Creating a mobile app seems to be all the rage at the moment, so you can be forgiven for thinking that getting on the ‘app’ train seems like the right move to keep your business relevant in this ever-changing digital landscape. But, unless you have a real offering for your customers, you should rethink entering into such a project in favour of focusing on more appropriate digital channels.

What is an App?

‘App’ is short for ‘Application’, a piece of software programmed with a specific use in mind. It has to do something. Fulfil a practical need, oftentimes using the hardware in a way that a website can’t (e.g. 3D gaming). For it to be successful, it has to fulfil the user’s need and create a great user experience.

You may be reading this thinking to yourself “but giving users a way to peruse my wares is an application!”, while this is true, there’s already a way for users to find this information, it’s called the internet. Creating an app when a website will do the job is tantamount to putting a multimedia presentation on a CD-ROM and sending it via snail mail; even if anyone bothers to view it, they’re throwing it away after five minutes. Here’s a good article breaking down the pros and cons of apps vs websites.

Do You Need an App?

There is a simple test you can do to prove this: think about your next major-ish purchase and how you’re going to get information on that product. My bet is the first thing you do is open Google and do a search for the product, followed by maybe visiting the company website and then maybe even searching for reviews. I’ll also bet the last thing you do is visit the App/Play store and search for the company app.

Apps really do need to fulfil a purpose in order to gain any traction, so you need to get past the brochureware mentality. Depending on the type of business you’re running and what you’re trying to achieve, there’s the value you can provide to your customers, but you’ll need to dig deep to find it.

An app for your business should be a tool which is useful and that your brand can reap the positive association from. For instance, if you’re a bank, your app might be a way for your customers to track their expenses; or if you’re a car manufacturer, your app might allow the user to interact with their car in a special way. You could even go down the path of creating a game, as long as you’re doing it for the right reasons (hint: you want to create a great gaming experience for your user). Creating something useful, with great user experience, is the best way to do an app for your business. Users will appreciate you for not doing the hard sell and they’ll be more open to any marketing messages you do slip in there.

If you have an idea for an app, ask yourself three questions before you get started developing it:

1) Could the functionality of this app easily be created in a mobile website?

If the answer is ‘yes’, then focus on creating a mobile site. A good mobile site is far better than an average mobile app for a number of reasons, but mainly because it’s much easier for people to access your mobile site than it is for you to drive people to download your app. If you need a bit of help improving your site, check out our article on UX tips for WordPress.Your app needs to be accessible by as many people as possible, so depending on your target audience, you’ll need to build it across multiple platforms (iOS, Android, Windows, Symbian etc.) in order to get maximum reach. A mobile site is easily reachable by almost all devices.

2) Will the app be truly useful for my customers?

It’s very important that you put yourself in your customers’ shoes on this. Do some persona profiles of the different types of people who you want to use your app. Really get into their headspace, try to think how they would think. Next, do some rough sketches of key screens for your app. Define the main functionality of the app on paper. This will help you immensely in understanding how your idea translates. Now, pretend you’re each of the personas you’ve created and run through the key screens of your app. If you find at any point the app doesn’t make sense, or it does something the user could (or would) easily find on your website, then you probably don’t need an app. Before investing in the app itself it really is worth investing in some experience research beforehand.

3) Am I prepared to fully commit to creating a great experience for the user?

App development often isn’t cheap and budgets can blow out very easily, so having a clear vision for the app supported by a proper discovery and planning phase is paramount to its success. I can’t stress enough how important creating a great user experience is. If you put the user first they will be more receptive to any marketing messages you deliver. The success of the app means positive reinforcement for your brand, which means that your marketing goals can be met with far greater efficiency.

Mobile apps are all the trend at the moment, but it’s important to not jump in without giving it some serious thought. Investing in an app when a website will do, or creating a bad brochureware style app, will potentially hurt your brand and waste your money. Remember the adage “customer service builds brands”? In the digital world, this translates to “great user experiences build brands”. So remember, as in the non-digital world, users need to come first.

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