How to build mobile apps – tips and pitfalls from the experts

Published on the 10/05/2011 | Written by Belinda Simcox

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This article was originally featured in iStart technology in business magazine.

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The move from the desktop internet computing of the 90s to the new era of mobile internet is happening with unprecedented velocity - eight times as fast as the PC web was adopted...[View as PDF]

Unsurprisingly lots of businesses are wanting to seize commercial advantage – and that means Apps, lots of Apps. But before dipping a toe into the unknown appospheric conditions of mobile app development, it might pay to find out just what you’re getting yourself in for, where to start, and just how a mobile app can help, or hurt, your business. iStart investigates.

It makes sense. You probably already have a smartphone and wonder how you ever lived without it. Smart devices of today have the same capability of a lunar mission in 1969 and, according to Google, approximately 15% of all Web traffic is now mobile. These days, not having a mobile presence is almost like closing your website one day each week.

So, in the interests of staying relevant to your customers, how does that translate for your business? Is your company leading or lagging? Are you watching the hype and speed of the mobile industry’s growth trajectory and nervously wondering how to best incorporate and leverage this new medium?

It’s certainly not too late to be early, but be warned – many businesses enamoured by the iPhone Effect, are leaping onto the “let’s build an app” bandwagon with little thought towards what end. With an ill-considered mobile strategy, businesses risk alienating their customers and undermining their brand and reputation. The market for phone and tablet apps is highly competitive, with about 400,000 iPhone/iPad apps and around 200,000 Android apps available. And of those apps that people actually find and download to their smart device, many are tried once then abandoned.

To avoid your app being part of the debris, it is critically important to keep in the forefront of your mind just what your business objective, and nature of your mobile user, is.

A mobile phone is an innately personal communication device, seldom shared. 90% of the mobile population keeps their cell phone within arm’s reach, using it to browse on the fly. And as people upgrade to smartphones, a time shift is occurring, with 60% of their activity being new behaviour as they consume the web, games, maps, streaming videos, social networks, utilities and much more.

According to Google, mobile searches on average increase 50 fold when people upgrade their device to a smartphone. The 3 converging disruptive giants, Facebook, Apple and Google, are compounding this acceleration. So as you embark on your journey, think “SoLoMo” (Social + Local + Mobile), a term coined by VC maverick John Doerr to encapsulate the unique construct of the mobile consumer. Mobile now means your audience is active at any location and at any time, in their pocket or in the palm of their hand.

Mobile is a complicated beast. A highly fragmented wild west of fast paced digital innovation. If you are looking to take on this creature and, in particular, planning to launch a mobile app for your business, this is a guide to help towards your success.
The following insights were provided in collaboration with some of NZ’s and Australia’s leading mobile tech companies, all with a first-hand experience of launching mobile apps.

Guy Horrocks Founder of Carnival Labs, a local New Zealand mobile development house with over 60 iPhone, iPad and Android apps under their belt, many of which are for heavyweight international brands such as Kraft Foods, HBO, Estee Lauder, Gloria Jeans, as well as companies closer to home, such as Weta Digital and the NZ Herald. With well over 10 million downloads, many of their apps have been featured, made Top 100’s, hit number one spots in the app store, and won numerous awards. Guy was a previous co-founder of Polar Bear Farm, the world’s first commercial iPhone app company.

Andrew Plimmer CEO of Motim Technologies, developers of mobile campaigns for the likes of Nike, Disney, Coca Cola and Ford. Motim focus on developing technology to enable businesses to create compelling interaction with their media in a variety of different formats, leveraging their intellectual property in computer vision, signal processing, 3D graphics, augmented reality, game mechanics and interaction design.

Bruce Young CEO of Speedwell eBusiness Solutions, the largest independent web development firm in Queensland. They also specialise in iPhone Applications that align with and enhance existing digital presence by giving customers eBusiness tools and functionality with the convenience of mobile technology. Speedwell was responsible for the complex build of Domino’s runaway success number one iPhone app (Australia) that recently launched in NZ.

Peter Watling Orsome Software. Peter is an experienced iOS developer with a number of successful mobile applications under his belt, who developed the award winning enterprise iPad app for Harcourts International as a business tool used by their real estate agents.

Discovery, Planning & Functional Design
What are your business objectives?
Forget the technology. Knowing your business purpose, what you are trying to achieve, and with whom, must be foremost in your mind. Just wanting to build an iPhone app that does “x” is not enough.

“If you start with just the piece of technology then you are using a device to fill a hole that you do not know the shape of yet,” says Bruce Young from Speedwell, the iPhone app development company for Domino’s Pizza.

“If you start with your desired business outcome, then the means and the technology solution will resolve from that.”
Your desired outcomes may be increased sales transactions, increased customer awareness, or enhanced customer support, or to make it more convenient for clients to do business with you. Or they may be to educate, to expand your business into a new market, or to decrease costs and increase communication efficiencies internally. Having a clear idea of what you do allows you to formulate a plan as to how to do it better.

