Mobile devices have become ubiquitous with Smartphone ownership approaching saturation point among young Americans, and topping 68% of all adults in the USA, according to Pew Research Centre. Marketers have come to recognise mobile devices as a vital channel to reach customers, but should your business go further and develop dedicated software applications or ‘apps’? Here’s what you need to know before taking the plunge.
Mobile apps (short for ‘application software’) are computer programs specifically developed to run on mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets, taking into account the features particular to mobile devices such as less physical space and less powerful operating systems than a desktop computer.
Functionality can include device operating systems as well as programs to access email, calendars, mapping functions and programs to buy music and other consumer items. Native mobile apps are separate from those designed to run on desktop or mobile computer operating systems and are typically sold through native distribution platforms or ‘app stores’ run by major providers like Apple or Amazon.com.
An increasing number of people will have used at least one app before they reach their desk in the morning. Whether they have checked the weather or messages, logged an early workout, got directions to a morning meeting or just contacted a friend or colleague – reaching for a smartphone is one of the first things many of us do every day. In Q4 of 2015 there were nearly 179 million unique users of smart-phone apps, and 70% of total app usage is down to the top 200 apps.
The modern consumer has grown accustomed to finding answers at their fingertips. Being accessible in what Google describes as the ‘micro moment’ when your potential customer wants to ‘know’, ‘go’, ‘do’, or ‘buy’, through mobile accessibility and an appropriate app, can ensure your brand is there to meet client’s needs, a digital first responder.
What makes an app successful?
Popular apps typically offer users functionality to make consumer’s lives easier or amuse them in some way. Other apps allowing users to play games or interact with others, such as the messaging service SnapChat, have also had great success. There is a huge appetite for apps and over 3 million are available to download according to Statista but the market is dominated by a few big players, Facebook and Google own more than half of the 10 most popular apps.
There are different methods for measuring an app’s success, so determining which apps get the best results can be difficult and subjective. Some apps may not be as popular as others, but still earn more income for their developers because of their price structure or the profitability of the services they offer. Other apps may be less profitable themselves but still provide a beneficial extension to a brand by driving engagement and brand loyalty. Apps can be a powerful tool for building deeper and stronger relationships with customers.
A September 2014, Google/Ipsos Media CT survey canvassing 8,470 individuals between 18 and 64 years of age has demonstrated how important mobile app use is today. The average app user will have 36 apps installed on their phone but only 26% will be used daily and 1 in 4 app downloads are never used so maintaining engagement and avoiding app abandonment are critical to success. Use incentives and discounts to maintain engagement as well as focusing on user-get-user promotions, friends or colleagues using an app is likely to spark renewed use from lapsed customers and engage new ones.
What you need to know before developing an app
Does your business need and app? The answer to this question depends on the type of business you operate as well as its customer base. Although any type of business may find it useful to offer an app, a company appealing to baby boomers is less likely to need one than a company appealing to millennials who are digitally motivated and already regular app users.
What is the purpose of an app for your business? The first area to focus on when answering this question is utility. Ask how an app will improve your customer’s experience. For instance, in the case of a retail establishment, the ability to offer coupons, directions, locations and the like can make a strong case for having an app. If your company is in the gaming industry, providing an app version of your game is logical, given the frequency with which people play games on their mobile devices.
Whatever industry your company is in, make sure that you are able to identify the specific function your app will serve, whether to promote the business or to generate revenue. If you are not clear about its purpose and benefits then building an app may not be appropriate for your business. No not neglect research, having devised a core concept search the market for competitors
How accessible is your data? Many apps function by providing easier access to relevant data. Designing an app to do this is easier if your company’s data is held on an online database that is readily accessible by app design tools.
Mobile app or mobile website? Mobile apps often provide more streamlined access to data found on a company’s website. The data they provide is optimized for delivery on a mobile device by the app. However, “responsive” website design allows for website’s layouts to be adjusted for mobile device viewing when they are accessed by mobile and tablet users.
If your website is already responsive then offering an app may be unnecessary if it doesn’t offer functionality that can’t already be experienced via the website. The cost of hiring developers to design and continually update your app can exceed the cost of designing a website so before moving ahead with app development consider the app’s utility to your company from a strategic planning standpoint.
How can an app promote your business? If your app isn’t intended to be a profit centre for your company consider how effective it is likely to be in spreading the word about your business. By offering consumers helpful information or functionality your app can help boost your business – if the cost of building the app isn’t excessive, an app’s use as a promotional tool can make it a wise investment.
How to get my app seen?
The explosion in app development, while providing consumers with a wide variety of engaging apps to choose from, also makes it harder for your app to get noticed in the crowd. While there is no magic button you can press to get your app in front of people, there are a number of ways to increase your app’s exposure. Recommendations are the biggest driver of app downloads so social media and influencers are key to success, enlist influencers in your industry to spread the word about your app to their followers. Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn are excellent platforms for promoting your app. If people on your network find your app valuable, news can spread virally. Social media also offers the opportunity to interact with your market and gain useful information for upgrades and improvements. Email marketing is another great way to reach users efficiently, potential customers can click through to download the app immediately. Before deciding on an advertising approach, first determine what your marketing budget is. Once this is set, you can evaluate different methods of advertising your app.
How to develop an app for my business?
