectedly? You need experience, expertise, a willing market and a whole lot of luck. You don’t need an app for that.
There is a place for technology in our lives. The when and where is still up for debate, but one thing is clear: technology is not your savior. You’re not facing new problems. These same core challenges have plagued businesses and organizations for centuries, and for centuries we’ve found ways to overcome them. For now, focus on simple, effective and immediate solutions. You don’t need an app for that.