Essays on Technology and Culture

Cognitive Overload and The Great Unbundling

“Unbundling” is the buzz word du jour for apps. A service or product with multiple functions splits out those functions into their own apps. High profile examples include Foursquare spinning out their check-in service into an app called Swarm, Facebook decoupling their messaging app, Google breaking up Google Docs on iOS, and Apple spinning off their Podcasts app. Publishers are doing something similar, launching apps that focus on niche topics, or just quick dose reading experiences. Unbundling isn’t just occurring in monolithic apps and services. Upstarts launching minimal single-purpose apps are “unbundling” as well. It’s enough of a trend that VC Mark Andreesen considers the ultra-minimal messaging app Yo to be the next step.

I’m not going to harp on Yo, except to point out that Yo is ambiguous enough that content and context will need to be bundled back in by its users. Otherwise, the future of Yo-style messaging looks pretty bleak. Though a joke, the previous link illustrates a big problem with The Great Unbundling, that of cognitive overload. Simplicity only works to a point. To stay with messaging, decoupling a message from its content introduces a lot of ambiguity. The closest example is the infamous Facebook “Poke.” Ostensibly designed to signal a friend that hasn’t updated their status in a while, its actual purpose was ambiguous enough that users created one: to solicit sex. If Yo is the first in a wave of content and context-free “messaging,” others will follow suit. Imagine a world where if you send a “Sup” instead of a “Yo” to an acquaintance or co-worker, it ends up misconstrued as a come-on, or something illicit. You’ll be begging to bundle content again.

There’s also the problem of proliferation. My iPhone home screen only holds 20 apps, while each page in Android’s app drawer holds about the same, depending on implementation. A user has to search, scroll, and remember which new app does the one thing that they used to do in the other app that doesn’t. Ordinary users learn how to use technology with a task-based mindset. Change one thing: add a step, move an icon, and they have to relearn the task all over again. One advantage of smart phone and tablet UIs is that they lend themselves well to fast task-based learning. It will still mess someone up to drop a change like splitting app functionality. Aaron Walter of MailChimp makes a point in a great essay on app unbundling:

Customers who use unbundled app suites may find jumping between apps tedious. It adds extra seconds to a workflow, which isn’t appreciated in the short sessions so common to mobile devices.

People will, of course, muddle through as they always do. But, if unbundling doesn’t benefit the end-user, who does it benefit? App makers benefit from new downloads, and new avenues to collect data and serve ads. It’s good for juicing stagnant numbers, too. No wonder Mark Andreessen is a fan. Unbundling works best for people when it offers a net benefit to the user. Andreessen talks about how Google unbundled search, but in doing so it provided a better search. Facebook unbundled finding people from Google, but still provided a compelling place for people to go to. The new unbundled apps can offer an easier way to do the same old thing, but not all do. This is why the emphasis on unbundling makes me skeptical. I figure one day the novelty will wear off, the numbers will be juiced as much as possible, and the Swarms and Yos of The Great Unbundling will looked on as a failed experiment. If I’m proven wrong, I’ll be chagrinned, but the world will keep spinning.