Good design is more important than extensive features

Akiff Premjee
December 6, 2020

I recently started using Matter, a new mobile reading app that is joining a very crowded space. There is nothing life changing about mobile reading apps. There are dedicated news apps like NYT or new aggregator apps like Apple News. There are you classic read-it-later apps like Instapaper and Pocket and now there are newer newsletter aggregator apps such as Listory.

Matter doesn't replace any of the mobile reading apps that I'm using right now. It doesn't solve any new problem for me. So why am I using it and adding another reading app into the mix that can just end up causing me to get further sucked into the Age of Information Overload?

It's because Matter is just very pleasant to use. That's all.

There is an interesting social component and I like the quality of articles I find on the app, but overall it's the design that has made me stay. Subtle features like haptic feedback when tapping on different buttons in the app, well-chosen font and spacing for the reader view, and a thoughtful "History" view that saves all articles you have ever clicked on even if you didn't mark to "save" them for later all bring about a joyful user experience. Here is what it looks like:

It's nothing fancy but Matter's design-first strategy made me think about if good design can outweigh extensive features. So much so that I dropped one of my *hot takes* on Twitter about it.

When we think about game-changing apps like Roam Research, they are clearly pushing for next-level features over good design. I mean Roam is super ugly. This makes sense because they are pushing the edge in terms of what consumers can do with an app and if the features are good enough then consumers won't care if the design sucks.  

But most apps aren't like this. They think they have game-changing features but they really don't and a lot of features are gimmicks or things that normal consumers actually don't care about. In a mobile reading app, all a typical consumer cares about is well mobile reading. Is this a great reading experience should be the first question a founding team should work to answer.  

What about the non-typical user? I consider myself someone who likes more out of the apps that I use. That's why I use Roam and Readwise and have all highlights from everywhere go from Readwise and into Roam. This is where the hierarchy of experiences comes in.  

My friend Ammar Mian responded to my theory with the following:

I think you're totally onto something here. I think good design is less about the look and feel and more about the hierarchy of experiences. A reader app with an extensive feature set but a pretty meh reading experiences misses the entire point of a reading app. Matter kills it on the feature that ... matters :)  

For someone like me, I'm not going to switch fully over to Matter right now because it still doesn't meet all of my needs. I get mobile highlighting through Command Browser that syncs to Readwise and until that comes to Matter I won't fully switch. However, the team has already mentioned to me that this is on the roadmap and I'm happy to wait. But I'm only waiting because they already have me hooked in with their good design. Good design is what can fulfill the average user and retain the "pro" user as you work to develop a feature set that is more robust and will deliver "pro" features.

However, lots of companies focus on the features first, thinking that they have reinvented the wheel when they haven't and in the process they don't focus on the core functionality of what they are building and whether it create a pleasant initial user experience.  

Matter is focusing on all of the right things as they build. They have a strong foundational app that gets the job done for a what a mobile reading app should do, but they are being open and transparent about features that they are working to roll out. Importing newsletters and text to audio have already been rolled out and it's only a matter (haha!) of time before highlights and Readwise integration are built. Credit to them (or YC or Paul Graham?) for thinking about the user experience first. I'm always happy to support a company that works to delight its users.