If you want to get closer to your customers, you can’t get closer than their ever-present mobile phones.
Packaging up your brand, service or product in a mobile or tablet-friendly app ensures that customers stay close, no matter where they are, and can enjoy a enhanced and personalised version of the brand experience. If you get it right. And when you do, greater loyalty and increased spend are just some of the benefits.
But developing an app which delights – and not to mention justifies the investment – is not straightforward. There is a whole host of considerations to take into account, and this will only expand as mobile technologies and operating systems continue to evolve.
I asked two experts in app development about what it takes to build a brilliant app.
Mark Rock is founder of audio-sharing platform Audioboo, where sound is social. Launched in 2009, Audioboo sees around 100 000 individual audio plays per day – and mobile has played a huge part in establishing this reach. It’s available via iPhone, Android and now Nokia apps. Gilbert Hill is business development director at Governor Technology, a web development agency with a specialism in app development.
iPhone, Blackberry, Android, WP7…. How do you decide where to place your bets?
For Mark Rock, it was a fairly easy choice: “iPhone has by far the most integrated development environment and because iPad and iPhone share the same OS, then your app will work on both, he explained. “In terms of market size, Android is the king but it’s harder to maintain (as a platform). Blackberry is a pain, simply because of the sheer number and different shapes handsets come in. WP7 looks good but has only a very small market share at present”. Gilbert Hill sees opportunity in WP7 for this exact reason. “We’re getting more and more enquiries about WP7 development as clients update their mobile app strategies to include more than just one platform. There are now about 350,000 apps available in the Apple ecosystem – that is a huge pond in which to command attention. By contrast, other platforms like WP7 are less populated which means each app has a real chance of making a splash”.
So, once you’ve figured that out, do you go for in-house development or with a dev shop?
Our experts represent either sides of the development fence, and both offer compelling arguments. Hill argues that “compared with straight web dev, mobile development now means dealing with multiple platforms, each with own quirks and capabilities. Add to that the fact that each handset also has its own challenges”. Not only that, he explains, but there’s a talent issue too – agency devs are up on a broad spectrum of technologies and can represent cost savings too. On the other hand, Rock explains that in-house has been perfect for Audioboo. “Our development process has been quite iterative, so it’s given us flexibility to have a developer in-house.” But sometimes a blend of the two is needed. “We build Audioboo’s iPhone app in house and then show that to our Android developer as a design to emulate”.
So far, so good. Now for the crux of it – user experience (UX). What matters most?
Both Rock and Hill agree that simplicity is the number one attribute to which to aspire. As Hill points out, “Familiarity of experience can trump novelty”. Mark Rock also cites user journey (is it intuitive? will the user get lost?) and useful error messages as critical UX considerations.
Launch time! But how can you ensure great uptake?
Well, it seems it’s all about the app selling itself – so, getting the technology and experience right in the first place. High profile users help, of course. Mark Rock explains: “We were lucky to have been taken up by some big media players in the first 3 months – Guardian, BBC, FT. We also engage with users on Twitter and our user forums a lot, which leads to a network effort, particularly as we allow autoposting to Facebook and Twitter – so it becomes part of that mainstream”.
For Hill, it’s about engaging users early on – in some cases before you even start development. “It always depresses me when someone proudly informs us of an App they have already commissioned based on an idea brewed up in an internal ‘team-think’ session, and the end user has been left out of the process”. Understanding what users want first, engaging them in the development process (consultation, Beta test groups etc) and keeping close to those users is key.
And it doesn’t end there. All apps need to be updated, to keep them fresh, fast and functionality-rich. But when?
It’s clearly a balance. On one hand, updates prolong the shelf life of an app, but too much turns users off. “We update maybe twice a year and only when we have significant new features to add or a major bug that many users have complained about, says Rock. “But you do see companies using updates to push their app up in the download charts. We just don’t think that’s a compelling user experience”.
As with concept and development, Hill suggests that updates can provide an opportunity for loyalty-building: “If you start the process by polling users for what they want they will love you for it, and become advocates rather than just consumers.”
Kate Spiers is founder of Wisdom London, a communications consultancy with a focus on new and emerging technologies and their application for outstanding communications.