One Size Mobile Software Does Not Fit All

One size fits all, one of the biggest lies ever told in clothing retail, is a principle now being challenged in large scale software design for mobile.

On November 18th of this year, Facebook previewed Facebook Groups, taking yet another step toward disassembling the behemoth that Facebook for mobile has become. This single-purpose app “gives you a dedicated space for you and your groups.” Teasing itself away from the general Facebook mobile app, Facebook Groups allows the user to curate her memberships, communicate with fellow group members, and discover new groups to join, all in a single-purpose environment optimized for ease and quality user experience.

Facebook released Paper earlier this year, a mobile app that functions as a standalone alternative to the original Facebook for mobile. It is a beautiful retooling of the core Facebook concept as a sleek newspaper metaphor. I had removed Facebook’s mobile app from my smartphone homescreen months prior to the release of Paper. I found the app unpleasant, intrusive, and cluttered. At that time, my appreciation for the Facebook brand overall was waning after multiple Facebookpocalypse incidents of being tricked or forced into new versions of Facebook that were increasingly convoluted and beginning to feel oppressively feature-heavy. In contrast to the previous iterations of Facebook, Paper was introduced relatively quietly and made available to anyone who was interested in giving it a whirl. Released as a sideshow, Paper steals the show, but this might be the point.

Paper was part of the intra-Facebook initiative, Creative Labs, whose mission it is to experiment with and improve the Facebook experience. It is kept small relative to the Facebook giant, unshackling it from the unwieldiness of operating at scale. Creative Labs is able to play, and get back to upholding the company’s mantra,“Move fast and break things”. With Creative Labs, Zuckerberg wanted to explore the idea of unbundling Facebook’s core features and outfitting them as unique apps with more fine-tuned and focused purpose. Creative Labs works on testing alternative development of particular aspects of Facebook and releasing them as separate but integrative companions to the core experience. In this way, user experience and interface might be more aptly designed to the particular tasks handled by the particular app.

Facebook’s messenger app, long since unbundled, is also representative of this paradigm. Earlier this month, Mark Zuckerberg addressed the long officially unanswered question as to why the Facebook community was asked to engage in Facebook Messenger as a standalone app. “We wanted to do this because we believe that this is a better experience,” Zuckerberg explains. “Messaging is becoming increasingly important. On mobile, each app can only focus on doing one thing well, we think… Messaging was this behavior people were doing more and more… but in order to get to it you had to wait for the app to load and go to a separate tab… Having to go into an app and take a bunch of steps to get to messaging is a lot of friction.” Paper, it seems, is the optimization of the core Facebook concept — a place to connect with friends, share our experiences, and get news via an app specially designed for that particular user journey.

Paper might be the distillation of Facebook’s core purpose, and the star around which the rest of Facebook’s single-feature apps will orbit. If taken to the next logical step, the unbundling of Facebook’s features could create a kind of buffet table of applications from which each user might design her own user experience according to her needs and preferences. Assuming humans don’t suddenly evolve out of their social needs, Paper will likely be present in everyone’s repertoire of Facebook mobile products. However, the personalization of the collection of Facebook products present on any one user’s phone will do away with the frustrating, clumsy, and mass-produced feel of the all-inclusive model.

Focusing on single-purpose applications allows for the crafting of a more effective and intuitive user interaction, and emphasizes the integration of the app with the user, rather than the attempted integration of the user into the app. Instead of being made to conform to the structure of a heavy application, the application and the user engage in a more seamless relationship in which the user is supported and enhanced. Additionally, giving the user a more active role in designing her experience as a consumer of software engenders agency, accompanying which come feelings of ownership and connectedness to the products, as well as the overall brand. Instead of feeling like just another brick in the wall, clumsily bullied into acceptance of a one-size-for-all mobile experience, the user is not only able to optimize her experience to suit her needs, she is also able to maintain her identity and feel at home on her own home screen.