Digital single-servings: Why Yo, a crude app that took only eight hours to make, hit it big

(Screenshot)
(Screenshot)

There are 1.2 million apps in Apple’s App Store. Most of them you’ve never heard of. Most of them will quietly fade away, lost in a competitive marketplace. For app developers, it’s a daunting task to create something that stands out and gets downloaded by thousands. This makes what’s happened with Yo in the last week so curious.

Yo is a messaging app in which users can hit a button and send each other a “yo,” which arrives on their smartphone as a push notification. The app took only eight hours to build. It was launched on April Fool’s Day. Yo’s logo is as vanilla as possible, simply a shade of purple. Its security was weak enough that a group of college kids hacked it. That led its co-founder to write a post, headline: “We were lucky enough to get hacked.”

Yo does not appear to have a lot going for it. Yet somehow it caught on. The app’s Twitter feed reported Sunday that it has over one million users. Any start-up employees that have toiled away for months on a little-known app can be excused for bashing their heads against a wall in frustration.

Yo appears likely to be a fad. As Robert Scoble put it, Yo is the pet rock of 2014. Sunday it began falling down the list of the most downloaded free apps. It still closed the day in a respectable spot, No. 9 overall.

Whether Yo lasts, its success is a reminder that the digital world remains a place for entertainment, conversation and single-servings. We’ve seen in the past the popularity of single-service Web sites such as barackobamaisyournewbicycle.com, doineedanumbrellatoday.com, sadtrombone.com and howmanypeopleareinspacerightnow.com.

When apps or Web sites are intensely narrow in their focus — and deliver a single serving — success comes easier. We know exactly what we’re going to a site for.

(Screenshot)
(Screenshot)

The app Make it Rain, in which users swipe their screens to accumulate dollars, succeeded for similar reasons to Yo. It reportedly was generating $50,000 a day earlier this year. It’s a simple, silly and dumb app.

There’s something humorous about an app that is incredibly focused on something very small. Anything that is funny is worth talking about and sharing, which helped Yo gain that viral traction.

The trend of digital single servings can be seen in Facebook’s strategy. Its recently been unbundling its services into a handful of narrowly focused apps, such as Messenger, Paper and Slingshot.

If there’s a lesson in Yo, it may be this. Apps that do something fun that no one else offers — no matter how dumb the concept – are likely to succeed. Keep it simple, and stupid can — for better or worse — be a winning strategy.

Related: Yo is silly and trivial, Silicon Valley must do something better

“Greatest innovation of the 21st century:” 15 humorous reviews of Yo

Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.
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Matt McFarland | June 23