“There’s an app for that.” We’ve all heard it said before. Sometimes it’s in earnest, sometimes it’s just to be funny (and often is). But the truth is, there is an app for just about every B2B or B2C need.
While it’s an exciting time, both for business owners providing a solution to a need and for software companies pushing existing technologies or breaking new ground, it’s also a road littered with corpses of apps that didn’t exactly cut it. They might have began their lives as great ideas that really addressed a business need, but somewhere along the way, the train derailed and is now a rusting hunk of steel in the middle of nowhere.
According to Business Insider, 65% of Americans download precisely ZERO apps per month. However, with 5.2 Million apps available between the App Store and the Google Play Store, there’s a huge disparity between the supply and the demand. A look at the myriad data available to us points to an increasing majority of Americans using smartphones, but using a limited number of apps.
To help you stay on track and maximize user engagement, let’s look at five common strategic and tactical areas that are often neglected as apps go from idea to app store, as well as ways to prevent each from happening.
Problem #1: Users aren’t connecting. I’m not talking about networks and data access. I’m talking about that moment when your users look at their mobile device and ask themselves, “Why did I even download this?” And then they delete your app so that iOS will stop sending them notifications that they’re running out of storage space.
Prevention: Know your onions. And by “onions,” I mean your customers, internal or external. This is the main reason that apps fail. Design and build an app based on what the users need, not on what you think they need.
The driving question behind every app (not counting games) should be, “What is the customer need that we are trying to satisfy?” This hereforth shall be referred to as the “Ultimate Question.”
Answering that question can be a little more difficult, however.
In an article called, “The Data Behind Why Apps Fail,” UX guru Austin Knight points out that, of the apps that are downloaded by users, an average of only 1 in 4 actually keep the app. “This points to two major issues in the UX and Growth strategies that many apps are employing today, where they’re not properly identifying a viable need for their product before they develop it, and when they do develop it, they’re not researching how users would expect it to function. Instead, they’re just creating what they personally like or what they think others would like, in total absence of any real data. And it just isn’t working.”
So if you’re interested in developing a consumer app that is, to borrow another term Knight uses, “The Uber of X,” spend some time and and invest some money researching solid market data that can help you identify the need you’re trying to address.
If you’re creating an internal app for your organization, study your department’s metrics and, most importantly, actually talk (and listen) to the people doing the work and solicit their feedback. Not only will this help you on the front end, but sharing this data with your project team will better inform the user experience and development.
Problem #2: The app is too complex. Einstein once said, “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.”
Mobile apps are no different. If the users cannot understand what they are meant to do, they will get frustrated and leave. Maybe you tried to do too much with the app, or maybe the path from Point A to Point B has so many twists and turns that the users simply get lost along the way.
Prevention: Draw a map. Have you ever walked through an Italian city? If you have, you know how easy it is to get lost. Why? Because unlike our nice, neat, grid-like urban environments in America, Italian streets go wherever they want. You may see the darkest, narrowest alleyway, but chances are it’s still a street with a name, and if you miss it, you could end up clear on the opposite side of town.
So how do you avoid that when creating a mobile app?
If you don’t have a UX team that can do this for you (and if you have one, you really should use them, because this is a big part of what we do), you can draw a map. Literally. Using your Ultimate Question from Problem #1 as the starting point, write down the specific tasks you want your users to accomplish. For each task, write out the steps needed to get there as clearly and simply as possible. Now draw a line from Ultimate Question, through each step, to the End Goal. There’s your basic path. It may not be pretty, and that’s okay. It’s a starting point, and the UX team you end up working with can help you fine-tune it.
It’s worth mentioning that the clearest path isn’t always the shortest path. There exists a concept called the “Three-Click/Tap Rule,” which says that users will leave a web or app experience if they can’t find what they’re looking for in three clicks/taps or fewer. Some folks can get obsessive about click counts, as if each click or tap takes a dollar out of their “click budget” and they’re worried about running out. But there is solid research that shows that users don’t mind making extra taps if they get something out of it. What this translates to is an opportunity to delight your users with something fun and engaging, whether it’s as simple as a cool little animation that confirms something has happened or as complex as relevant images cascading across your screen (more on that topic below).
