The curse of too many productivity apps

Johannes Weiss
Aug 6, 2019 · 7 min read

Do you feel that despite all the productivity and communication apps, you’re getting nowhere? Read on to figure out the secret of surviving in this jungle.

There is a myriad of potential efficiency gains today: realtime text editing across the globe, daily stands via video call and encyclopaedias with infinite knowledge at your fingertips. Admittedly, this sounds like a save bet to leverage digital innovation towards higher office productivity. And a lot of app companies proclaim this achievement. But the truth is: Despite the enthusiasm that has accompanied the introduction of countless cloud productivity apps, office productivity has not improved significantly.

Our own observations — and admittedly also own pain — show that the productivity gains is not necessarily limited by the lack, but much rather by an overkill of different digital helpers. Sounds counterintuitive?

THE MEAL-PREP ANALOGY

Well, let me explain: We assume, you’re expecting friends coming over and you would like to bake some tasty muffins for dessert. Your kitchen is well equipped and you know, that all the tools you need are stored somewhere in the cupboards and on the kitchen shelves. And the same probably holds true for the ingredients you need. And on top, the access to the tools you need for the muffins is even blocked by other suppliers that you might use more often. Wouldn’t it be more efficient to have all the tool and ingredients right at your arms-length as soon as you start baking?

Let’s stick with the kitchen example for a moment and consider your workday. When preparing to serve some guests, you would probably not just try to bake muffins but also prepare couple of other dishes. This requires additional tools and actions. In a typical business day, this goes in line with answering your emails, following up on meeting minutes, delegating tasks, updating a project plan, preparing for a workshop and getting the reports ready for your boss. Sounds familiar? If not, you’re done reading. Relax and we invite you to leave a comment — it would be interesting to know, how you do it. If it sounds familiar to you, then bare with us.

Similarly as we’ve seen for the kitchen supplies, your productivity apps such as Slack, Trello, Asana, Jira, Timely, Dropbox etc. are single purpose tools, that serve only one use cases. Be it communication, file management, task management, time management, … you get the idea. This is the reason, why we have more than 100 apps on our smartphones and 27 browser tabs constantly open — on a good day, obviously.

A typical work environment

THE LAW OF DIMINISHING DIGITAL PRODUCTIVITY

Analysing this fact from an economical perspective, we end up comparing the multitude of tools with the law of diminishing marginal productivity (also called: law of diminishing returns). Ever since, economists seemed to understand that increasing one input factor, while keeping other factors stable, does not lead to a proportionally increasing level of output. Metaphorically speaking: just more tools will not help you prepare your muffins more efficiently.

Diminishing returns of single purpose tools

But looking at our workplace, the trend of the recent years shows exactly this tendency. We are attracted to use an increasing amount of tools to cover the whole range of use cases. And this is for a good reason. But it comes with hidden costs. Exactly as it is stated in the law of diminishing returns, the application of more and more tools decreases efficiency. Switching costs appear. Media breaks occur between the different standards. Searching for information becomes a pain. And keeping all the information in sync across your own tool ecosystem and also within the entire team becomes a huge challenge.

THE LAST RESTORT TO DIGITAL PRODUCTIVITY

It seems like there are two major approaches in the market to solve the gap. (1) Companies develop full-fledged productivity solutions, that cover all your use cases in one tool. And (2) single purpose tools focussing on one use case while providing 1:1 integrations to internalise some of the third-party functionalities into the own single-purpose approach.

(1.) The Full-fledged Business Operating System

The one-stop shop

You’ve seen these tools. They are called Odoo, Zoho or Bitrix24 who cover use cases such as knowledge, task and project management, team communication, time reporting and file handling in one single software suite. While there are without any doubt advantages to have all the capabilities in one tool, usage and user experience becomes bulky and rigid. And this wide range of functionalities comes with a big price tag for the company— even though employees only use a fraction of the features that is provided out of the box.

(2.) The 1:1 Integration Approach

The integration web

Providing open APIs to effortlessly sync between different single-purpose tools seems like a logical consequence to avoid the above mentioned pitfalls of business operating systems. However, try to think what will happen, from a user perspective, if you just integrate 5 cloud apps with each other. The maths will show you the amount N of integrations you need to setup and maintain. With n=5 apps, you’ll end up with a web of N=n*(n-1)=20 connections. While it is unrealistic, that you need 1:1 integrations for each possible combination of apps, it is also highly probable, that you are using more than 5 apps. It will always need high efforts to keep such an ecosystem up and running. Not to mention the inconvenience for the user to learn how a Trello card can be created from an interface that’s optimised for communication (in the case of Slack, type {/trello} by the way).

THE POWER OF A UNIFIED INTERFACE

A digital workbench

So you might ask: Is there an approach, that overcomes the downsides of (1.) and (2.) while not causing any additional pain? How would you feel, if your app environment would remain the same, while having just one clean interface to manage all the functionalities through one app?

It is obvious, that single purpose tools have their rightful existence since they cover particular use cases very well. So providing one single interface to manage all these tools — like a digital workbench — avoids switching from one tool to another, removes media breaks and offers one centralised search for all your information. This way, there is no limit to digital productivity. And considering the trend of even more specialised tools in the future, a unified interface that serves as a hub for all your productivity tools seems intriguing. It’s simple but effective.

Efficiency gains through integrations

THE MEETING USECASE

I don’t want you to leave without a proper example. Take a moment and think of the different steps, you need to take in order to prepare, run and process proper meetings. This will probably look something like this.

  1. Idea: You hand an idea, that you need to discuss with your coworkers, boss, client, etc.
  2. Invitation: You search or ask for a suitable time and send an invitation
  3. Meeting preparation: You set a clear meeting objective and also a proper agenda (we hope you do!)
  4. Meeting: During the actual meeting, you (and other participants) take notes
  5. Processing: No meeting without actionable outcome. You process the minutes, summarise decisions, outline and delegate tasks
  6. Follow-up: You track, if actions are being taken and if decisions get implemented

Thinking about this sequence of activities, write down the apps you need for each step along the process. If it’s less than four tool, think harder! It is actually quite disconcerting how many tools and interactions are needed to cover a simple use case such as meetings. And if you really want to know how much time you and your team spend with meetings in an average year, check out this calculator.

So wouldn’t it be just beautiful to bring this effort down to one single app? With Conode (www.conode.io) you can. The graphics below show how the process compares for a fractured and a streamlined app environment. Our investigations actually show, that organisations can save up to 240h each year and tons of frustration, if they streamline their digital workplace.

Comparing traditional tool setup with streamlined integration

SUMMARY

Let us close this journey with another reference to the law of diminishing rate of returns. While we’ve seen, that the nominal amount of tools decreases productivity due to an increasing complexity, you can achieve great returns and productivity through orchestrating your apps and a simple and flexible user interface.

Efficiency through streamlined integrations

With Conode, we are exploring ways to improve your productivity while reducing hassle and efforts. Help us to make this a success full journey, signup on www.conode.io, provide feedback and let us know what feature would make your days more successful.

Johannes Weiss

Written by

Entrepreneuer, Management Consultant, Innovator, Productivist, Conode, Chessimo.

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