Do One Thing Well: The Focus Philosophy

posted by bretton on January 9, 2012

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My intention is for this to be a companion piece to Luke Wroblewski’s excellent writeup: “Mobile First Helps with Big Issues“. If you haven’t read it yet, I suggest you do so. I’ll wait here.

Luke’s article was mainly about focus in the context of screen real-estate; since mobile screens are so much smaller than desktop screens, mobile apps are forced to focus in ways desktop & web apps are not. I’d like to address the focus issue within the context of mobile apps, using three examples.

Example 1: Stock iOS Apps

Five years ago Apple announced the first iPhone, and with its stock applications made a quiet statement to the philosophy of doing one thing well. Functions that could have easily been bundled into one application were split into two or more standalone apps. Messages, Phone, and Contacts could have been bundled, but they were subdivided. Same goes for iTunes & Music, Photos & Camera, Maps & Compass (and now Find Friends), Notes & Voice Memos (and now Reminders), and YouTube & Videos. In providing these apps separately, Apple was giving developers a subtle hint about best practices for mobile applications. iPhones (like all smartphones) are largely used on the go, so people need immediate and easy access to what they’re looking for without all the navigation typical of web or desktop apps.

While it’s certainly possible to navigate the web from an iPhone, for most people that’s a last resort for cases where they don’t have an existing app solution. Even within the context of the web, there’s a huge ongoing push toward mobile-optimized sites with improved focus and larger controls for better touchscreen navigation. Instead of making people browse to, Apple provided a YouTube app to ease that friction and provide a better mobile experience.

Example 2: Oink

Oink is the first app from founder Kevin Rose’s new company, Milk. It’s an app that lets you rate things. Despite its pedigree and beautiful interface, after two months it appears that the only people using it are Oink employees. Why? Because it lacks focus. Despite being designed mobile first, Oink makes no distinction of which things in the world can be rated.

My Oink feed is a complete hodge-podge ranging from the overly specific (“my cat’s whiskers”) to the uselessly abstract (“trains!”). Oink is an interesting case study because of Kevin Rose’s previous venture. Digg is also based around the idea of ratings, except in that case there’s a focus on websites which made the service much more useful.

Oink could have real potential if it took a cue from its own name and focused on food. Food seems to be the most popular category of things being rated, but it loses value because of the noise generated by all the other random items, places, and concepts mixed in. If Oink pivoted to become THE destination for location-based food ratings, it could flourish. While apps like Yelp and Urban Spoon have focused on finding restaurants, Oink could out-niche them by focusing on specific dishes (as rated by friends as well as the general public).

Example 3: Path

On the other end of the spectrum is an app that has really taken off since its recent relaunch. At first glance, Path seems to violate the principle of “do one thing well”. You can post pictures, status updates, locations, music, people you’re with, and even when you wake up and go to sleep. But technically it’s still just doing one thing: sharing with friends. Despite the hundreds (thousands?) of other services that can be used for sharing, Path has taken off because its well-designed interface provides a better sharing experience than any others.

In addition, unlike other social networks Path has a 150 friend limit. This isn’t arbitrary – it’s Dunbar’s Number, which Wikipedia defines as “a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships”. As anyone who’s been on Facebook or Twitter for a few years can attest, social networks typically become less useful over time as you add more and more people. By imposing a manageable limit, Path forces you to decide who your real friends are, further enforcing its place as “The smart journal that helps you share life with the ones you love”.

Old Concepts Reinforced in New Ways

The idea of doing one thing well certainly isn’t new, and obviously isn’t limited to mobile apps. There of plenty of other products and services (both real and virtual) which have succeeded by this principle. The reason it’s such an ongoing issue in the world of software is because of the near-infinite possibilities compared to the physical world. Software has always had a need for focus and restraint – poorly focused apps are just more easily “exposed” on a mobile platform because of the combination of small screens and fat fingertips. These constraints are a blessing: they force you to make the hard decisions required to focus your product. This goes far beyond “making it all fit” – it’s a never-ending challenge that requires an incredible amount of diligence and effort. Doing one thing right means saying no to everything else – which is a lot harder than saying yes!


  • Small screens + large fingertips = enforced focus
  • Searching the web is like rummaging around a junk draw looking for a screwdriver. Having “an app for that” is like reaching right for it on your toolbelt
  • When Apple does something in a particular way, they’re subtly telling us to follow that standard
  • No matter what you’re working on, always return to the question of what specific problem you’re solving
  • No matter how crowded the space, it’s always possible to out-niche and out-do the competition