If you build it will they come?

When the web was young it was almost enough just to have a website. It didn’t need to be great, good design was very much an option, as was consistency or any thought about how someone might want to use it. Over the years we’ve seen how this viewpoint has changed. In an extremely congested marketplace, with a reasonably low cost of entry, design and user experience matter so much more. Without them a website gets lost among the crowd and should it be found, a visitor has little incentive to remain or return.

The current app marketplaces look a lot like the web of old. It’s more important to have an app. If it isn’t great to begin with, that doesn’t matter, you can always refine and improve it. There is even the viewpoint that, as apps are so cheap to produce, you can make a huge quantity in the hope that one will be the next Angry Birds. Flinging apps into the marketplace and seeing which gain traction is probably a pretty reasonable business model at the moment. There’s enough space in the market, apps are a throwaway purchase and social buzz will suffice to get good apps noticed. However, what happens when the market begins to mature?

To take an example, there are roughly 240 million websites on the internet, with this figure growing at a rate of about 50 million a year. There are currently 300,000 or so apps in the Apple app store and that number is growing rapidly. Other app stores, such as those run by Google (Android), Nokia (Ovi), Samsung and most mobile operators, are also seeing significant growth. At some point in the not too distant future the apps landscape will come to mirror the internet; there will be so much choice that apps will risk becoming lost in the crowd.

This is when the fling and fix model will no longer work. If your app does not gain sufficient attention from day one of release there won’t be enough people using it to obtain enough comments and feedback to be able to improve it. Creating more apps in the hope that one will get noticed will also become harder and harder as the competition will only become more fierce. App developers will also be fighting the self-perpetuating “most popular” lists, where entrenched and popular apps become very hard to dislodge.

App developers should be planning for this future now. There are a number of areas existing developers should seriously consider and which might help new entrants to the app marketplace to establish themselves.

1.         Reputation

At the moment not a great many app developers have much of a reputation in the public consciousness. Ask any smartphone owner who makes any of their apps, they probably won’t know. In the future this will begin to matter. If I have to choose between two similar apps, I’m more likely to choose the one made by someone I’ve heard of. Look at the games market. Even casual gamers can often name the developer of their games and ardent gamers will often build an affiliation with certain developers. App developers need to cultivate their reputations, they need to blog, they need to tweet, they need to stir up controversy, they need to be noticed. At this point a noisy new entrant stands a very good chance of getting a foothold in the marketplace.

2.         Marketing

Social buzz is great, but you can’t rely on your app going viral. Chance is not a marketing strategy. Equally you don’t want to run a huge marketing campaign to promote your app. Fortunately there are cheap/free avenues to pursue. If you’ve developed a reputation you will have followers and maybe even media interest. Reach out to these followers, entice them with early betas and encourage them to generate interest and comment on your behalf. Moving beyond this, investigate your followers, see who talks most about you, see who has most influence and followers themselves. These people are potentially very valuable, they have an audience and they are seen as being unbiased. Start a conversation with them, give them exclusive or free access to your product, help them to feel in the know and you may have found your brand advocates. You only have to look at how much free marketing Apple obtains from Stephen Fry to see how effective this strategy can be.

3.         User experience

As with the web, in a crowded marketplace user experience becomes a key differentiator. If you get the user experience right from the outset you end up with satisfied customers more likely to use your app regularly, recommend your app to their friends (generating buzz) and, perhaps most importantly, buy another of your apps in the future. From a UX perspective there are three things an app developer should understand.

Who will use my app? Quick and targeted audience research can answer this question to ensure that you design to meet their needs.

Does my app comply with best practice? An expert review of your app at an early stage of development can help avoid common UX pitfalls and save redevelopment time later on.

Will my app deliver a good user experience? Rapid usability testing of apps can help to assess whether an app offers a good user experience and identify whether there are any issues to correct.

Answering all these questions ensures that when your app is released it has the best possible chance of success. Without this care and attention all other points become moot.

4.         Presentation

For this aspect we’re more concerned with how an app presents itself in the app store rather than the visual aesthetics of the app itself. Well presented and clear app descriptions will help users to make a decision about whether they should purchase the app. Ensure that important information is front-loaded in the description so that users are encouraged to read down the page. The screenshots provided should be carefully considered as these are also likely to be a key factor in a purchase decision. They should exhibit either the key functionality of the app or a key journey through the app to give users a clear indication of what they are purchasing. This builds confidence and helps to tip a user into making a purchase. However, be careful, too many screenshots could be overwhelming. Between five and seven screenshots should be sufficient for most apps.

5.         Findability

Consider how people will find your app. Is it correctly categorised in the app store? If it isn’t people may never notice it and those that do are likely to have a different purchase goal in mind. Does the icon communicate its purpose? An ambiguous icon will prevent an app from being noticed as easily. It is also missing a chance to help users to understand its purpose. Has it got a name that communicates what it does? Obscure names can gain traction, but a more obvious name will help those users adopting a browse and scan behaviour. Where will people be looking for the app, online or on their phone or device? How is it presented in these different channels? How and where app info is accessed will influence how this information should be presented. App information should be designed to reflect where it will be viewed.

6.         Feedback All feedback is valuable. Good app developers will already be monitoring the feedback their app receives and fixing the issues raised. When viewing negative feedback careful consideration should be put into what the source of the user’s issue is. Clear technical problems such as crashing are easy to handle, but some feedback may suggest underlying misunderstandings, usability issues, incorrect mental models and other design issues. Run through your app, understand the context in which the issue occurred and try to understand the true nature of the issue. When examining an issue it is also important to understand, the severity of the issue and the number of people it is likely to affect. This will help to determine how urgently the issue should be attended to, if at all.

The app market is busy, but not yet crowded. If you are an existing app developer you should be looking to cement your position in the market. For new entrants it’s not too late to gain a foothold. Focusing on each of the six criteria covered in this article can make a difference to app developers now, in the future they may well become essential.