Problem #3: The app doesn’t work. According to Murphy’s Law, “Anything that can go wrong willgo wrong.”
I’ll never forget going to a launch party for an app that sought to inject in-store shopping experiences with a good dose of social media. I downloaded the app, opened it up, signed up for an account, and hit the “Register” button.
And that second, the app crashed.
Re-opened the app, repeated the sign-up process, and was met with another crash. And another. And another. Maddening.
This company had invested several thousands of dollars in marketing, hype, closing down a street in a popular retail area, hiring bands to play the launch party, and bringing in other vendors to take advantage of the crowds. But the app we were all there to celebrate couldn’t even get us past the sign-up process. I got home that night and deleted the app, never to use it again.
Prevention: Test, Test, Test, and have a Plan B. It sounds like the most obvious answer. But if you skimp on your QA, you’re asking for problems. Not testing properly is a tactical mistake that could well have strategic consequences.
Not all technical errors happen on initial release, though. Sometimes an app works spectacularly until a subsequent version is released that removes helpful features or just plain doesn’t work. To avoid this scenario, it’s necessary to have a backup plan, like rolling back to a previous version so that you can fix bugs offline and with minimal downtime.
Doing this could have prevented the abysmal initial failure of the highly-anticipated Common App, which was supposed to greatly simplify the college application experience but was riddled with bugs. It is worth noting, however, that the folks behind the Common App, through transparency and honest communication, were able to fix the bugs and reestablish trust with their user base.
Problem #4: The app is trying to do too much. It’s the old “10 pounds of app in a 5-pound bag,” trying to do too many things with one app. This often is the result of scope-creep, and needs to be guarded against.
This can be especially problematic if you’re part of a large organization, where decisions threaten to become political in nature and become more about “who got to participate” than “what is in the best interest of the app and users.”
Another issue for organizations of all sizes is not being able to reign in the imagination. Imagination is a beautiful thing, but when brainstorming turns into a game of “Hey wouldn’t it be cool if…,” it’s easy to lose sight of your original solution.
Prevention: Kill your darlings. Those of us in the UX and design worlds use this phrase all the time. It means “be willing to give up an idea that you really want in order to have the solution you really need.” It’s a difficult concept at times, but it’s a really good practice to get into.
I mentioned earlier that answering your Ultimate Question can be difficult. That’s because there can be more than one answer to your question. And that’s okay. What that means is that you’ll have to be extra mindful about prioritizing those answers and goals when deciding which ones to implement in your app. You may come up with ten things that you’d like to have in your app, but you may only have the time or budget to include seven of them. So then it becomes necessary to decide which features are “needs” and which ones are “wants,” and then prioritize the remaining features accordingly. This not only helps keep the app from getting too bloated, but it also helps the design and development teams keep the user experience clean and, more importantly, meaningful.
Problem #5: The app is boring. Users are going to get bored with a mobile app if there’s nothing to engage them, and your data doesn’t count. How you present that data matters a great deal and contributes greatly to the user experience, which basically amounts to how your app makes users feel. Users may feel like your app is boring because it has no personality (I would say, “like a robot,” but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate; R2-D2 is engaging and lovable because he doeshave a personality).
Prevention: Delight your users. In his article simply titled, “Delightful Experience,” developer Nick Babich says, “‘Delight’ is a word that we are hearing more of to describe pleasurable moments in our products. Delight is a magic that makes us fall in love with a product. It’s a core element to strive for when designing.” His article goes on to discuss some of the things that make a user’s experience with your app delightful and pleasurable. These include personalized experiences, branding consistency throughout the app, and animations and other microinteractions. Gamification is another method of user engagement that has enjoyed increasing success over the years. It rewards users for using your app and entices them to keep doing so.
It’s easy for people to scoff at the idea of using empathy when designing software, but empathy is putting yourself in the user’s shoes and designing from a standpoint of what would be meaningful to them. This is the crux of meaningful user-centered design.
This is where all of that research you did for Problem #1 gets put into practice. The UX team will take use your data and may supplement it with their own research, including conducting their own interviews with end users and gathering requirements. All of this will inform the work going forward, from sketching out preliminary concepts through the actual development and testing processes.