Focus on the Primary Task

This post, Focus on the Primary Task, is the first in a series of posts that was inspired by the Table of Contents in Apple’s iOS Human Interface Guidelines. I’m intending to write a post about each heading, expanding on what Apple discusses and how it relates to the general process of mobile application development.

it comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much … it’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.

Steve jobs, “The Seed of Apple’s Innovation” in BusinessWeek (12 October 2004)

There’s a mantra in mobile apps that says you will succeed if you do one thing and do it extremely well. The best mobile apps, those that are most popular, most satisfying and most enjoyable all pick one thing, a method, a behaviour, a feature, an idea, and execute it perfectly. They allow you to achieve your goal so well you’re dumfounded that it could be that easy, or that no-one had thought of it before. Being focused, doesn’t mean the app has to be simple like the Drafts note taking app or the Clear task manager. An app such as Instapaper, Camera+, Path or even Angry Birds can have lots of features, screens and doo-dads but each addition is focused to support and contribute to the app’s overall focus.

To help guide and focus your app you need to clearly define its purpose and audience. Apple’s iOS Human Interface Guidelines call this the Application Definition Statement, “a concise, concrete declaration of an app’s main purpose and its intended audience.”

The primary goal of the application definition statement it to enable you to say NO whenever possible. Does this screen really support the focus of the app? NO. Is this feature actually useful to the majority of the audience? NO.

To create your statement just follow these few steps:

  1. Go crazy and brainstorm a list of every conceivable feature you think could be in your app. Make each point brief but make this list long. Write down anything and everything you can possibly think of. The more the better.
  2. Decide who your primary users will be. Skip the obvious mobile user cliches such as “they’ll be mobile” or “they want it to be simple”. What you’re trying to define here is what distinguishes your users from everyone else. What things are important for users when they use your app? Write down the top three to five things.
  3. Now start crossing features off your list that don’t jive with your audience. Some of the features will be easy to cross off but you’ll find many that seem to be useful so you’ll have to make some tough decisions. Regardless, keep saying no, and then say no again. Keep going until you’re left with only a few items.

What’s left are your core focus, your most important ideas. These ideas will sell the app and make it awesome. Every decision, behaviour, element, control, screen, interaction, and word on the screen will focus on doing these few items and doing them exceptionally well. Do that and your app will rock.

When your app evolves or the audience changes, you can always return to your application definition statement and refine the focus of your app. If it changes too frequently it’s a sign you’re not focused enough. Also, if–and when–it does change, don’t be afraid to remove an existing feature that no longer makes sense.