What value is your app?
If your goal is to create awareness of your brand, ask yourself, ‘what brand impression do you want to leave users with?’ Perhaps it’s appropriate to consider incorporating game play mechanics into your app to make it fun and, potentially, contagious, so that people will share with their friends and espouse your brand values in the marketplace. Or maybe its primary value will be business efficiencies. If you have identified that 85% of your calls are enquiries to find out when a delivery is going to arrive, then you would be looking to create something fundamentally functional in nature, making the user experience more efficient and engaging.

Big brand or unknown?
Guy Horrocks from Carnival Labs points out that it makes a difference, as to the type of app you design, whether you are a big-name brand or an unknown. If you are well known you can get away with focusing your design purely on an app that serves your business and your users, since you already have an audience catchment. If, however, you do not already have a strong brand presence, then consider, in your functional design, an app that will captivate and attract media attention, that will stand out above the noise of the other millions of apps you are competing against.

K.I.S.S.
Don’t complicate and clog your app with too many features. Make it outstanding at one thing, rather than mediocre at many things. “Traditionally, a big problem with most companies is they want to put many features into an app, whereas most people would rather download a converter, or a Dictaphone,” says Horrocks. “They don’t want to download the whole Microsoft Office suite in one application, because that goes against how they use their phone”.

Similarly, it pays to split features out into different applications catering to different classes of users. People tend to use apps very simply. Phone calls, messaging, news apps, Facebook, recipe lists, to-do lists, games, weather… People load up the best one in that class, and that’s where you want to be: getting 4 or 5 stars in app store ratings – ‘Apple’s endorsement effect’.

Don’t design a ‘Mini-Me’
A common mistake made by many is to treat a mobile device as a miniature PC browser screen, and to try to replicate their website on a device, ignoring the unique features inherent in smart devices. The best examples of mobile apps and websites optimised for mobile are the ones that understand the nature of the mobile user in-context: where and what they are doing as they use it, what they are looking for, and their challenges with the smaller interface. Minimising the number of touches to get to functions, small screen real estate issues, limited download speeds and specific data plans must be considered. Ignore these at your peril, because you risk creating frustration for your consumers, and with it, a negative brand perception.

Mobile site + a mobile app?
While mobile websites will display on the device’s browser, a native application can leverage raw information from the device’s inbuilt hardware, sensors and chip sub-systems, providing you with a far wider reaching application intelligence. The native experience enables smooth quick flick transitions between screens and a fast, responsive intuitive interface. While the browsing experience is growing more sophisticated, with much industry investment to leverage HTML5 capabilities, it is still very much reliant on devices’ internet connection rates at this time.

If you have a website then mobile is just another platform it needs to work on. With Google already seeing 15% of internet traffic originating from mobile devices, do you want to turn your back on that many visitors, and be far less likely to get found in the search engines on mobile devices? Ensuring your website is optimised for mobile is a must; an app is an optional extra. In part, it comes down to your budget. Building a mobile HTML5 website is generally more affordable than building a native app, plus, a mobile site will work on multiple platforms.

Be wary not to just build an app for an app’s sake. The intention is to promote, not damage, your brand. Undertaking an app development project requires a deeper business commitment in order for it to succeed beyond the launch date. Do you have sufficient budget to market it to stand out in a very crowded market, plus the resources to manage bug fixes, enhancements and cross channel extension? You will need to invest double digits to build your app, promote it, and to provide on-going support and updates, so if it does not benefit your business, it is better to focus purely on mobilising your website.

Which platform?
The high-end mobile smart device race and the platforms they run on is like a scatter gun, accelerating and fragmenting. At present, it looks to be developing into a three horse race between Apple, with their proprietary iOS platform, Google, with their open Android platform, and Microsoft, with their new Windows Phone 7 platform (particularly so with their new partnership with Nokia). Apps for the iPhone are written in a different language than those for the Android, or any of the other platforms for that matter, and each of these has a different user interface experience, meaning that native apps for each of these platforms are not compatible.

In terms of predictions, currently iOS is the most elegant operating system and app distribution model, and will continue to retain share. The free and open Android operating system will continue its rapid growth trajectory, as Google improves the core operating system and as more OEMs select it as their platform of choice. Android took the number one position of the world’s leading mobile device platform late last year, however Apple’s iOS still leads in Australia and New Zealand. In emerging and low-end markets, Nokia’s Symbian platform will likely persist for a few years yet, but has left the high-end smartphone race. Blackberry’s hold on the enterprise market is fast eroding and will likely continue to drop, as iOS and Android become more enterprise friendly.

Choosing which platform you build for depends on which phones and platform(s) your users have, and whether you are targeting a niche or a mass market. Historically, iPhone users were mid-twenties and up, tech savvy and with higher incomes, however iOS devices are now becoming more mainstream. In New Zealand, Telecom and 2 Degrees are pushing the Android and enticing more people with lower priced smartphones, so the demographic of your user could well influence your platform decision.

As you make your selection, keep in mind that for each device you build for, you will need to support upgrades and enhance it on an ongoing basis. In the Android ecosystem many independent OEMs (already 50 so far) are launching new devices with limited industry standards or consistency between screen size, resolution and feature sets, so if you plan to build an Android app, keep in mind this compounding complexity. Google is starting to enforce standards on their platform however all things considered, it is probably best to pick the three most popular models and design for those.

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