A number of do it yourself (DIY) tools exist allowing you to build an app for your business without outside assistance. However, it may still be more efficient to hire an app developer to build your app unless you are comfortable working with DIY software solutions. DIY programs are generally not suitable for complex or highly customised apps, so, depending on the functionality you’d like your app to have, bringing in a good app developer may still be preferable, even if you feel comfortable using a DIY tool.
If you are interested in using or trying out DIY app development tools, there are a number you can use to develop an app. These include:
- The App Inventor from Google
- AppMakr, an iPhone app maker on the web
- SwebApps, another iPhone app builder
- BuildAnApp allows for the use of multiple platforms at once
- Socialight and AppInsitute for building geo-location apps
If you plan to use an expert for your app design, there are a variety of routes you can take. App design firms or IT firms with divisions specialising in such products are one option. You can find these via referrals from your existing network or by checking in local or national business listings by category. You can also look to hire a freelancer on job sites such as:
Building a mobile app involves a variety of considerations, from selecting app functionality and a development timetable to drawing up a budget. Some of the factors to consider include:
Keep it simple to start: Feature creep can dramatically increase the expense of an app. Launching with a simple version of your app can advantageous as it allows you to get feedback on the functionality and to keep costs down, at least initially, while you gauge reaction to your app.
Limit functionality to speed development: To get your app up and running quickly, limiting its functionality is often necessary. Select the 4 or 5 features that are most likely to boost the app’s appeal and add further ones in later iterations.
Design the app with your customers in mind: When considering what functionality to add to an app, start from your customer’s point of view. Ask how the app will help them achieve their objectives or make their life easier. Focus on results rather than details of use, such as what button a customer would press to activate a particular feature. Outline the concrete benefits for your customers and then look at suitable features to achieve them.
Sketch out the app: Drawing sketches of your app’s pages is an excellent way to get a feel for how the app will look to consumers. You can also draw up a flow chart showing how the user will progress through the different app pages to evaluate the user experience. A number of tools are available to help with the app design process by allowing you to generate mock-ups and diagrams of your planned app.
These tools include:
Test both design and functionality thoroughly: With staff, friends, focus groups and crowdsourcing make sure that your app works smoothly and is fit for purpose before going to market, a poor user experience is as likely to go viral as a good one and could harm your brand.
How to brief an app designer
To make the app building process as smooth as possible, you should do as much conceptual work as possible in advance of bringing in a professional. This can include the following:
- Specify desired app function(s) and platform: What will your app do? This simple but fundamental question should be answered before deciding to go ahead with an app let alone bringing in app builders. Their job will be to figure out how to design your app so that it supports the functionality you have in mind for it. iOS, Android, and Windows devices have distinct operating systems – your target market and go-to-market strategy will determine which platform you should use.
- Outline design characteristics: While your app developer should be able to evaluate the feasibility of your desired app design, for best results it is beneficial for you to have at least an outline of how you would like your app to look prior to bringing in a professional app builder.
- Draw up a projected budget and development timeline: While budgets and timelines may be subject to change, it is highly recommended to have at least provisional figures and schedules drawn up before bringing in an app builder. App development can be costly if strict guidelines are not in place, making it important to consider this issue in advance of hiring an app builder.
Costing an app build
Most mobile apps are free, or nearly free, and we use them without any thought for what has gone into developing and building them. It can be a longer and more costly process than you think and one worth getting right. Though it can be hard to know in advance exactly how much it will cost to design various types of functionality for an app, a very basic app can be built on a budget (in the range of $1,000 to $6,000 according to a variety of sources) but you are likely to get what you pay for and sometimes getting a worthwhile return means making a greater investment. Shortcuts can lead to costly delays and bugs.
Designing apps with more features or more complex functionality can raise the price tag significantly, with some sources citing figures ranging from $35,000 to $150,000 for building a higher quality and sophisticated app.
A variety of factors are involved when it comes to costing an app build. These include:
- App functionality: Will your app need to access a database? If so, this functionality must be designed in and will add to the cost. Will the app allow users to play games? Designing gameplay for the app will be an additional cost.
- Graphics: Designing an app with the best graphics, while certainly desirable, will add to the cost of the app.
- Programming time: When hiring a programmer or development firm to build your app the complexity of your app plays a factor in the time it takes to build it. More complex apps generally take longer to build, increasing the overall cost of the app as a result.
- Infrastructure: Servers and back-end support functions will add to the cost of offering the app on an ongoing basis.
- Social media integration: Offering this functionality adds to the cost of an app.
- In-app purchasing: Allowing consumers to purchase goods using your app also increases development cost.
Once your app has been developed, further costs still apply, including:
- Testing: Releasing a buggy app can have a significantly negative impact on its reception and potentially on your company’s reputation. As a result, your budget should include a certain amount of time and money for testing the app.
- Launch: Both the App Store and Google Play charge a fee to add your app.
- Maintenance: updates and debugging are important to keep your position in a competitive market.
Your mobile app may be a game but it should not be a gimmick. These software applications are designed for one of the most significant technological innovations in a generation and can be an invaluable tool for modern businesses, whether for revenue generation or brand building and client engagement. We carry our office and our social life on our smart phones and tablets so to be successful and earn a place on your customer’s mobile device an app must maintain perceived value. Make your app discoverable (easy to search, active on social media), make it invaluable, whether for work or play, and make sure that it works. Then an app can ensure your brand never leaves the customer’s side.