What developers can learn from Yo’s success

By now you may have heard about Yo, a ridiculously simple – even gimmicky – app for iOS and Android that encourages users to build personal networks simply for the sake of sending each other messages stating nothing more than the word “yo” via push a push notification. It claims to have garnered 1 million users since its April 1 launch, and it was the most downloaded free app for iOS last Sunday before losing momentum after a group of college kids hacked it. It currently is the 16th-most downloaded free app for iOS, and apparently has yet to have much impact in Google Play.

Interestingly, reviews for Yo are all over the place: Steven Colbert, among others, has deemed it stupid. David Shapiro of The New Yorker praised the one-way nature of communication, writing that “A yo is lovely to receive” despite the app being “the worst piece of software that I’ve ever used.” And a Forbes contributor described it as the world’s most fun and heartwarming app even as he predicted the recent hack will doom it.

What Yo gets right

The concept of a messaging app for one-way, one-word messages may seem ludicrous, but Yo resonates with users because it gets some crucial things right. It is breathtakingly simple – the icon on my home screen is simply a lavender square labeled “Yo” – and signing up is as easy as choosing a user name and password. It taps a variety of social networks and communications channels as well as the phone’s contact list to enable users to invite friends, sending a simple message with a link to make it easy for those friends to download the app. Users can send the word “Yo” to each other with just a single tap, eliminating the need to scroll down through lengthy menus or bang out long character strings; recipients who don’t already have the app are asked to click on a link to download it.

And Yo has had some important advantages beyond its user interface: Business Insider reported this week that after gaining popularity in Tel Aviv, where it was developed, it attracted the attention of noted Bay Area tech enthusiast Robert Scoble, who plugged it on Facebook; a friend then posted it on the site Product Hunt. That in turn attracted the attention of the VC community, which is expected to pony up $1.2 million in a funding round. (The developers claim they’ve decided to turn down additional funding.) Yo also has benefited from some entertaining – if not always positive – user reviews in Apple’s App Store and Google Play. Those reviews can have the same viral marketing effect that fueled the explosive growth of Flappy Bird, rudimentary app.

A gimmick – but with a lot of potential

There’s no question that Yo remains a gimmicky app with extremely limited appeal beyond novelty for most consumers, which is why Scoble called the app the pet rock of 2014. But it maintains a sizable audience and enjoys tremendous buzz, the security concerns are reportedly fixed and the forthcoming round of VC should help its developers to expand on its current (extremely limited) functionality. The looming question, then, is how the Yo developers can add value to their app and capitalize on its momentum. As Anthony Wing Kosner wrote in Forbes, one additional feature could make a huge difference here, whether it’s the ability to include a link or location in a Yo, or integration with a smartwatch or some other connected gadget that doesn’t emphasize person-to-person communication. The ability to create messaging lists could help, too.

It’s far too early to predict whether Yo will break out of the long line of novelty apps (such as iBeer) and establish a foothold as a compelling messaging application. But the app sports a brilliantly simple design and user interface, and its developers have done a solid job of helping it generate buzz. Developers of all kinds of consumer-facing mobile apps should take note.