Developing a great app – what does it take?
Over time we have found there are common elements to an app development project that we discuss with clients around what it takes to build a mobile app that will succeed, either internally for business transformation projects, or in the marketplace for new product start-up’s.
Here is a list of what we believe to be the most important elements in developing a successful mobile application.
This needs the least explanation and is usually the most formed aspect of what people come to us with, however, it is worth noting that it will speed up the ability of an app development agency to give feedback on your idea if you have at least written a one-page brief on your concept. If you’re clear on what you want even to the point of sketching specific screens, digitally or by hand, and writing notes on how it will operate that’s even better.
User Experience Design
An absolutely key part of an app’s success lies in the User Experience (UX) Design. The aim is to make your app as simple for a user to understand and get started with as possible, as well as for all operations to make natural sense to them without instructions. This sounds easy but as Steve Job’s once said in an interview, “Simple can be harder than complex: you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.” One of our key concepts at Applicable is “Elegant Simplicity” and we have many years of experience helping to refine people’s ideas in this area.
Prototyping and User Testing
Generally speaking, people will surprise you, and us, in terms of how they try to use an app once it’s in front of them. Perhaps there are exceptions in simple cases, but often the best way to ensure an app is going to be received as you intend is to build a prototype that captures the UX, design look ‘n feel and at least mocks up the processes it will carry out. This way you can test it with sample users and get feedback before investing the much larger sums involved in building it.
Most of the work done creating a prototype, in particular UX design and graphic design, is needed ahead of the build phase anyway, so there isn’t a lot of productive time lost by going through this step.
While market validation sits with the client, we believe app developers have an essential role to play in advising people, based on their experience, as to what they see as risks to the product’s success. This is particularly true for start-up products, however we’ve observed a tendency for some agencies just to be super positive about everything because they want the work. If you choose to work with us be prepared for us to challenge your thinking at times.
This is the boring sounding stuff that is actually super important long-term. There are many different approaches to creating apps and each comes with pro’s and con’s. For instance, the cheapest approaches often involve leveraging an app creation platform, or low-code app development system, but often these pathways will come with restraints, license fees and/or limitations that may torpedo the app at a later date, requiring you to get it rebuilt to take further.
The next tier up of solution involves products that enable you to build a cross-platform app relatively quickly utilising web technologies, but these apps utilise the browser engine on devices in order to run the app and, while fit for many purposes, can compromise both speed and experience in subtle ways.
The highest quality approach to building a modern cross-platform (Apple and Android) mobile app is to use a framework that produces a true native app for release to each platform. At Applicable we specialise in React Native, which is probably the most common industry choice, however other suitable alternatives include Flutter and Vue Native.
This is the part that many people come to us without much awareness of and it is one of the reasons app development costs more than people often imagine. The simple way of explaining this is that an app only runs on a user’s device; any interaction it may have with other users’ apps, back-office systems, centralised data stores, notification-sending systems and so forth is via an internet connection to software hosted in the cloud which we loosely call “the back-end”.
The back-end combines a data gateway for the apps to connect to (called an API), a central database, user authentication, often various data processing and business logic, any integrations to other systems and usually a web-based area for your management of the app, billing and more. Some of the simpler apps can utilise off-the-shelf Mobile-Backend-As-A-Service (MBaaS) platforms on a subscription basis, however more specialised requirements require custom building a back-end suited to the app project.
Although this can often add around 30% to the build time for each of the mobile app and the back-end, it’s well worth considering the investment since the problem that faces most software is that updates, or even fixes, can inadvertently break other things that were working. This is called “regression” and it can often be time-consuming and hard to spot via manual testing.
Also, because test can be run almost instantly on an app prior to releases, it is much easier to release improvements on a more frequent basis than when reliant only on manual checks.
User feedback and fine-tuning
Despite everyone’s best efforts, it’s unusual for an app to be the best version of itself right from the outset, otherwise, why would it be that most apps you currently use receive updates over time? Consider including feedback mechanisms in your apps, or for internal apps seek such feedback from users directly so that you can continue to refine the value and experience your app delivers.
In the early days of mobile apps, they often succeeded just by meeting a need and existing, but we’re well past that point these days. For consumer apps in particular it is worth considering that your marketing budget probably needs to be significantly higher than the whole cost of designing and building the app and back-end software products themselves. Understanding just how much you will need to spend should be part of your business planning and market validation phase.
If this all sounds somewhat daunting it’s because it is. Apps require no small commitment of time and resources and you will need a strong internal business case, or external market need, for the journey to be worth it.
Having said that, from our experience they can be one of the most exciting, innovative and revolutionising of all digital projects. If the validation of your concept is strong then talk to us further about how we can help you succeed in your vision.