The dos and please-don’ts of custom apps

15/08/20175 Minute Read

Is there an app for that? Probably—there’s a custom app for everything. In fact, you can practically manage your entire life via smartphone. Hungry? Try Uber Eats. Need a date? Swipe on Tinder. Ready for a workout? Check out MyFitnessPal. The custom app economy is thriving, and businesses across sectors are building, or at least thinking about building, apps to reach their highly mobile customers.

But as Boromir would say, “One does not simply build custom apps.” An analysis from Deloitte found that 80 percent of branded apps are downloaded less than 1,000 times, and it’s no wonder—considering the App Store surpassed two million apps this year. Breaking through app noise is a huge challenge, and most apps sit covered in virtual dust. What’s worse? An ill-conceived, badly executed app can do more harm than good. Longhorn Steakhouse’s infamous “3D Steak” app, where users could flip a 3D steak on a virtual grill, comes to mind.

The art of custom apps

For an app to succeed, it needs to provide a clear service, add value, and deliver an enjoyable customer experience. According to Deloitte’s 2016 Mobile Consumer Report, consumers limit the apps they curate on their phones to an average of 25. Downloading apps involves friction, and consumers have millions of products clamoring for their attention; they’re only going to download a brand-specific app if it’s worth the effort.

An example of a smart custom app is the fast casual salad chain Sweetgreen. In January 2016, US-based Sweetgreen updated its app and made it easier for customers to order salads online. When setting up the app, users select their dietary restrictions, which are then flagged whenever they view the menu. The app also allows users to “Create Your Own” salad bowls and makes the process of selecting bases, toppings, premiums, and dressings intuitive. To order, customers choose a Sweetgreen location, pay with a tap, and their salad is ready and waiting for them when they arrive. Hungry yet? The app also lets users transfer nutritional info into Apple Health and earn loyalty rewards.

Sweetgreen’s custom app is a success story, because it communicates the brand message and delivers an improved, streamlined user experience (UX) that augments the in-store experience. The app has a clear purpose and conveys distinct benefits, such as the ability to skip the line. Businesses thinking about investing in a custom app can learn a number of key lessons from Sweetgreen’s example.

1. Answer the “Why?”

In their eagerness to jump on the app train, too many businesses create unnecessary apps. 3D Steak is an extreme example, but it doesn’t stand alone. Consider Clorox’s myStain app, which provides tips for getting out stains: The custom app gets points for being aligned with Clorox’s brand, but what’s the real incentive for anyone to download the app when you can find tips for removing stains all over the web? The app doesn’t even have enough ratings in the App Store to display an average, and the default review is literally, “this app made me die in real life :(.”

Brands need to think carefully and creatively about how their apps can provide value in new ways. What services is the app uniquely positioned to convey? How will it enhance the overall customer experience? Will building a custom app benefit the business and yield a return on the investment?

2. User experience

Even useful apps can fall flat if they’re not well-designed. Today’s consumer has no patience for confusing or buggy apps. If an app isn’t easy to use, they’ll quickly lose interest or seek out an alternative. Earlier this year, Disney—a brand that’s among the most well-known and beloved in the world—experienced an epic failure with the Disney Applause application. This app was created to turn smartphones into “viewing companions” for content aired as part of the 60th anniversary of Disneyland. Disney heavily promoted the app, but throughout the televised event, users reported it wasn’t working. The negative comments flooded in (“You had one job!”).

When building a custom app, it’s imperative to test and iterate as often as possible to ensure the app is both intuitive and pleasant to use—not to mention functional. The Agile Manifesto, which advocates minimising complexity and increasing decision velocity, is a useful guideline for development, because it encourages focus. The tenth principle states, “Simplicity—the art of maximising the amount of work not done—is essential.” Apps operate on limited screen space, and users often access them on-the-go, which means less really can be more.

3. Take advantage of the medium

The best custom apps go beyond contorting a web experience into a mobile experience—they leverage the native features of mobile devices to deliver a new experience. Our phones have GPS, accelerometers, push notifications, Apple/Android Pay, Touch ID, and more—all of which can be powerful assets.

Starbucks’ branded app is widely lauded as a salient mobile success story, because it integrated smartphone features, like QR code scanning and Apple Pay, early on. A primary reason why Uber experienced such staggering success is because it leveraged GPS to bring cars right to users’ doors. But less is still more: Push notifications are extremely helpful for keeping customers engaged, whether it’s a health app with a reminder to take a pill or a retail app about a new sale—but too many push notifications can alienate users. Restraint, and knowing your audience, is key.

In today’s mobile world, custom apps represent an exciting opportunity for brands to expand their footprint and deepen their customer relationships. Just remember that between flipping a 3D steak on a virtual grill and seamlessly ordering a salad for pickup, even the most carnivorous smartphone users will probably prefer the latter.

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