What to consider when designing a mobile app for your business
In today’s mobile world, just about everyone carries a small, amazingly powerful, all-access information device—the smartphone. And on this miniature computer are little programs, or apps, that give you the ability to do incredible things. Need directions to a client’s office? Open a map app. Need to entertain your client? Access a restaurant reservation app. Has your client expressed interest in buying from you? Pull up your company’s widget catalog app, create a quote and close a sale—on the spot!
Apps can be used for almost anything. But as you delve deeper into the world of mobile apps, you might start to wonder does my business need an app? And if so, how do I go about developing an app?
Why everyone wants to make a mobile app
As people move away from traditional computers and toward smartphones and tablets, they are looking for a great user experience they can take with them anywhere. According to a Gallup® survey, almost 75 percent of Americans check their phones at least once an hour. And Flurry’s® Analytics Blog says people are spending more than 90 percent of that time using mobile apps versus web browsers.
Like web pages, people develop apps to do many things: communicate, create and manage files, make lists and notes, manage calendars and scheduling, work with customers, and consume content and entertainment.
Some of the most popular app categories include:
- Social networking
- Communication, like texting and messaging apps
- Digital media, such as video and music apps
- Cloud file storage
- Usage of these apps tends to peak during the holiday shopping season.
Certain industries are especially ripe for mobile apps:
- Information Technology (IT) uses apps to demonstrate capabilities, innovative solutions and strong knowledge.
- Healthcare has apps designed for doctors or other staff members to connect with and monitor patients—anytime, anywhere.
- The finance industry uses banking and brokerage apps that allow customers to perform many transactions conveniently and securely.
- The entertainment industry has a wide variety of apps that let people watch videos, play games and listen to music and podcasts.
- The travel industry has apps for mapping, booking and tracking flights, catching a cab, finding parking, booking a hotel and more! With people constantly on the go, they need to quickly arrange and manage travel plans.
- Many industries also develop apps for one-time or recurring uses, such as trade shows or large industry events. These apps may house site maps, seminar schedules and lists of amenities.
Does my business need an app?
If you’re not sure if an app is right for your organization, you need to determine whether or not building an app makes sense. To do this, you need to ask yourself a few questions.
Who is my audience?
Before you begin designing a mobile app, you need to know for whom you are creating it. Do you have dedicated users? If so, Business Insights says apps drive engagement with loyal users. On the other hand, if you’re simply looking for engagement with a wide audience, a mobile-friendly website is a far more cost-effective way to expand your reach.
What problem will the app solve for my audience?
Knowing your audience’s wants and needs will not only tell you if you if you need to make a mobile app, it will also help you figure out what content and design to use. Survey your customers to get their feedback.
What do we hope to achieve with an app?
Once you’ve defined your target audience and received feedback, it’s time to examine your goals. Compare your audience’s needs with your own and then decide whether or not a mobile app will help you solve your customers’ problems and achieve your goals. An app must be able to do both.
It’s important to note that businesses of all sizes can benefit from an app. Professor Scott Shane argues in an Entrepreneur.com article that the marked increase in mobile devices opens doors to greater engagement with customers. In addition to a boost in engagement, Shane says apps:
- Increase repeat visits to your website
- Can deploy loyalty cards or alert users about promotions
- Make ecommerce transactions easier
- Provide faster service to your customers, which they crave
- Build your brand—customers will think of you every time they see your app
We’ve decided we want to know how to build a mobile app. Now what?
All things considered, you’ve decided that developing an app works with your organization’s goals and strategies. But there are a few things to consider when you begin the initial planning. The most important is choosing what type of app to develop:
- A native app is designed to work on one specific operating system. For example, if your intended users have devices running on a variety of operating systems including iOS, Android® or Windows Mobile™, you must develop three different versions, one for each operating system, because different operating systems require different programming languages.
- A web app runs within a mobile web browser, generally requiring only one version to be developed.
- A hybrid app runs within a web browser but looks and feels like a standalone native app.
- A newer version of a web app that is similar to a hybrid is a progressive app, which also runs within a browser, but looks and feels like a native app. Essentially, an icon installed on a mobile device’s home screen links to your web page.
Progressive and hybrid apps typically require only one version since they also use the same programming languages as web browsers. But since they can install on a home screen, they may need special tweaking in order to work properly on the many different mobile devices out there. This can mean that development costs can potentially come near, or even meet, the cost of creating a native app.
One last major consideration is what types of devices will run your app: smartphones, tablets or both? The screen sizes are very different. A tablet has a much larger screen than a phone, so you can include more detail. Rather than creating two versions, build a universal app that has the same basic code, but can be presented differently depending on the device being used.
This is where it’s critical to know your audience and understand their needs. If your target user will be using your app on the go, you might focus on creating the best phone experience possible. On other occasions, a tablet-specific app may be required. This typically occurs if you plan to run an app at a trade show or other event where customer interaction is a necessity.
Now it’s time to develop an app
After looking at all the different options and considerations that go into designing a mobile app, you’ve decided that building an app is the best way to complement your organization’s strategies and goals.
