The 2010’s were dominated by people trying to make large-scale platform apps. Primarily inspired by the success of Facebook and similar platforms, this was a zero-interest rate phenomenon. We’re now going to see the pendulum swing back towards sustainable indie development – small teams making high quality apps solving niche problems with a simple business model.
Some iOS apps that have been in the news cycle recently:
Flighty is an exquisitely designed flight tracker. It doesn’t sync your boarding pass, track your airline points, manage hotel reservations, or anything else. It only tracks your flights, executes that goal perfectly, and charges you directly for the experience.
Bear is a nicer notes app. It arguably doesn’t do anything the built-in Apple Notes app can’t do, and in fact it does a lot less (no collaborative features, for example). But the things it does do just feel nicer. The typography is nicer, the tagging is nicer, the search is nicer. And for this nicer experience, Bear charges you a subscription directly.
Callsheet lets you find information about the shows and movies you’re watching. It’s a nicer designed and very fast alternative to IMDB, and if it improves your life, you can subscribe.
Catchup is a very simple app to remember who you need to, uh, catch up with. That’s it. Everything it does is on the tin. Want to use it? Great, guess what? You can pay $8 directly to the developer!
Startups can’t grow with free money and hope to figure out monetization later anymore. That means we are going to keep seeing more apps that charge users directly and upfront for value provided. Sure, this will eventually lead to a consumer backlash against all the recurring subscriptions but ultimately this means we’ll all only use apps that actually improve our lives and resonate with us, rather than pages and pages of free apps that are mining our data or abusing our attention in misguided attempts towards hyper growth.
However, in a world where users pay for your apps directly, you have to make higher quality apps that people love, not just tolerate. A fundamental rule of design is that you can’t make something that everyone loves, so you need to carefully pick your target market and design the perfect experience for that group.
How do you pick a niche? Well first we need to take a detour and talk about how people accomplish their goals.
In psychology, it’s believed there are 3 dimensions of the brain: cognitive (how you think), affective (how you feel), and conative (how you work) that all blend together to determine what we’ll do and how. By picking a particular problem space, you’re already filtering down to people who have the same problem (cognitive) and, equally important, care to solve it (affective). However, we rarely talk about how those people solve that problem (conative) as a market niche.
The Kolbe framework describes 4 conative styles that we all posses at varying degrees: Fact finder (do you prefer to research and collect as much data as possible when solving a problem?), follow-through (do you prefer to build a structure around the problem and execute it systematically?), quickstart (do you prefer to brainstorm new solutions?), and implementer (do you prefer to tinker and try things?). Please excuse the names, this framework is from the 80’s, but it still holds up surprisingly well. Fortunately these styles can actually be quantitatively measured and analyzed with a simple test1, which lets us know exactly which style(s) drives us the most. If your actions are conatively aligned, you will be much happier. If not, you’re going to burn a lot of willpower and energy trying to force yourself to work in an inauthentic way.
These conative styles fundamentally measure how we accomplish goals and instinctively behave when solving problems. This is important because your product will only appeal to 1-2 of these styles at most (the worst case scenario is it appeals to none because you tried to design for everyone). Most likely, certain people will love your solution and others won’t get it. This is to be expected.
From the list of new apps I mentioned above, if you found yourself laughing at any of them as silly or unnecessary, you probably aren’t the target conative and/or cognitive group. For example, Flighty is designed for high fact finders who love to travel and want to know everything about their flights. If that’s not you, this feels redundant over what your calendar already tells you. Callsheet is also designed for high fact finders who want to know everything about a movie or show. Again, this is redundant over what your TV probably already tells you too if you don’t care about all the details.
On the other hand, Catchup is built for high quickstart, low follow-through combos. It’s useful for people who want to talk but are terrible at remembering to reach out to people consistently enough to maintain a relationship. If that’s not you, you will never pay for an app that reminds you to text someone. I know people who laughed when it launched, but my high quickstart, low follow-through friend immediately saw the value.
I used to wonder why people loved apps like Notion and AirTable so much. Well it’s because these appeal to the high follow-throughs among us who love to organize and structure their thoughts. I much prefer Bear’s minimalist approach. And that’s fine! I’m Bear’s ideal target market, but not Notion’s, even though they solve similar cognitive problems.
You’ve probably heard the startup adage “solve a problem you have.” This addresses the cognitive angle (focus on what you know instead of imagining a problem), but I’ll add “solve a problem you have how you wish it could be solved.” In other words, build for how you naturally want to solve that problem (aka your conative profile), not how you imagine others would solve it, because you understand your own instincts the best. Trust me, it’s nearly impossible to imagine how people with different conative instincts will approach the same problem, let alone make a successful product that resonates with their approach.
Whenever you think about your product’s target user, also ask what is your product’s target conative profile?
Keep in mind that most societies are optimized for high follow-through, low quickstart combos, so if that’s not you, it may feel like your solution won’t have a large audience. Fortunately, studies show that each of the 4 conative traits follow a normal (Gaussian) distribution, even if every culture socializes us to behave in its preferred way on the surface. That means that if you solve a big problem in the way that you wish it could be done, it will almost certainly resonate with a lot of other people too.
This also tells us that user research is most effective when you can filter your participant group or contextualize your results based on both cognitive and conative profiles. Just like you wouldn’t ask for feedback on a flight tracking app from someone who never flies, don’t rely too heavily on feedback for your high fact finder app from someone who doesn’t instinctively crave more data. Otherwise you’ll get lots of confusing results and no clear direction. You might’ve heard stories about visionary founders who ignored the user research and went with their gut despite what the data said… well they were actually just building for themselves.
In a world where you can’t rely on products to grow just because they are free, we’ll see more products that (consciously or unconsciously) build for very specific types of people, both cognitively and conatively. This is going to be an excellent time to enjoy highly specialized and quality products that feel bespoke, especially compared to the output of the last decade.
If you’re curious about your own Kolbe scores, you can take the Kolbe-A test here. Unfortunately Kolbe the company is much harder to praise than Kolbe the framework. Be warned, the website is frustratingly bad and the test does cost $55 to get your results, but I do think it’s worth it despite its flaws. ↩