What Studying Students Teaches Us About Great Apps

Editor’s note: Noah Lichtenstein is an entrepreneur and partner at Cowboy Ventures, a seed-stage fund that backs entrepreneurs reinventing work and personal life through software. 

With over a million apps each in the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store, there’s an app — or 10 — for practically everything a consumer needs. So why is it in an ever-growing sea of competing apps, some take off like rocket ships while most fade into obscurity?  The answer is magic.

Magic — much like unicorns — may not be real per se, but we use it to describe that intangible feeling of delight we get from our favorite apps when they ‘automagically’ just work. I push a button, and presto! my ride appears. I snap a goofy picture and shazam! my friends get a good laugh before it disappears into the ether. I swipe right on a photo of a cute, smart girl, and abracadabra! I’m chatting with someone who also swiped right. This is what consumer apps feel like when they work.

As mobile software continues on its march to eat the world, we at Cowboy Ventures wondered, are there other untapped or undiscovered apps that have this similar magic? So, we recently sponsored a survey* of over 1,000 high school and college students, with the help of a team of Stanford undergrads to learn:

1.  What apps are growing in popularity but currently “under the radar”?

2.  What are the most wished-for apps that don’t yet seem to exist?

With big caveats relating to the non-scientific nature of this survey and the methods used for filtering data, here is what we found:

Who’s the Prettiest of Them All?

Sadly, our survey did not uncover any under-the-radar, rapidly growing magical new apps to invest in right before they hit an inflection point. Instead, we found beyond the established category leaders, students seem to be using a sea of disparate apps. In fact, of over 3,300 app responses collected, 1,500 unique apps were represented — and no lesser-known app was said to be used frequently by more than 2.7 percent of respondents.

There are likely several factors behind this. First, many of the early mobile magic-makers — like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Spotify and WhatsApp — now take up a big chunk of consumers’ active daily hours. A second reason is that with the declining cost of app development, it is now cheaper than ever to build new apps tailored to serve a particular function. This has created a massive long-tail of apps to serve practically any consumer need. And for those apps that have succeeded in delighting users on one platform, many then struggle to translate the experience cross-platform, such as from desktop to mobile phones and tablets.


So Tell Me What You Want, What You Really Really Want

While we didn’t discover any breakout under-the-radar apps, a common wish did emerge from our survey.

“If you had a magic wand to create an app that you would use every day, what would the app do?�� In response to this question, over 20 percent requested some form of a comprehensive to-do + calendaring + life management app that helps them better organize their lives. It seems the greatest wish was for a magical “Productivity 2.0” app that pulls in all of the information stored on a user’s mobile phone, intuitively understands their life and working style, and “just works.”

This sentiment might be best captured in the following survey response:

“Push me notifications about everything regarding my calendar–when to wake up [if] I want to workout and my first meeting is at Xam; tell me when to leave for my next meeting and what the best method of transportation is; ping me when someone I am meeting with just emailed me and they are going to be late.  Essentially run my life by pushing instead of me needing to go pull.”

Other examples of requests for an experience that magically weaves together the info on our phones and our digitally connected environments included:

  • Context-aware everything — making existing apps smarter based on where you are, what you’re doing, how you’re feeling, etc.
  • What/Where/When to eat — what to eat based on ingredients at home, current diet, current health indicators; where to eat based on location and preferences; when to eat based on health indicators and schedule
  • Aggregate content from across multiple sources — a feed of only your favorite content sources and social networks, weeding out duplicate content and understanding what you’ve already seen
  • Recommend what to wear — based on what you own, what you wore recently, the current weather, where you’re going, how you’re feeling, etc.

While there were no clear rocket ships uncovered by our survey, the most popular app listed (2.7 percent) by students was an education-focused productivity app, Notability. Notability combines note-taking, lecture recording, document annotations, sketches, worksheets and more into a unified app, and combines this functionality with collaboration and cloud storage features. So in some ways, Notability delivers what our respondents were requesting: an app that combines multiple features into one app to deliver higher productivity and more magic.

Calling All Magicians

The launch of the iPhone in 2007 was nothing short of magic. And combined with the commercial launch of the Android platform in 2008, it ushered in a wave of rapid app development, so there is now an app for nearly everything.

But it’s time for a second wave. If the first wave was all about dedicated apps to do specific things and leverage specific mobile phone features, we think the next wave will be made of new apps that seamlessly pull together disparate information on our phones, and that use multiple capabilities of our devices to deliver new, synthesized mobile experiences that feel like magic. As early-stage investors, we are in the “searching for magic” business—and we look forward to meeting the entrepreneurs building this next wave of magical apps.

Aileen Lee contributed to this report.


*The original survey form can be found here and the complete results can be found here. To note, 70 percent of the responses were from California and there was a heavy Stanford influence, which likely skews the data.

For further reading, you can find a list of our favorite app idea submissions here, along with some of the funnier responses.

Many thanks to Daniel Liem, Rick Barber, Ryan Hoover and Wade Vaughn for their help on this project.