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As the app revolution has matured into the norm, it seems like every business is fighting for screen space on the phone or tablet. The average person spends three hours a day staring at their phone (2 hours and 22 minutes) or their tablet (47 minutes). That trusty, reliable desktop computer has dwindled down to just 39 minutes of usage per day. Americans are more mobile than ever before, and they expect their information to find them wherever they finally stop.

Creating a mobile app for your business may seem like a no brainer, but it is a decision that comes with a lot of complexities to unpack. Without taking these complexities head on, you may be woefully unprepared for the challenges that await you. I’ve rounded up twelve key questions that every business should answer honestly before embarking on a mobile application build.

Why Do You Need a Mobile App?

Sometimes the most important questions are also the most basic ones. If you think your business needs a mobile app because everyone has one, it’s time to change your thinking.

If you have a plumbing business, you probably don’t have a lot of customers pushing you to the App Store. Yet don’t automatically be dismissive either. If you have a fantastic idea in an industry not traditionally known for utilizing technology, an app could give you a significant advantage over your competitors.

The key is the vision. What will your app do, and what value will it bring to your business. If you can’t clearly articulate the value and the customer need, a mobile app might not make sense for you.

How Will a Mobile App Augment Your Existing Technology Strategy?

No application is ever created in a vacuum. Unless you are a startup opening the doors for the first time, chances are high that you already have a host of systems running your business operations. Your mobile app will need to complement those existing systems. The app could potentially leverage existing APIs, need access to customer and product data or may even mirror the functionality of a critical existing web or desktop application. Understanding how all these moving parts work together is essential for developing the strategy for the new mobile arm of your business.

Have You Stalked the Competition?

While I usually don’t condone stalking, I wholeheartedly endorse it when it comes to planning your mobile app.

Probably around the same time you are scrawling out the idea for an app on the back of a coaster, it’s time to see how the competition stacks up. Do a search in the Google Play or App Store on key terms related to your business to see what comes up. Of the apps that are the closest fit, what set of features do they have? Comb through the reviews to find out what users like, what features they desperately want and what problem areas within the app really grind their gears.

There is an absolute wealth of knowledge ripe for the taking by simply surveying the landscape. You can learn from your competitor’s mistakes, generate additional feature ideas and generally do a better job fleshing out your concept before you start true project planning.

Have You Explored Progressive Web Apps?

Progressive Web Apps (PWA) have become all the rage in recent years with some tech professionals proclaiming that they will one day replace mobile apps. While that seems like wishful thinking, it is true that Progressive Web Apps are on even footing with their mobile brethren.

So what is PWA? It is a Google creation that comes close to delivering on the promise of native apps through the web browser. You can store data offline with IndexedDB. It runs within an app shell so it has access to most of the same native features like device orientation and geolocation. While you have the option of publishing it to the Google Play or App Store, in most cases there is nothing to download. You go straight to the website and start interacting with it. It is a website so you can take full advantage of SEO to maximize your traffic, and you can leverage the history and stature of your existing website instead of duking it out as a new app, trying to find a home in the overcrowded Google Play or App Store. It is also like a hybrid app in that it will work on all mobile platforms and form factors, and the development cost is going to be fraction of a native app. The success stories of PWA are impressive to say the least.

  • Lancome converted their mobile website over to PWA and noticed a 17% increase in conversions
  • InfoBae saw time on their site double after implementing PWA
  • After introducing Twitter Lite via PWA, Twitter observed 20% lower bounce rates, 75% increase in Tweets sent and 65% increase in pages per session.
  • Trivago witnessed a 150% improvement in engagement over their native app when going to PWA
  • Konga cut data usage by 92% on the initial load by going to PWA

Progressive Web Apps aren’t a magic bullet. It’s still a website at its heart even if it is on steroids. The reality is people do spend vastly more time in apps than in the mobile web browser (88% vs 12% in the U.S.). Performance is going to be slower than the native app, and more on par with a hybrid app. With that said, there is a strong case to be made for choosing Progressive Web Apps for your mobile presence.

Are You Supporting iOS, Android or Both?

In North America, iPhone and Android share the market pretty equally (52% to 47%). Worldwide, it is not much of a contest with Android trouncing Apple (73% to 24%), largely thanks to the weight of China. If you have a worldwide audience, perhaps you can afford to neglect Apple, but you would be hard pressed to do so in the United States. Turning away every other customer is a tough way to do business.

There is a lot to mull over when considering which platform to target. Chiefly our next question, will you be opting for a native or a hybrid app? What development languages is your team well versed in (Java for Android, Swift or Objective C for Apple, Xamarin to bridge the gap or Angular and React Native for Hybrid)? What is your budget and timeline to get to market? You may decide to target Android first then plan on launching the Apple version down the line. Your specific business situation will ultimately determine what direction makes the most sense.

Are You Going with a Native or Hybrid Approach?

The conversation of iOS or Android ultimately falls into the next discussion of native versus a hybrid development approach.

Native apps are built specifically for iOS or Android using the SDK. They plug directly into the operating system and have access to device features like the camera or GPS instead of having to rely on plugins. It delivers a smoother user experience as it is one with the underlying platform. It also delivers better security so would be ideal for a banking app. On the downside, you are effectively developing and maintaining two separate apps if you are targeting iOS and Android which is pricey and can significantly extend the project timeline.

