Paul Myers is the CEO of Bappz, a specialist developer of applications for iPhone, iPad, Facebook and other mobile devices.
The way that people choose, buy, access and use mobile apps is, in many ways, fundamentally different from the way they behave on the traditional web, and so the rules have to change. The issue is that there isn’t yet the same level of widespread understanding about apps that there is about web design. Many people, even self-proclaimed apps specialists, are basing their teaching on a relatively short period of experience in the market.
The key to understanding the specialist nature of app development is to think about the way that people use them. Unlike PC users, mobile users are on the move, in a hurry and easily distracted. They’re not interested in sitting back, reading the instructions and waiting for a product to install to make things happen. They want the service they’re looking for here and now.
Though the marketplace for mobile apps is still relatively young when compared to web, there are a handful of best practices to abide and pitfalls to avoid when in development.
1. Don’t Over-Promise and Then Under-Deliver
App users are fickle, possibly even more so than web users. Moreover, in the app downloading and installation process, they are investing more of their time to access your content than they would just by visiting a webpage. If they put this time in and you don’t deliver on your promises, they are going to react badly.
Now you might think that as long as your download figures are good that this doesn’t matter, but that’s not the point. Quite apart from the fact that you want an ongoing engagement with your app, a disappointing experience is more likely than not going to put a user off downloading any of your future apps and could quite possibly cause broader damage with regard to a branded application.
The key is to set user expectations appropriately from the very beginning. Be realistic in your descriptions and your artwork. While you might be worried that a more realistic description might limit your appeal in the App Store, the benefits gained from a happier user base will far outweigh the damage you could cause by misleading potential users.
2. Don’t Let Your App Lapse
Releasing your app isn’t the end of the process, it’s just a start. To maintain downloads and keep usage levels up, you need to update often, adding new functionality, UI tweaks or data. If you just let your app sit statically on the App Store or on users handsets, it will quickly get overtaken by the competition.
An app is a dynamic thing and should constantly develop and change based on user feedback and new developments in your marketplace. Apps can quickly be forgotten, so you need to make sure that you’re constantly giving your users a reason to revisit and re-use your service.
For example, if you’re releasing a shopping app, you need to make sure that you’re adding the latest functionality as soon as it’s available and stable. If all of your competitors enable bar-code scanning, you’d do well to add this functionality or be left in the dust.
3. Don’t Try to Be Something You’re Not
When you develop an app, you should start with an idea of what you want it to do and stick to that. Don’t try and add endless extra functionality. Focus on doing the best job on the core service that you intend to deliver.
For example, if you’re building an app that helps people work out their subway route, stick to subway routes. People don’t want to find the walking route to their nearest subway station or point of interest near their destination, they just want to find out what line they should be on and where they should change.
A lot of app usage is highly results-focused. Users want to get the information they need as quickly and easily as they can. They don’t want to search through endless menu options or setup screens. The more functionality you add into your app, the more you’ll confuse your users. Confusion makes them more likely to switch to the competition.
4. Only Release It When It’s Ready
Today’s development mantra is “release early, release often,” as indicated by the endless Beta services we see from web companies large and small. In the app world, things are different. While on the web, audiences might be willing to act as guinea pigs for your test program, nothing is more likely to scare off potential mobile users than early reviews showing that an app is unreliable.
The reviews on the iTunes Store are all-powerful when it comes to end users’ app choices, and an early release of a buggy app is certain to secure you a handful of negative reviews. Most importantly, those reviews won’t go away as long as your app is on the store and will affect your downloads over the long term. If you launch something half-baked with the intention of getting it right later, the reviews will be a constant reminder.
5. Don’t Over-Think the Development
Simplicity is the key to a successful app, and if it all seems to be getting too complicated, chances are you’re doing it wrong.
Getting overly complex in your app development is not only costly in development resource, it’s also asking for problems in the end product. Complexity increases the likelihood of bugs sneaking through and often negatively impacts the performance on the end user’s handset.
Apps are without question a game changer when it comes to users interacting with digital services. However, a game change in end usage also implies a change in the way that we develop these services. If you try and take your web development principles and stick them in an app platform, it just won’t work. The key to building a successful app is to identify the unique features of the app opportunity and apply these to your development thinking at every level.