Cost and budget
One of the biggest concerns about developing an app is the expense. How much will the app cost, and will the expenditure be worth it? The most simplistic, self-created app costs in the ballpark of $3,000–$5,000 to create. However, a typical app can run at least $50,000–$150,000. As you add complexity to the app, such as e-commerce, the costs may rise dramatically to hundreds of thousands of dollars. When talking to an app developer, get a reliable estimate before agreeing to anything.
What’s the ROI on an app? There’s no magic answer to that question, especially since ROI is fully dependent on what the app does. Ideally, the cost to develop an app is recovered within the first year. Those costs are easily calculated if you know an app reduces the time spent on a project by 15 percent or cuts the cost of acquiring products by 20 percent. What if your app is a marketing tool? If the app reduces other marketing expenses by a certain amount, you can calculate ROI using that reduction.
How to choose a developer
Who’s going to build your app? Do you have the expertise internally to build one? Or will you need to look outside your organization? Few organizations, especially smaller businesses, have someone on staff with the skills required to design, build and maintain an app. In all likelihood, you’ll need to hire someone outside your organization.
When choosing an outside developer, there are several things to look for. First and foremost, find a developer who wants to drive your business, not just theirs, and make sure they can work with you to create a memorable user experience.
- Look at their portfolio and the types of industries they serve. Do they have experience developing apps for companies similar to yours, both large and small? If they already have knowledge of your industry, that’s less time you have to spend educating them, and they’ll be more likely to create the end result you have in mind.
- Check references. Go with someone you know you can work with in the long run because building an app requires working with the developer to update your app periodically after the initial build is complete
- Check out their other apps. Do they function well and deliver a high-quality user experience? Look at the feedback. What are people saying about the quality and usability of the apps?
- Make sure the developer is well-versed in building apps for every platform (iOS, Android, etc.).
- Don’t let price be the driving factor behind your choice—be sure you’re comfortable with the developer and vice-versa. Ask to pay a flat fee rather than by the hour so there’s a strict budget to follow, and don’t pay the entire fee up front. Make sure the developer budgets at least some testing and debugging time.
- If your app needs to drive revenue, look for a developer with monetization experience, including in-app purchases and display ads. If it’s going to be a paid app, the developer should have a good idea what you should charge.
Designing and building an app takes time. For a typical native app, it takes about 18 weeks for development and design—anywhere from 300 to 900 hours—depending on the complexity.
Once you have your app’s goals determined, create a mockup that gives a basic structure to the app. This provides the developer a basic idea of what the app will look like, what information it will contain, where that information will be found and how people will interact with the app to get the information they need.
Back-end development comes next. These are the building blocks of the app: determining how users are managed, how user experience is customized and what data is stored. It also determines how push notifications will get users to engage with the app.
The last item is front-end development. This includes things that affect the user experience, including making the app run faster and more efficiently; saving data to be used even if you have no internet connection; designing the screens the user interacts with; developing and refining this interaction; testing (very important!); and, finally, publishing your app to an app store (for native apps) or publishing browser-based apps on your website.
App design considerations
There are other things you need to consider when designing a mobile app. Though these will vary depending on the type of app you are creating, a few key points are universal.
- Keep the user interface (the design and functions the user interacts with) as simple as possible. Minimalism is a big trend right now. Gone are the detail-packed screens. They have been replaced by neat, clean design with an emphasis on empty space. This helps draw the eye to the most important features while leaving the screen uncluttered and easy to navigate.
- Make navigation easy. Everything in your app needs to be easy to find. Many apps use a “hamburger,” for detailed menus. It’s a little set of three short horizontal lines and means users have to click into the hamburger, then make another selection. These have slowly been disappearing in favor of more natural, user-friendly interfaces, such as having a streamlined tab bar or swiping left and right or up and down to access other screens.
- Take advantage of device-specific features. Take a look at the devices you want your app to run on and see what features can enhance your users’ experience. Does it make sense to use the phone’s camera to search for an item? How about geolocation technology, using the phone’s GPS to determine where the user is? If a device has a fingerprint sensor, can a user log into your app with it or use it for mobile payments?
- Don’t overlook typography. How an app looks and feels is very important for continued use. Typography should not only reflect your brand, but also be clearly legible, no matter the size of the screen it appears on.
- Will your app integrate with wearables? Smartwatches and activity trackers are the most popular forms of wearable technology. Some of these are sophisticated enough that they can run mobile apps, both standalone and ones that tie into phone-based apps. If you’re designing a mobile app for wearables, make sure it’s easily read at a glance and can work even if you lose internet or a phone connection.
Congratulations! You’ve created an app. Now what?
Once you have your fantastic app, tell the world! The best way to let your users know you have an app is by promoting it on your website, on your social media channels and via an email blast to customers. If the app lends itself to it, make a short how-to video that you can include as part of your promotional materials. These ways of getting the word out apply to any type of app. If you have a native app, however, these are only downloadable from the appropriate app store. Take the time to research relevant keywords so it can be easily found by searches.
The other key thing to remember is that an app should never be built once and left alone. Bugs need to be squashed. Data will likely need to be updated. And since mobile operating systems are tweaked and updated periodically, native apps also need updating to ensure functionality.
The wrap on designing a mobile app
By now, you should have a pretty good idea how to build a mobile app and everything that goes into it. From finding your audience and setting goals about development and use, creating a mobile app takes a lot of time and careful thought. But, if you find it’s right for your business, it’ll be worth the effort!
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