Perspectives

The Number One Mistake Mobile App Developers Make

By Eric Fensterstock


Mobile, Mobile apps, Mobile strategy

About five years ago, everyone was rushing to create a mobile app. About four years ago, most of these apps were forgotten.

There are many requirements to making a great mobile application:

  • Do something no other app is doing quite as well
  • Look beautiful
  • Be easy to use
  • Run smoothly, quickly, and without errors on the most important devices

An app that fails any of these criteria will be deleted quickly. But there is another sort of app: the app that sits in a forgotten folder untouched for months or years. At times, the stranded app may send out a sad message in a bottle, adding to the clutter of the notifications panel.

The app will not get any attention from the user because the app didn’t get enough attention from the developer.

The number one mistake that app developers make is to think that a mobile app is just a software application, a product that can be completed, distributed, and then checked off of a to-do list.

But apps are more than just software. In fact, the software is just part of the app. A true mobile app is a service that is delivered via software.

This distinction is most obvious with apps from Netflix, Facebook, and Amazon.com. There was a time when if someone asked you what Facebook was, you would have said that it’s a website. Now, the website is just one way that the Facebook experience is presented. For many younger users, Facebook isn’t even a website, but something you do with your phone. By the same token, Netflix for many of us is something you watch on your Roku set top box, not something you would ever visit in a browser.

What about mobile apps that are trying to do something simple, like present a game? Can’t you just create the game and then forget about it? The counter-example is Angry Birds, where the low price of purchase has given users access to year after year of free updates. Even the free Angry Birds apps have seen repeated additions of new levels. In exchange for this, Rovio enjoyed years of brand loyalty and sales of numerous licensed products, from fruit chews to pajamas.

Even an app that does just one thing, like a calculator or a level, needs to be updated to run on the latest devices. Publishers of these simple apps need to look at their competitors to see whether user expectations have changed. App publishers need to read their own app store reviews, as well as the reviews of competing apps to see user pain points. They need to brainstorm new functionality, or even simplifications to smooth existing functionality. Otherwise, these apps will be mercilessly forgotten in favor of competing offerings.

When preparing a new mobile app project, don’t plan a one-time software build. Plan an ongoing program. Expect that you will need to devote budget and human resources year after year for as long as you want the app to be in the app store. The alternative can be even worse than oblivion: if the app lingers in the store without updates, the outdated app may collect masses of negative reviews, harming the publisher’s brand.

Create a high-level roadmap of how the app might evolve over time, but expect surprises along the way.

Don’t hold back on important functionality just so you will have something for the next update. Release the best product you can launch now. Try to launch quickly, since the market will evolve while you are developing the app.

Define the app narrowly and execute well on that definition. Users will have little patience for an app that doesn’t do what it says it will. In fact, a simple app that does one thing well can often be the best sort of app. Certainly, it’s better than an app that tries and fails to do too much.

As launch nears, flesh out your plans for the next release, which can have more ambitious scope.

Users interact with the best apps across all of their devices, recommending these apps to others. If you can commit to an app for years, your loyalty to your customers may be rewarded many times over. If this is too big a commitment, it may be better to skip creating an app. A better choice might be a small, mobile-friendly website designed to live only for the duration of a campaign.

Sometimes the most important decision is not how to do something but whether to do it.