In the first half of the 20th century, enjoying a good steak was a true labor of love. The common table knife required frequent sharpening and polishing to be able to slice through a tough cut of meat. But shortly after World War I came the introduction of stainless steel. This breakthrough metal meant knives didn’t require polishing.
After World War II, another manufacturing innovation led to the first specialized steak knives with serrated blades that rarely required sharpening. And in the 1950s, steak knife version 2.0 was born after a new heat treatment made stainless steel even more durable.
From the very beginning, the steak knife was focused on doing only one job particularly well: cutting steak. In many ways, it represents just the kind of focused, iterative development that Steve Blank and Eric Ries have popularized in the Lean Startup movement. The steak knife MVP had the breakthrough (focused) feature of serrated blades. After the hypothesis was proven true there was consumer demand for this single-purpose knife, iterations followed with a heat-treated version that never became dull, and later other forms to suit individual preferences.
Of course, these iterations took place over the course of decades – but even in the hyper-evolving mobile industry, there’s a lot that can be learned from the evolution of the steak knife. Apps must be focused like steak knives, and not function like Swiss Army knives.
Master one task at a time
Like many tools, there is a fine line between being functional and doing too much. The Swiss Army knife can potentially cut materials, open cans or bottles, slice through veggies or meat, and help you fix different things in a pinch. But it doesn’t do any of its intended jobs particularly well. It can be convenient, which is why I use it once a year when I go camping. But because it’s not perfectly suited for any task, for much of the year it sits unused in my camping bin.
If your app tries to do too much, like a Swiss Army knife, you risk diluting the app experience and alienating users. As mobile app capabilities increase and consumer expectations rise, the idea of navigating complicated menus to complete a task becomes less and less appealing. And with 80 to 90 percent of all downloaded apps being deleted after only being used once, developers have to get it right the first time.
Delivering a steak knife mobile app is all about focus and developing the right tool for its one and only task. Pick your app’s single purpose for existence, determine the two or three use cases your app is going to do better than any others, and then nail it perfectly. That’s what makes an app successful and keeps users engaged.
Simplicity is the backbone
Consider Google Maps. It isn’t purely successful because of its affiliation with Google. It became popular because it had one purpose to begin with – to give users accurate maps. And it did that better than any previously existing mapping app. It wasn’t until it acquired a strong user base that it incorporated real-time traffic and later, turn-by-turn navigation. Slowly but surely new features are added – but only after the primary purpose was perfected.
Another great example is MyRadar. This no-frills mobile app displays a colorful animated weather radar around your current location, allowing you to quickly see what weather is coming your way and giving you an intuitive sense of what’s about to happen. If you are heading out the door to run errands, you don’t need to know the 10-day forecast to decide if you should bring your umbrella with you, nor do you have time to sift through various ads before getting your expected forecast. All you need is for the app to show you exactly what type of weather is approaching your specific location, in real-time, for it to fulfill its purpose. Because MyRadar does this one job extremely well, it has achieved over 17 million downloads.
Less is more
In the mobile app industry, companies are beginning to adopt this development style. Industry giants are moving away from monolithic do-it-all apps – Swiss Army knives – and building more single-purpose, lightweight and streamlined apps – steak knives.
Further exemplifying that this trend is here to stay is the fact that Facebook spun out Messenger into its own app, making it the company’s eighth separate app in the app store. LinkedIn also currently has six apps and Foursquare now has two.
The message: Do less and do it better. Build a steak knife, not a Swiss Army knife.