Hybrid apps are built using open source platforms like Cordova and React Native, leveraging web technologies to deliver a consistent application experience regardless of the platform its run on. Unlike native, it relies heavily on plugins to access the hardware device features. Being open source, you can write your own plugin if there isn’t one already out there that suits your needs. Since it works off web technologies like Angular, you may be able to use existing code from your website to accelerate development and lean on the skill sets of your current development team. On the negative, a hybrid app is essentially a website packaged in a native wrapper. The overall look and feel of the application will never be as tack sharp as a native app which could be a concern.

Do You Have the Budget to Execute Your Mobile Strategy?

Contrary to what those emails say in your spam folder, you can’t develop a mobile app for a couple hundred bucks. Recent surveys vary wildly when attempting to pinpoint the average cost of developing a mobile application. The range was a little clearer with agencies saying most apps fall between $100,000 to $500,000, taking 7 to 12 months to development and deploy. Whether you are leaning on in house talent or contracting the job out, developing a mobile application has a serious financial and time cost associated with it. That also doesn’t address the cost to maintain it over time which can run as much as 20% of the total project cost each year. It’s important to go into the project with realistic expectations.

Are You Prepared to Support Future Releases?

Building a mobile app is a marathon and not a sprint. Getting it published in the Google Play or App Store is not the finish line. One in four apps are opened once and never opened again. Just like Head & Shoulders taught us back in the 80s, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Before you ever submit it for review, you want to make sure your app is coming to market with a complete feature set, is thoroughly tested to root out any bugs and performs at the peak of its capability. Despite our best intentions, bugs will crawl out, users will clamor for new features and security updates will be necessary to keep the app sound. Also, an app that sits static quickly falls behind on the latest and greatest advancements in mobile technology. Your competitors will be happy to dangle that shiny new feature in front of your users if you won’t. Is your business prepared to add a continuous mobile release cycle to your current portfolio of application maintenance?

How Will Your UI/UX Design and Process Flow Set Your App Apart?

Usability and an eye catching design are critical to the success of a mobile app. If an app has a poorly thought out flow or things are hard to get to, users will simply move on to another app. Its harsh, but there is no room for error in this space. This is the place to allocate extra time in your project budget by really taking the time to think through how the user will interact with the app and nit picking the design until it is perfect. If you don’t have a top notch designer on staff, hire one. Once you have the design mocked up in a tool like InVision, have at least a dozen non-technical clients click around while you watch their progress. Where do they stall out? What key features do they miss? What questions come up and be sure to prompt them for feedback on what areas could be improved. I can’t stress enough how critical this is to get right at the onset.

How Will You Stand Out in the App Store?

There are over two million apps in each the Google Play and Apple’s App Store. That translates into a lot of noise for users searching for that perfect app. You have to determine how you will rise above the crowd.

Just as you would optimize a website through SEO, it is also necessary to target user search in the App Store since 65% of users find an app through search. App titles and descriptions should be carefully constructed using tools like Google Keyword Planner to give your app a leg up. Regardless, remember that your description helps target the app to the proper audience, but it also serves as the sales vehicle to convince a user to download.

Promoting users to review your app in the Google Play or App Store can also help you stand out as prospective users seek out social validation from the community to help them decide between seemingly similar products. If all else fails, consider running ads. They can help throw you to the top of the heap and provide the necessary boost when just starting out, or if you find yourself competing in a very crowded niche.

What is Your Marketing Plan?

“If you build it, they will come” may have worked for Kevin Costner, but the rest of us have to have a plan after the build phase. Organizations have a lot of tools at their disposal for marketing a mobile app. A few common methods would be:

  • PPC (pay per click) advertising in the Google Play, App Store or Google.
  • Promote on corporate and personal social media channels
  • Highlight the app on your website with links to download
  • Send a notice to any in house marketing email lists
  • Issue a press release and circulate it widely
  • Ask users right away for app reviews to jump start your listing in the Google Play and App Store

You will want to carefully craft your marketing approach to maximize your launch and get the largest bang for your buck. Usually you will do a drip campaigns in the weeks leading up to launch to build anticipation, then execute your main campaign in the weeks following launch. See if you can find a way to work in special offers, giveaways or other things to spark press and overall interest in your app. There should also be a plan for continuous promotion to get the word out about the latest features and responding to your reviewers (the good and especially the bad).

How Will You Monitor Your App?

When we speak of monitoring, there are a few ways we can track the success or brewing problems within our app. First, you can look at the download reports within the Google Play or App Store to see how your app is trending. More importantly, you need to see how your app is interacting with the user. Specifically, you want hard data on:

  • How often does the app crash, and what was the action that triggered the failure?
  • What errors are getting thrown?
  • How long does it take for the app to launch and respond to user action?

You need to be alerted as soon as possible when something isn’t right within your app. You don’t need to rely on bad reviews or users shutting off your app for the last time. Even in this scenario, you are left guessing as to what the core issue is without actionable data to pinpoint the problems festering out of sight. There are a lot of service providers in this space so I’d suggest reviewing several to see which suite of features best fit your monitoring needs.

As you can see, building a mobile app isn’t for the faint of heart. There is a lot of preparation and a bevy of critical decisions that have to be made before the first line of code is written. The reward for getting it right is massive. Statista projects app downloads will almost double from 2017 to 2021 (197 to 352 billion). The market is growing at a torrid pace.

With people logging more time on their phones and tablets, this train isn’t going to slow down to wait on you to board. Take the time to formulate your mobile strategy or get ready to explain to stakeholders why you’ve allowed your competitors to lap you in an area that has quickly become so fundamental to business.