I’ve used “opinionated” to characterize a few iOS apps as of late and I’ve been told to define the term. Despite accusations, my definition of “opinionated software” is neither arbitrary or an invention.

First, opinionated software is polarizing. Opinionated design is specialized for a specific taste and a specific market.[1] Some people may love opinionated apps while others may hate them.

And that’s by design. Development for the interests of a mass market is extremely difficult — there are thousands of apps that perform the same function and there are millions of people with different tastes. Maneuvering an app in such a saturated market leads to extremely difficult design choices. Mike Rundle discusses a few of these design questions in his 2010 article addressing settings and opinionated software:

If there’s a choice between setting a value to A or B, and you always choose A, why not just make A the main, unsettable, unchangeable choice? If you think A is the best decision, why even let people choose B? Well, in App Store land, people like to whine about B. They’ll post 1-star reviews asking when B will exist and say that they’ll bump it up to a 5-star review when B is implemented. Others will see that review and ask about C, or D, because they think those are equally important.

A simpler product with smarter settings won’t appeal to everyone, but it will satisfy a specific group within that market. If done properly, it may be widely popular.

Second, opinionated software has vision. 37Signals (now Basecamp) wrote a fantastic article a few years ago outlining why they believe opinionated design choices are the best approach:

The best software has a vision. The best software takes sides. When someone uses software, they’re not just looking for features, they’re looking for an approach. They’re looking for a vision. Decide what your vision is and run with it.

And remember, if they don’t like your vision there are plenty of other visions out there for people. Don’t go chasing people you’ll never make happy.

Products with a vision have a soul. They have a backbone. They don’t easily change their shape and morph into a different product for each user. As 37Signals correctly stated, not everyone will appreciate opinionated design choices.

Third, opinionated software adheres to a vision of doing one thing — or a small, refined set of things — great. Opinionated software is rarely a jack-of-all-trades. Opinionated software tries to fulfill one specific purpose and goes to extreme lengths to do so. It may force its user to complete that task in a specific way or in a specific process, but that one specific task will be completed in an efficient — and potentially delightful — manner.

This third characteristic of opinionated software disregards the number of settings or preferences found in an app. One purpose can be completed with or without preferences and customization. I think this is important — a user can customize aspects of how a task is completed within an opinionated app, but the utility of that app never extends beyond the scope of its single purpose.

Opinionated software does not always equate to good software. Sometimes, a developer’s opinion and design choices are not right. Sometimes an opinionated app polarizes its target market so drastically that a majority of users don’t like the app. And finally, opinionated software can have a skewed vision that doesn’t correctly apply to its core purpose.

This is why opinionated software is so hard to get right. Just look at the outcry on many of Writer Pro’s design choices.

There are a few examples of apps which can claim both opinionated design and popular success. There are also a few examples of apps that have incredible success and are not opinionated in design.

I love RSS apps and I’ve always been a fan of Reeder. I would hardly claim Reeder to be opinionated; it allows for customized readability and customized sharing, putting a user in control of the experience. Reeder isn’t a polarizing app, at least in comparison to other polarizing apps. And, although arguably, I believe Reeder is a jack-of-all-RSS-trades — RSS management features, readability features, sharing features and gesture-control features work to create a great experience for many different purposes.[2]

In contrast, the recently released Unread RSS app is opinionated software done well. Unread focuses on the reading experience above all else. Feed summaries are lengthy, forcing users to trim their list of feeds down to a manageable amount. Fonts can’t be changed and sharing features are hidden inside an extra menu. Unread obviously strives for an enjoyable reading experience that can be operated via gestures with one hand. When compared to Reeder, Unread’s feature list and capability is lacking. But for many users, the improved reading experience makes Unread a great choice.[3]

A second example can be found when comparing iA’s Writer Pro and Byword. Writer Pro has no font choices beyond the default custom fonts and there are no power-user customization settings to be found. Writer Pro’s opinionated design envisions the workflow behind the writing process; Note, Write, Edit and Read all have their own modules which attempt to push a writer through a predetermined process. Writer Pro, as is evident by its design choices, wants to be the only app a writer uses to complete their work.[4]

Byword has some opinion of its own, but not to the extent of Writer Pro. Byword has font choices, font size settings, article width settings and sharing features. These settings make Byword easy to fit into a workflow with other apps and it has become my writing app of choice. I like to call Byword a “malleable app”: Byword can be used for many different tasks and can be used in just about any context. Some — in fact, most — people choose Byword over any other OS X text editor, but it still isn’t for everyone.

Lastly, and most importantly, I want to address the comparison of Instapaper and Pocket I wrote recently. The more I researched opinionated design and its characteristics, the more I’m sure Instapaper is opinionated software. Instapaper’s vision is more clear than any app I use on a normal basis. It makes every possible design choice to allow the reader the best possible reading experience. Instapaper sheds great support for video and photos and instead focuses on typography and readability. For a read-it-later service, I believe these design choices are why Instapaper is so popular.

I just don’t feel Pocket’s settings and features give any credence to characterizing it as opinionated software. Yes, Pocket has eliminated many readability choices like specific font selections and article width settings, but its default settings don’t lend it a better reading experience. And one of Pocket’s best features is its ability to decide whether to present a webview or a text-only view. Why not make a better text-only view and offer only one option for users? Pocket doesn’t know what it wants to be: a Pinboard-like competitor or a readable read-it-later service.[5] This lack of vision automatically renders it unopinionated, at least in relation to Instapaper.

So, to answer the question I was faced with after my Why Instapaper? post, I have three answers. First, opinionated software is polarizing. Second, opinionated software has vision. Third, opinionated software fulfills a specific purpose.

I don’t believe opinionated software is the golden answer to business sustainability in the App Store. Some opinionated apps suck, plain and simple. Some types of tasks can’t be completed using opinionated, setting-less, feature-less software. Other types of tasks are meant for opinionated software.

My favourite apps end up being on both sides of the coin and I’m sure other people find themselves indifferent on this topic. In the end, an app’s design approach isn’t what makes an app successful — an app’s purpose and utility define its success. How an app goes about fulfilling those purposes is what actually matters.

  1. The argument could be made that all apps are opinionated because they all target a specific part of the market. This argument is more appropriate in a business context than in a design context.  ↩

  2. I would venture to say this entire paragraph applies to Mr. Reader as well.  ↩

  3. I have both on my homescreen right now. I use Reeder to skim through my feeds and I leave unread all of the articles I want to read in Unread. It’s an extra step, but this way I get the best of both worlds.  ↩

  4. Let’s all collectively hold our breath for Scrivener for iPad.  ↩

  5. Even Pocket’s summary in a Google Search shows its lack of vision: “Save For Later. Put articles, videos or pretty much anything into Pocket.” What does “pretty much everything” mean? If opinionated, this would be defined and would be very apparent in design and features.  ↩