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Why your company does not need a mobile app

Posted by on June 13th, 2012

Why your company does not need a mobile app
It is no secret that the latest hot trend in business and technology is for a company or organisation to launch a mobile app. Smartphone usage is growing exponentially and so many people wrongly believe they should also jump on the bandwagon. Usually these apps are nothing more than a self promotion opportunity or at best, a dumbed down task that really has no relevance to the hardware or real benefits of being on a mobile device.

Building a mobile application is not for the faint of heart. It is likely to be a big investment in terms of money, time and resources. However, when it is done right, I strongly believe a mobile app can be a huge asset to your company and your future strategy.

So if you are considering investing in a mobile application for your company, here are some things to consider before you make your final decision.

The vanity bandwagon

Firstly, if you are looking to build a mobile app for your company just so you can show it off at conferences or down the golf club, you need to really consider whether this is really an appropriate use of your company’s investment. As I said, having a mobile application is currently the hot thing to do. Yes, it is impressive to be on the cutting edge, but if the vision of your app is just for vanity, it’s going to be a waste of time and money.

You need to solve a problem

It’s very easy to think up potential ideas for mobile applications, if you are reading this I’m sure you’ve already thought of a number of “great” ideas. But when it comes down to it, having a great idea is not enough. You need to be solving a problem.

Imagine if you’ve already decided to invest in an application, you’ve had it made and you’ve successfully launched it into the app market, who is going to use it? Do you really think your idea is going to have people opening this application on a daily basis? What problem are you solving? What is the reason for the average user to continually open your application? What do they get out of it? In what situation do they use it?

Having a great idea is all well and good, and it might very well make for a great mobile app. But if you aren’t answering all of the above questions with good solid answers, you are going to launch an application that never gets used.

The “build it and they will come” fallacy

The number of people who now have smartphones, combined with the rate of people who are buying their first smartphone is staggering, and so it has created a huge opportunity. Smartphone usage has already overtaken traditional computer usage, and it opens up a number of exciting opportunities when you consider micro-payments, geo-location awareness and the fact that people are going to be more engaged with their phone for a bigger part of the day.

However, this has also created a fallacy that, “if we build it, they will come”.

Just because there is now a new established market to enter, does not mean that your company or application will succeed. The “viral” nature of outlier applications like Instagram has created this fallacy that the market itself will drive usage and new user acquisition. However, it is far more likely that you application will not be installed by anyone, but rather join the application graveyard that is inevitable for the majority.

Apple has created a huge opportunity for people who are looking to create revenue from their app. It is now incredibly easy to build an application that utilises Apple’s payment back-end natively within the app. Apple already has millions of user’s credit card details stored in their database, and so monetising an application can be as easy as a single tap. However, this is another fallacy. Just because the potential users and payment facilities are there, does not mean people will make purchases. If you are creating a freemium game that relies on in-app purchases to monetise, don’t think just because the option is there you will be an instant success. It is far more likely that you won’t make any significant money at all, and you will most likely not re-coup your investment.

Not utilising the characteristics of the hardware / software or the typical usage of the device

Another filter you should put your fantastic new idea for an app through is “will this app fully utilise the characteristics of the hardware, software and the typical usage of the device”. This is a key consideration because, if you idea fails this test, you are certain to be wasting your time and money. The typical pointless application I see is essentially a brochure for the company or the organisation. This type of application has no relevance to the opportunity of creating something for a mobile device. Instead, it is attempting to jump on the app bandwagon and hoping to get traction because of the market opportunity.

When filtering your ideas, you should be considering the following points.

“Does my idea make the most of…”

  • The restricted and focused real-estate of the screen
  • The short bursts of usage that is typical of a mobile application
  • The phone’s sensors, geo-location, connectivity, camera, microphone

If your idea is not making use of these characteristics of a mobile device, is there any advantage of it being a mobile application at all?

An application Vs a website

There are a number of similarities, and a number of stark differences between a mobile application and a website.

Firstly, if your idea is not taking advantage of the key benefits of being a piece of mobile software, you could save yourself a lot of time and money by making a responsive website that works natively on a mobile device. Instead of investing in having an application built, you can instead make a website that has many of the features of a mobile application, and when done right, can look beautiful on a mobile phone. That being said, it will be in no way as powerful as a native mobile application.

Secondly, making websites is quick and easy, and you can tweak to your heart is content with really very little effort. Editing the look and feel of your website is very easy because all you have to do is edit the CSS file, hit refresh and you can see your change. Developing a mobile application is not like this at all. A mobile application is a piece of software and therefore it is much harder to do these on-the-fly changes. Also, making changes to a live website is quick because all you have to do is upload a file to the server. This is great if you launch something then you realise something is wrong or needs to be fixed. Launching an application is completely different. Making changes can often be a 2 week process, and so there is far more risk for getting things right the first time.

Thirdly, making a website is easy because you only have to make it once. Taking the issue of browser compatibility to one side for the moment, you know that your website will usually look similar on just about any operating system. Your website is served to the browser through an external server and so you only need one code base and one copy of assets like images or videos. Creating a mobile application is completely different. Making an app for Apple’s iPhone and making one for an Android phone are two very different things. You will need to write the applications in different programming languages, and you will need a whole set of images and user interface assets for each different platform (and usually different assets for different devices on the same platform!). This is adding an order of magnitude of more complexity than simply creating a website.

The key point here is, making a mobile responsive website is far easier than creating a mobile application. Before investing your time and money into a mobile app, you need to be testing the potential of your idea by making a website. With a website, you can quickly build it, and iterate it to really refine your idea. It is going to be far cheaper, and there is much less risk involved with creating a website. If your idea completely fails, you can just start again. In fact, you can go from an idea to a working prototype within just a couple of hours. Once you have proven the concept of your idea with real user engagement data, you will have a much better plan for building an application that can really take advantage of the unique opportunity a smartphone presents.

You need to be prepared to fail

Each application market now has in excess of 100s of thousands of applications. To launch a successful application is very rare, in fact it is the exception to the rule. It is very likely that your first attempt will bomb. It took Rovio 52 failed attempts before they landed a success with Angry Birds. The application markets are so saturated with applications that it is likely that your application will just fall into the cracks. The majority of all applications never achieve breakeven and never re-coup the investment that was needed to create the app in the first place.

Conclusion

The revolution in smartphone technology over the last couple of years has opened up many opportunities for new and existing businesses to find an audience or engage with their existing audience in a whole new way. However this has created a “bubble” in that too many people are trying to capitalise on the opportunity wrongly believing that the entering the market is enough to achieve success. Developing mobile applications is a whole new world of complexity verses developing websites, yet many believe they can turn around a high quality application just as quick. Before making the big investment in developing an application, full opportunity testing, research and customer development should be taken on to prove the concept. If this critical stage is neglected, it is highly likely that your application will fail.

What are you experiences with developing smartphone applications?

Philip Brown

Hey, I'm Philip Brown, a designer and developer from Durham, England. I create websites and web based applications from the ground up. In 2011 I founded a company called Yellow Flag. If you want to find out more about me, you can follow me on Twitter or Google Plus.