5 secrets for mobile app success from top design firms

How can you make your mobile apps stand out from the crowd? I put this question to five top design firms, and here's what I learned:

  1. Focus on the user experience
  2. Keep your mobile app simple
  3. Use agile methodologies for frequent releases
  4. Test your app after release
  5. Have great customer support

Let's take a look at each strategy.

1. Focus on the user experience

Since 2007, WillowTree has built more than 330 apps, including mobile solutions for major brands such as Johnson & Johnson, AOL, and Time Warner. The company says its customers seek out WillowTree's fresh-thinking, problem-solving approach.

Whether they're figuring out how an app can place an order while it's offline, like Gexpro QuickPix, or designing a way for fans to get a unique perspective on a game, like the New York City Football Club app, "Clients hire us when they want something different," says CEO Tobias Dengel.

The company's approach to app development is based on the idea that "user experience is everything," according to Dengel. "The value of software is driven by how good the user experience is, not how many features it has." UX is particularly important in mobile applications, he says, because in mobile "you have so much less screen real estate and slower connectivity, so great design and execution make incredible differences in terms of user experience."

Dengel says a key element of creating compelling UX and successful apps is tight collaboration among designers, developers, and the QA team. A great analytics team is also essential in helping both developers and clients understand usage and improve UX.

Find WillowTree apps on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and Twitter.

2. Keep your mobile app simple

Founded in 2009, Y Media Labs has created more than 150 apps, including the digital wallet for PayPal. Its Intro to Letters, an educational app based on Montessori principles, was featured in Apple advertising and inspired a congratulatory email from Steve Jobs. Its Nom Nom Paleo app, showcasing recipes for Paleo diets, won a Webby Award.

The company's internal mantra is "yield to nothing," referring to an approach of constantly testing limits with each new product. An example of this is Klub by Staples, an app that Y Media designed to push the boundaries of how retailers use mobile for e-commerce. The app offers users an easy and intuitive way to access wholesale bulk deals with no shipping charges, no membership fees, and instant reordering functionality.

Y Media's approach is to design an app around an understanding of how it will function in the real world, including how it will engage distracted, on-the-go users.

"Apps aren't websites and need to have a laser focus to succeed," says Director of Strategy Robbie Abed. Accordingly, the company's strategy, design, and development teams approach each new project by focusing on two core use cases around which to build each app.

Find Y Media Labs on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

3. Use agile methodologies for frequent releases

QBurst has developed 250 mobile apps since launching in 2004 with a vision of becoming "the world's best" custom web and mobile app development firm. The company has been pursuing that goal ever since with projects for major clients, including National Geographic, Peugeot, and Dell.

The QBurst team stays responsive to the needs of such clients with agile software development methodologies such as scrum and best practices such as continuous integration, unit testing, and frequent releases.

"We follow an iterative and incremental development model, recording and incorporating client feedback at various stages during the project," says Niranjana Nair, director of business development. "We use web-based project management and collaboration tools such as Trac and Redmine to ensure projects stay on track."

The apps QBurst has developed range widely in type and subject. Some of the most notable include NYU SternPlay, an app that coordinates action by users in a school community; the Weight Tracker weight loss app; the Peugeot Augmented Reality app that helps drivers better understand and envision their driving experience; the Q8 Photo customized art creator; and the Kever project tracking app.

Find QBurst on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and Twitter.

4. Test your app after release

Started by a 25-year-old in a basement in 2002, Maryland-based DMI now has more than 1,200 employees and handles everything from app development, to "big data insights," to omnichannel commerce for its clients.

Its most prominent projects match the scope of this ambition. One of its most visible apps is Addison Lee, the main competitor to Uber in the United Kingdom, which boasts $500 million in annual revenue. DMI also designed O2 Priority Moments, the most successful mobile loyalty program in Europe with more than $2 billion in incremental revenue, and the Budweiser Man of the Match app, which had more than 10 million active users during the 2014 World Cup. Vegas (the app) is also the leading mobile ticketing provider in Las Vegas.

The company's strategy for making successful apps is a relentless quest to hone the quality of its products, even after they go out into the world. "Never stop improving," says Magnus Jern, president of DMI's mobile application solutions division. "Test, test, and test with the target users until you get it right. Once launched, continue to use analytics, customer feedback, and A/B testing to optimize and improve the application."

Find DMI on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

5. Have great customer support

Ratio has built and launched more than 200 apps for a broad range of platforms since the company started in 2001. Two of its most popular products, Pokémon TV and Machinima for Xbox, have been downloaded millions of times. Some of the company's other successful apps include the Seattle Times mobile experience, the Allrecipes Video Cookbook app, and the Creativebug DIY video app.

The company's approach is to "find opportunities to delight while avoiding superfluous experiences," says chief strategy officer Russ Whitman. Robust engineering and elegant UX are at the center of Ratio's app-design strategy. Following this guidance helped the company assist in reimagining Foursquare for tablets, creating an app that Whitman calls "both beautiful and functional." Similarly, Ratio designed BooksILove as a visually stunning and novel tool for recommending books to friends.

Ratio has found that taking a multi-screen approach drives more successful application development and market adoption. Ratio's full-surround, multi-screen approach to the iCookbook cooking and recipe app helped the product win a bevy of honors, including two Appy Awards.

Whitman emphasizes that, as in any business, treating customers well is essential: "Customer support can be your best tool for long-term success."

Find Ratio on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

Gartner Magic Quadrant for Software Test Automation

Make your app a success

The mobile app design industry isn't even in its teens, but it already boasts some serious heavy hitters with impressive and creative portfolios. A relentless emphasis on innovation and a sense of infectious excitement about the possibilities of mobile technology unites these companies in purpose.

All these companies also share a focus on the customer. Sure, technical skill matters—but you can only succeed if you use that skill to meet the customer's needs.

How about you? What strategies have you found most important for developing mobile apps?

Gartner Magic Quadrant for Software Test Automation
Topics: Dev & Test