Making For Mobile Part One: So, You Want An App?


In the summer of 2008, Apple released the iPhone 3G and iOS 2.0, which included the Apple App Store. Whilst Apple were not the first company to allow third party applications on their device (I had been downloading and installing applications on my Palm OS devices for five years before iOS 2.0 was released) Apple's influence on the mobile application marketplace has both popularized and commercialized it. Things have grown quickly since the release of iOS 2.0 and these days, mobile applications are big business. There were more application downloads in 2012 compared with the total of the previous five years, 46 billion compared with 37 billion. So; yes the mobile application market is big business. The expectation is that growth will continue around the world and will top 200 billion by 2017, just three years away.

These numbers are impressive but it means that there's another way for a business to spend money on a project and for it not to have any success: a mobile application. In order to get people to use your mobile application, and by extension the product or service that you are selling, you need a thoughtful, well designed application and you also need to market this. This article is to look at the design and I'll write about the marketing aspects in a later piece.

The key messages for design are integration, compromise and functionality. Your mobile application cannot be an afterthought or footnote in your business plan. You need to carefully think about the role that your application plays in your business and listen to customers or users. You should also look at what other applications are available out there: how will you make yours better so that customers will use the application? The second point is compromise; a mobile device has a small screen so one of the compromises you may want to make is in the information displayed to the user. And finally, functionality: it needs to work, but it's better to be a master of a few select tasks than a jack of all.

Let me expand upon the integration part of your mobile application. Go back ten to fifteen years, businesses large and small decided that they needed to have an online presence. Many, many websites were built to give just that: online exposure. Some of these websites were the equivalent of business card placeholders, detailing the business name, what they did and contact details. That's a waste. Other websites were beautifully planned out with information about the business, founders, staff, premises, history, the industry it operates in and finally, information about what makes this particular business the one to use, with feedback from customers, key features and benefits. And so it must be the same with your app: many customers will use the application before trying your website and will judge your entire business based on something running on a smartphone. It's important to get it right.

I'm reminded of the old tale of how to make money in a goldrush: don't dig for gold, sell the shovels. And so it is with mobile applications. If an application simply offers a branded experience of what another application does, it's almost certainly doomed to drop into obscurity. Instead, one needs to do something different to the other guy. Let me cite the example of a British train operator company developing an app for their customers. There are several existing train ticket sales websites with applications that allow customers to buy tickets and check timetables. Designing another of these apps is a waste of time if that's all it does. Instead, look at what information people also need and what information the business knows. Throw in an onboard section with a seat finder section, kept up to date in near real-time on the train. Offer customers exclusive and useful information.

I've covered a lot of ground in this article but the key message is that your mobile application is going to be the front door for many customers or would-be customers. It's the first thing they'll see of your brand. If it has a clean, smart and functional interface and works as designed, you're already on your way to keeping a customer happy. In my next installment, I'll take a look at how to market your application to make sure that the right audience see it.

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