phone filled with apps
Do you really need those three conference apps from your company's last three annual meetings? PHOTO: Saulo Mohana on unsplash

Sixty-one: that’s the number of apps on my company issued cellphone as I sit down to write this article. 

These apps cover everything from the pre-loaded general ones, to the specialist apps related to our specific company needs (e.g. file sharing, product catalogs, etc.), to apps I use when traveling, to conference apps and social media platforms. That’s a lot of potential information sources. 

Add in the 99 apps on my personal phone and I’m carrying around a veritable smorgasbord of data in my pocket. But is it all really necessary?

Of course it isn’t.

So why do I feel the need to have so much data at hand? Has the abundance and ease of information we are subjected to each day reset our expectations?

So Many Apps, So Little Time

A TechCrunch report earlier this year suggested the average American now spends as much as five hours a day interacting with mobile devices and apps. And as the line between work hours and personal time continues to blur, what apps are used when becomes more of a continuous spectrum. Looking at the figures, 50 percent of that time is on social media apps, while things that may be considered more work related, like productivity apps, utilities, etc. tend to be around 9 percent each, while ecommerce comes in around five percent.

So if only 20 percent to 25 percent of my mobile time is spent on work related activities, why do I have so many of them on my phone? The answer is “just in case.” 

The ease of access to information has overtaken the value of the information itself as the main driver of what we keep. Of those 61 apps I have on my company phone I probably use seven of them on a daily basis, a couple of others weekly, and another 10 when I travel. Aside from the standard system delivered apps the rest — about 50 percent of the total — fall firmly into the “just in case” category.

Do I really need the conference apps for past conferences? But what happens if someone asks me about a session from that conference? With the app I can find the information in just a few clicks. Sure I could probably find the same information online, but an app seems so much more convenient even if it actually takes more clicks than using a search engine. It’s that perception of having information at your fingertips that makes them so compelling.

Sometimes the experience becomes too much. When I get to the point that I know I have an app for a specific task but find myself swiping back and forth across multiple screens to find it, it’s time to do a clean-up. If an app hasn't been used for over six months, I delete it. Unfortunately, I often find some of these same apps creep back onto my phone over the next few weeks “just in case.”

How Do We Sort Through the Noise?

While I may not be the best at deleting redundant or unused apps, I do manage notifications.

It seems as if every app you download asks if it can send you updates and notifications. While these can be useful at times, more often than not they are a nuisance. When messages inundate my phone screen, I tend to delete then unread. 

The possibility of my missing something important in the noise increases with every new app I download. So I now take a much more proactive stance, and rarely give notification permission. When I do it for an event-based App — as it’s a useful way of keeping up with schedule and location changes — I turn it off as soon as the event is over. And if the same app appears on both my company and personal phone, such as a weather app, I only allow notifications on one device. It’s one way to keep the number of buzzes down and make sure the important stuff gets noticed.

Really that’s the root problem with information overload — be it from mobile apps, newsfeeds, social media or too much email — how do we sort through the noise?

On the one hand, we have to make personal decisions about what’s important to us so we can balance our need to stay informed with our need to get our job done. How we manage the apps on our mobile devices is a good way to build that discipline.  

But companies can also help. Corporate IT groups can step in with an occasional purge of company issued cell-phones to delete any apps well past their sell-by date. Despite what I said above, I probably don’t really need the apps for our last two annual conferences and the international user-group tour that took place six months ago. 

I also wonder if the companies that develop apps could build in some sort of “self-destruct” mechanism. For example, an event-based app that deletes itself at a set time period after the event. Or an automated notification if an app has gone unused for a specific amount of time (e.g., six months or a year) stating the app will delete unless reactivated. 

At the end of the day, we need to keep asking ourselves, is “just in case” a sufficient justification for app overload?