Jonathan Zimmermann: The Quest for Uselessness

A large share of all the things that human beings want are things that are experienced in the mind. So it should not be too surprising that people will sometimes spend money or time on an idea that they find entertaining or humorous. Such was the pet rock craze a few years back. I was intrigued to learn that my student Jonathan Zimmermann accomplished such a feat of marketing an entertaining idea in a smaller way. His report on that is the 5th student guest post this semester. (Jonathan had another guest post a few weeks back that you might be interested in: “Swiss Franc Shock: Time to Take Advantage of Return Policies.”)

or the first time, Google Play (the Android app store) has surpassed the Apple app Store for the total number of published apps. Of course, among the almost one and a half million available applications, a lot of them, if not a majority, are of relatively little use. But usefulness is not a requirement for a successful app, as we saw for example many “fake razors” encounter a huge fame in the earliest days of the Apple app store.  So what exactly is the limit of “uselessness”? How far could a developer go, and especially, do people need to at least believe that the app will be useful to want to download it? In this post I want to share my experience on an interesting experiment I conducted a few years ago.

It was a few years ago and I had just started to learn how to develop Android app. But coding wasn’t the part that interested me; I wanted to create, to publish. So I asked myself “What is the most simple, the most elementary app that I could develop and publish with my very limited newly acquired coding skills?”. The answer was easy: an app that doesn’t do anything. How would I call that app? “Useless”, because it has no features and is of no use. How to market it? Well, what is the only way to market nothing? Simply being honest and telling people not to expect anything from a nothing.

I published the app (still available with its description on Google play). I didn’t advertise it, and just waited for some organic traffic to come. In a few days, hundreds of people downloaded it. After a few months it had tens of thousands of downloads, for a total of more than 120 000 users today! Did I produce value? It seems like it: the average rating, by more than 4000 users, is 4.5/5, a very high rating for an Android app! But there is more: the ratio of review per download and the ratio of comment per review were extremely high!

Not only did the app satisfy its customers, but the average user seemed to be a relatively highly educated person. In one comment, a high school teacher even said he shared this app with his whole class.

Most positive comments looked something like that:

I love it, great job android market. This app has changed my life for the better. I used to wake up every morning crying, but now I have hope again. Finally something real, consistent, reliable, trustworthy. This app has shown me that there are things in the world that are truly what they claim to be. Simple, humble yet sophisticated. A Monk in the app, a world leader among its kind for having integrity. This app is a masterpiece. It is what it says, does what it’s supposed to do and comes with a 10×1 return policy.

by savage santana (edited)

So what about the people that didn’t like it? The only reason why it has a score of only 4.5/5 is that most users would either put the best rating (5) or the worst (1). Only a few would put an average rating, like 2, 3 or 4. And what were the reasons behind most of those 1-star ratings? Most of the time, they were written by unsatisfied customers that found some use in an app that what supposed to be useless:

I downloaded this app, with hope of finding no usefulness whatsoever, that hope was lost when I found it had many. I noticed the moment I opened the application, I had something to read. I enjoyed reading about how the creator of this app did not like how the Android Market had it’s name changed and the purpose of the apps creation. I also found how useful this would be for people who found it difficult to spell (Apart from some spelling mistakes). It also had enough light to see objects in the dark.

by Carl-Michael Hammon (unedited)

So think absurd, and don’t be afraid to be absurd. Downloading this app was perhaps, for some people, a right to be irrational for a few minutes. Sometimes, it feels good to not make sense. And this feeling is more logical than it seems.

And on a final note, for the capitalist skeptics who think that doing art is great but making money is better: do not worry, I didn’t lose my business acumen and carefully placed a discrete ad inside the app. It generated a few thousand dollars of revenues. Not too bad for a few hours of “programming”.