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The highs and lows of mobile app development

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed November 15, 2013
I've written about how to screw up an enterprise mobile app and how I personally judge mobile apps. But how do my views stack up with other pundits and practitioners?

I've written about how to screw up an enterprise mobile app and how I personally judge mobile apps. But how do my views stack up with other pundits and practitioners?

I had a chance to find out when I caught a replay of a Gartner webinar entitled Creating Mobile Apps Your Customers Love (or Hate) (free w/sign up). For those who sometimes fall into 'big analyst firm' cynicism like I do, it's worth bearing in mind that Gartner has 2,000 conversations a year with customers about mobile app development.

Expectations for mobile apps are changing - fast

The good news: during a webinar survey, a full 25 percent of participants had yet to build a mobile app. Ergo, companies still have a chance to learn from the knee scrapes that others have endured. As for those who have deployed shoddy apps, presenter Ian Finley pretty much said - and I agree -that if you have a substandard mobile app, you might as well start over before a competitor whips your pudding.

Finley began by noting the usual stats on heavy mobile adoption: Gartner predicts that by 2015, mobile will equal PCs as the top channel for brand engagement, and top PCs two-to-one when it comes to social engagement. Finley didn't connect these dots, but I suspect he would agree that the reason for the level of social engagement on mobile is what is referred to as 'snacking' - dipping on and off the Internet for quick bursts of interactivity on the go.

Despite its name, 'snacking' is anything but trivial and has big implications for mobile apps gone wrong via design that doesn't take into account short attention spans and the need to quickly pull and post information.

Bad mobile apps get a public spanking

The webinar captured attention quickly with a slide sure to alarm customers: snapshots of blisteringly bad reviews of ineffective mobile apps. The badness fell into four categories:

  • 'I guess I'll just have to switch banks' - app frustration leading directly to customer defection
  • 'Please TEST this before you release it' - customers are now savvy enough to blame bad testing
  • 'Can't deposit a payroll check no matter what I try' - functionality failures
  • 'If you haven't updated - don't' - perhaps the worst offender, and my personal whipping post: updates that ruin the effectiveness of an app

Despite the excruciating obviousness of some of these problems (e.g. 'test your app!'), we continue to see high profile app failures. One notorious example is the NBA League Pass (which is technically not an app but a broadband service accessible via PC and mobile), which gets reviews with happy headlines like NBA League Pass Broadband 2013-14: Still Shitty, You Should Not Buy It from major sports web sites. Here's one of the kinder tweets featured in the piece:



Build a great mobile app - or go home

But while it's instructive and fun to mock bad mobile apps, I was particularly struck by a review Finley cited from the opposite end of the spectrum:

'Love it. This (app) is literally changing my life.'

Now that's more like it. I haven't run into too many mobile apps that fit that category, though Spotify and Dropbox have done wonders for me in different ways (entertainment for the former and productivity for the latter). But that's surely where enterprise apps need to go. And that's the headline I took from this webinar.

By now, most of us realize that duplicating a desktop app on a mobile device is a losing proposition. But we're heading full speed into a startling new conclusion:

If your mobile app isn't great, don't bother building it at all.

Or I should say: if your mobile app doesn't aspire to greatness. Mobile apps thrive on quick, iterative releases that quickly incorporate customer feedback. From the get-go, 'great' doesn't mean 'complete functionality.' But it does mean an appealing user experience that solves a real business problem.

One more key line from this webinar: Mobile apps should not be called 'projects,' but 'products.' Even if the mobile app is internal-use-only, it should be funded and viewed as a product with the release cycles and feedback loops good products incorporate.

As expected, the most common audience question was about HTML5 versus device-specific apps. I've already opined on that before (I'm a build-for-device guy), but it bears noting that with 14 or so flavors of Android alone, build-for-device has its own tripwires.

Mobile development tips and reminders

  • Each industry and user persona has a different workflow that should drive app design
  • Offline capabilities, battery consumption and bandwidth requirements are a key consideration for most users
  • UI matters but is not the only aspect of a great user experience (e.g. performance)
  • Mobile is horrible for text-based form input and elaborate sign up screens
  • Mobile is too often approached as a dumping ground for pared-down apps rather than a new platform with new capabilities (example: on-site video and photo documentation, voice-based commands or GPS personalization)

Gartner also shared practical recommendations for the next year, starting with replacing bad mobile apps, phasing into hiring in-house mobile development talent and developing metrics to evaluate apps adoption and performance (such as number of downloads, quality of feedback).  I especially liked: 'over-invest in testing.'

Final thoughts

Ripping out decent apps and replacing them with great ones may seem like overkill, but in some industries, a terrific mobile app may be the deciding factor in retaining customers - or the defining point in losing them.

In the banking industry, a recent report by EFMA tied positive customer satisfaction ratings directly to mobile banking capabilities. As reported, Bank of the West recently redid its mobile apps because their existing functionality didn't stack up with competitors. It's worth reading the banktech piece in its entirety to get a better feel for the organizational and app changes Bank of the West had to go through to deliver a truly differentiated mobile app.

I have rejected the 'B2B and B2C distinctions are no longer relevant' argument before. When it comes to content, marketing, and sales complexity I believe the distinction still matters. But when it comes to enterprise mobile apps, I no longer see any distinction between B2B and B2C when it comes to the standard of user experience companies must achieve. Building a mobile app just for the sake of having one has quickly gone from cutting edge to a highly questionable strategy.

Image credit: Jump © lassedesignen -

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