Back in the 90’s, people needed websites. They had no idea why they needed websites, and the most common justification was “my boss told me to get our company a website.”
Strangely enough, those bosses were right!
It didn’t matter that no one had thought about why they needed a website or what the users of that website should be able to do. It was important to get out there and see what the technology could do.
Companies that were early adopters of websites put themselves in a position to collect valuable feedback from their users—and gained a strategic advantage because of it.
Fast forward to today. Replace “website” with “mobile app.”
But where to begin?
Here’s a step-by-step guide for finding out whether a mobile app will have ROI for your business, and what your users will do with your mobile app once they’ve downloaded it.
Step 1 — Buy a Smart Phone
If you are contemplating building an iPhone app, buy an iPhone. If you are contemplating an Android app, buy an Android phone. If you’re contemplating both…buy both. Seriously. You cannot provide useful guidance and feedback on a project if you don’t know the platform. Imagine giving feedback on a new website if you’ve never opened a browser. If your employer isn’t willing to purchase smart phone devices and plans, they’re not serious about a mobile app.
The standard interface controls and interaction techniques are very different between different mobile devices, and you’ll only cause trouble if you try to shape the user experience based on a “website view of the world.” Interaction design mistakes and poor feature selection are much more costly than a dozen iPhones and their monthly service plans.
Step 2 — Ask Your Audience
Conduct a survey of your current “best customers”—or just a random sampling—to gauge interest in mobile apps. Questions might include:
What features of our current website/application would you like to access from a smart phone?
It may be more useful to list specific features and let users indicate which ones they’d like. Ideally, you make users place these features in rank order to see which ones rise to the top.
If a few features do in fact rise to the top, start your planning there. If nothing rises to the top, your customers may not be ready for a mobile app.
What mobile apps do you currently use to accomplish your work?
Knowing that your customers play a lot of “Angry Birds” isn’t going to help you decide if your mobile app will have ROI (unless, of course, you’re looking to break into the game market). Ask about apps that indicate a need for functionality that is connected to your business. Make sure you buy frequently mentioned apps so you can understand the work your customers are doing on their smart phones.
What websites do you currently use from your smart phone to accomplish your work?
While downloadable apps typically offer the best user experience on a mobile device, these apps only work on a single operating system (e.g. Android). In addition, installed apps typically only work on the latest and most expensive mobile devices. If your customers use a wide array of devices and platforms, you may want to consider a mobile-optimized website instead of (or in addition to) an installed app. A mobile-optimized website works on any phone or device that can connect to the Internet and has a mobile browser. This allows you to reach audiences on iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Windows Mobile, and many other platforms.
Which smart phone platform are you on?
While Apple’s iOS platform (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch) still carries the most market share, Google’s Android platform is gaining ground in many markets. Be careful, however, of aggregate statistics that are often heavily slanted towards young, affluent, tech-savvy users. These users are a very large proportion of the total smart phone user population and may not be the best indicators of what best suits your needs. Look at your audience. A recent poll by Nielsen indicated that the Blackberry platform is still the most used by people age 45 and up. (http://blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/online_mobile/mobile-snapshot-smartphones-now-28-of-u-s-cellphone-market/). Platform adoption can vary widely by industry, age, ethnicity, and geography.
If you don’t currently own a smart phone, how likely is it that you’ll purchase one in the next 12 months?
While asking users to self-report about their future purchasing activity is fraught with some peril…it’s worth asking anyway. Mobile usage is exploding. Changes in mobile carrier and/or device availability can lead to spikes in purchasing of certain devices and service plans.
Step 3 — Look at the other guys
Explore the competitive landscape. Find out if there’s an under-served need for your app in the marketplace.
Do your bricks & mortar or web competitors have mobile apps already? If so, download them and use them. Get other people to use them too. Find out as much as you can about the apps with which you’ll be competing in the app store.
Perhaps the current set of offerings falls short on usability, design, or functionality? Or maybe you’ve got a unique idea that no one else has?
Step 4 — Test the waters
A prototype application is the most cost-effective way to get necessary user feedback.
For some companies, this means creating a paper prototype. Doing user testing on a paper prototype mobile app is a low-cost way to get feedback on features, expectations, and flow.
The prototype may also be a full-fledged beta app, which can be installed on devices and used for “real world” user feedback. Obviously, there is more cost associated with this approach, but you can more quickly move to market by testing a real app. There are many mobile device features that just can’t be replicated on paper: swiping, pinching, shaking, sound effects, and more. Even if you’ve already tested on paper, be sure to conduct user testing with a beta version of the mobile app, too.
Step 5 — Dive in
Once you’ve completed the prototype app and gotten feedback from users, it’s time to build the real thing. Of course, you’ll be incorporating everything you’ve learned from user testing and other audience feedback. In addition, you’ll be paying close attention to any user interface guidelines provided by the platform vendor of choice (e.g. Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines).
You’ll also need to think about how your app will be discovered in various app stores, what the app should be named, how it will be branded, and many other factors.
Make sure you have a plan in place for marketing your new app and measuring app usage / ROI.
Step 6 — Collect more feedback
Notice a theme here? In addition to app store reviews, more surveys, and anecdotal feedback, you owe it to yourself (and your customers) to test the “real” app with users.
You’re not just asking them what they think; the most valuable feedback comes from getting them into a room and watching them use your app to accomplish real user goals. You’ll want to record these sessions so that the design and development team can benefit from an unfiltered view of how real users interact with the app they’ve created.
Ideally, each task that users are asked to perform has clearly-defined success criteria. This allows you to measure improvement on these tasks in subsequent user testing.
Step 7 — Refine and support
Once user testing is complete, it’s time to incorporate this feedback into the app and release a new version.
Step 6 (Collect more feedback) and Step 7 (Refine and support) should be an iterative loop that extends far into the future. This is important. It’s a waste of money to create a mobile app and then forget about it. Apps that aren’t updated are like buildings that don’t get painted—they are a poor reflection on your company and are public evidence of a lack of follow-through. User reviews will quickly turn sour if you are not there to support your app.
What’s more, platform and device upgrades happen every few weeks, and features are constantly being added, changed, or deprecated. Competition in the app stores changes daily. Part of having a mobile app strategy is to create a plan and budget for the care and nourishment of your app.
We’ve come a long way since the 1990’s. Companies can and should develop a realistic strategy for getting into the mobile app world before they haul off and spend a bunch of money.
Hopefully this gives you a good place to start. If you still have questions…you know where to find me.