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What developers should consider when building a mobile app

Erik Sherman Journalist, Independent

Apps have become the go-to tool for mobile marketing, engagement with customers, and technology business models. The surface appeal of apps is understandable. According to comScore's 2015 U.S. Mobile App Report, mobile accounts for 62 percent of all digital media time spent by consumers while mobile apps by themselves represent 54 percent.

And yet for all the seeming success, developers can easily fall into an app rut, which means that few of their apps get massive adoption. And of the ones that do get downloaded, most are dropped after a low number of uses. But some developers and companies are breaking out of the rat race by looking differently at how to provide mobile services.

This article describes some of the major problems app developers face in getting attention and ways to overcome the challenge.

Trapped in the app model

There are at least 1.5 million apps available in the Apple App Store and 1.6 million Android apps, according to Statista. Reaching massive audiences is rare: comScore estimates that there are only 63 apps that have between 5 million and 10 million users, while another 33 have between 10 million and 20 million and only 27 have more than 20 million.

That is 123 apps in total, even though the average smartphone user has 36 apps installed, according to a Google/Ipsos survey. But there is enormous concentration among the most popular apps. Only 26 percent of the apps are used daily, and another 25 percent installed are never used. What's more, apps are abandoned at a high rate, with two-thirds dropped after being used only 10 times or less, according to mobile analytics company Localytics.

The overwhelming statistics explain why developers and brands are looking for other ways to satisfy customers' mobile itch.

Old-school mobile web

One approach to breaking out of the app rut is abandoning mobile apps entirely and relying on mobile web. This may seem like a solid 2007 strategy, but consider that some big companies are using this successfully today. One example is Kellogg, which built a loyalty program without the use of native apps.

"We don't want to just go after every shiny object," says Mark Staples, associate director for Kellogg's Family Rewards. That included an app, because many of the company's customers don't have smartphones. "We wanted to make sure we didn't disregard them."

Instead, Kellogg has its loyalty program users—currently numbering 9 million—bookmark the website. Consumers can take a picture of a grocery store receipt and upload it via the website. Many connect their grocery store loyalty card to the Kellogg account, saving the step of using the phone's camera.

SMS messages can do marvels

If mobile web seems like a throwback, relying on SMS messages may seem downright archaic. And yet, companies have made smart use of the technology in a number of ways. Texting is hugely popular and provides solid mobile services and capabilities.

Aspect Software provides contact center services and is expanding use of SMS, both in an interactive form with artificial intelligence agents and also combining the technology with HTML5 links.

"What we're proposing—we're working with several companies right now—is to make that text message actionable in two ways," says Tobias Goebel, director of emerging technologies. "If the matter isn't sensitive, then keep the conversation on the text channel but apply AI to keep the matter automated."

If security is a consideration, as with a hospital or financial services institution, Aspect can enable delivery of a short URL with an expiration date that loads an HTML5 app for the duration of its use. "You're being deep linked into a page that gives you exactly what you need at that time," Goebel says. "Even though it might be one page of a patient portal, it is the [right] page pre-populated with the information."

In either case, such a system could handle information delivery like account balances or permission-based actions like payment authorizations, largely eliminating the need to depend on app usage.

Customers are "experiencing app fatigue," Goebel says. "For every single operation, we don't want to be forced to download an app." He pointed to the ad from insurance company Geico that featured a pig at a gym discussing how useful the app was. "How many times do people have accidents in a year that they need to constantly check with their insurance [company]?"

Get customers involved in development

If you want to see users make use of your software, try involving them in project planning and design. That's a classic corporate IT method that seems to interest users through a sense of ownership. App companies can do the equivalent with a hackathon. Software development consultancy Persistent Systems has used this technique to drive innovation that gets user buy-in.

"You have all the stakeholders from the development side [to the] people who are going to be the users who give you real-time live feedback," says Anagha Vyas, head of the company's Dublin, Ohio-based development center. In a marathon 24-hour session for one of the company's business units and its clients, 8 to 10 competing teams, each with 6 to 10 people, work to solve a problem. "The best team's app gets posted in the app exchange, or there is a monetary benefit," Vyas says. "It's a very intense and short period. The challenge is to make sure once you have an idea, you need to define what you can achieve in the 24 hours."

The result won't be a final product, but it will be something to show and receive feedback. "It has to be fleshed out and be productized," Vyas says, but it builds user excitement and a sense of ownership, which increases the chance of something being used.

Customize your users' experience

In addition, Nancy Hua, CEO of consultancy Apptimize, suggests tailoring landing pages for people who want to use some mobile service. "There's a ton of data that different apps have about customers," Hua says. "One way to distinguish yourself from the rest is not to ignore that data and force people to go through the generic experience. An example would be, say, people click on an ad to buy a specific kind of ticket." Don't send them to a general download page or even activation of an app, she says. Preload the transaction with the information for the specific type of ticket they want.

"There's a lot of logic you can put in," Hua says. "Give them a better experience. It's not that hard to infer specifically what they wanted it."

Find and solve the need!

Although the standard approach to apps may be alluring, often because it has become a habit among developers and companies, remember that you are trying to solve a user's problem and meet a need, not find an excuse to write and deploy an app. Find the approach that best does what is needed, even if it doesn't involve an app store.

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