How to create a chart-topping mobile app

Is developing an app still a route to market knowledge, great ideas and hard riches? Done right, and with luck, the answer remains a resounding yes. Annual app sales now account for roughly $20 billion of revenue across the Apple and Google app stores, and Gartner predicts cumulative revenue will hit $77 billion (£51 billion) by 2017.

How to create a chart-topping mobile app

Meanwhile, both Facebook and Google are hungry when it comes to acquisitions: in the last year we’ve seen Facebook buy WhatsApp for $19 billion (£13 billion), while Google has gobbled up travel-app developer Jetpac and translation specialist Quest Visual for undisclosed sums. Undisclosed, but undoubtedly very high.

Yet the majority of app developers aren’t raking it in. A 2014 Gartner report claimed that less than 1% of apps were financially successful, while Midia Research found that only 50 companies were responsible for 81% of sales. It’s a market for superstars.

Android Play Logo Robot - Best Android Apps

This doesn’t mean a new app can’t be a raging success, but it takes expertise, graft. We spoke to a range of app developers, from freelance contractors to studios working with major brands. They told us how app development works in the real world, and what differentiates a success from another poor little orphan app.

Success Vs Failure

So, what differentiates a successful app from one that never makes it off the starting block? For one, the original idea plays a big part. Ben Paterson is creative producer at Figure Digital, developer of the virtual pet app, Animin. “Ideas for apps are ten a penny,” he said. “Everyone and their iDog down the pub has an idea for an app, and 99% of them are either rubbish, insane or completely undevelopable.”

“Everyone and their iDog down the pub has an idea for an app, and 99% of them are either rubbish”

It’s a view shared by Kevin King, founder of the Devon-based studio Createanet, which has a roster of successful apps that includes Temphis Availability Manager and the FA Coach’s App. “You get so many ‘sad birds’ instead of ‘angry birds’ floating around,” he told us. “Because they didn’t have the creativity to start with, they don’t go anywhere.” It’s also no good trying to ape existing success stories: “We get two or three ideas a week where, once you drill down, they really just want to do Facebook. You can’t take on people like that.”

Successful apps are about satisfying needs, not inventing them. It doesn’t matter whether that need is a way to control a hot tub from a smartphone or enable property developers to keep on top of ongoing projects; as long as the app does something users want, and does it well, it has a chance of succeeding.

Practical hurdles

A great idea also needs to be backed up by a business case. As Chris Williams, CEO of UK enterprise application development company B60, puts it: “The first key step is to understand the business need and requirements. This is fundamental. Many apps fail because they have no real need, or the plan to make money from it isn’t thought through.”

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Image: B60apps – Building an app plan

Usability is just as crucial. Rob Hayward, a successful UK freelance app developer who has worked with Formula One and The Comedy Store, says you need to make it “effortlessly easy”. “You’ve got someone’s attention for a fraction of time, often a few spare seconds while they’re doing something else. They want a couple of taps and everything is done.”

Williams thinks that a successful app “provides the features the end user needs while keeping the interface as clear, simple and easy to use as possible”. B60 pulls this off by understanding user habits mainly through a combination of in-house expertise, workflow analysis and client consultation, although it also sees value in focus groups and end-user research.

Mobile-development studio and marketing agency Rokk Media also spends a lengthy research phase looking at potential users, sorting them into personas and following those personas on a journey through the app. “We look at what they want to achieve and what their hopes and fears might be – particularly the fears, since understanding the concerns users might have can help you point them in the right direction,” said Martin Dainton, Rokk Media’s chief creative officer. When developing an app for internal use by the non-technical sales team of a car dealership, for example, Rokk ensured built-in guidance and simple instructions were provided at every stage.

For Createanet, it’s a question of careful prototyping, so that the key interactions are in place before a single line of code is written – and then putting usability at the core of the design. “The beauty of apps is that they’re simplistic. You have to come up with an interface you can use with your thumb,” explained King. “They’re quite fickle. If you find something and it engages you then you’re on board – and that’s all about usability.”

Independent developer Nick Kuh would put usability ahead of even function. “I try to keep the UI as simple and uncluttered as possible,” he said.

“I believe that a good app will focus on doing one thing really well rather than being feature-rich.”

“I believe that a good app will focus on doing one thing really well rather than being feature-rich. Users are used to multitasking, so switching between apps that perform focused functions makes for a good experience in my book.”

However, the biggest hurdle on the track to app success is how to stand out in such a crowded market. “My biggest obstacle these days is a saturated app store,” said Kuh. “That, combined with competitors spending large advertising budgets on masses of paid-for installs, makes app store discovery very difficult.”

Figure Digital’s Paterson agreed, suggesting that “the biggest obstacle of all is getting the word out there and raising awareness, to find that community of users you originally had in mind and to ensure they hear about your app and have a chance to try it out.”

How? “We have a philosophy that great content finds its users,” said Paterson. “First, make something amazing. Second, find your advocates: those users who will effectively do your marketing and PR for you. Finally, continue to develop, tweak and innovate based on what these key advocates want.” Nick Kuh concurs: “Focus on making apps that will retain users. Enable your users to reach out to you, and listen to their feature requests and concerns. Continue to iterate and don’t give up on a good product.”

Finally, as Rokk Media’s Dainton explains, you need to acknowledge that the launch is the beginning, not the end. “You have to spend time marketing apps, nurturing and developing them, and when there’s a new release of the operating system – particularly with Apple – you’ve got to update them.” Not only will this keep the app fresh, but it will also ensure that Apple’s habit of cycling out deprecated code doesn’t leave you with an app that no longer functions.

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