As of July 2015, there were 1.6 million apps in the Google Play Store, 1.5 million in the Apple App Store, and another million among the smaller Windows, Amazon, and BlackBerry markets.
It would be wonderful if every app were a smashing success, but most apps don’t achieve widespread use. That effort isn’t wasted, though: As the best leaders know, failures can be more instructive than successes.
Jumping on the bandwagon
How did branded apps proliferate at such an incredible rate, bringing us to today’s multimillion-app world?
At this trend’s core is the ubiquity of mobile technology: Fully 82 percent of Americans own a cell phone, and 24 percent of U.S. adults are active app users. Nationwide, that translates into tens of millions interacting with brands from their palms.
Business leaders saw market share awaiting capture. When a company develops a new technology, generates income, and attracts media attention, a race to imitate soon ignites.
But not every app is created equal. During apps’ early years, developers shrank company websites to fit smaller screens and added push notifications. Now, branded apps are so useful they can locate parking spots, feed meters, and even check the purchased time remaining.
Though 90 percent of branded apps have been downloaded fewer than 10,000 times, there’s no point in harping on these apps’ failed strategies. Instead, let’s learn from them: What differentiates successful apps from failed ones?
Apps should solve problems
A successful app is built on great programming — to be usable, it must be coded well. But usability isn’t consumers’ first concern: The app won’t attract downloads unless it solves customer problems.
You rarely hear about purposeless apps, though they’re easy to find — look at the third-party apps designed to browse Facebook, a task you can already do from your phone. These apps are rarely downloaded because they don’t solve a problem.
Another interesting case is I Am Important, a tongue-in-cheek app aimed at making you feel more important and broadcasting your popularity to the world. Though it’s humorous, do customers need the app’s fake contacts and notifications about nonexistent events?
This focus on solving a problem is especially important for middle-market companies, which can use apps — customer-facing or SaaS — to enhance productivity: A Deloitte study found that 43 percent of middle-market executives believe that cloud-based applications will be their most productive technology investments.
Beyond solving problems, successful apps also encourage community engagement — Evernote achieved success by integrating with social media so users could share content across devices and with friends. Weathermob’s crowdsourced network of weather reporters has attracted a community seeking relevant, accurate, and fun weather forecasting.
The importance of great UI
Apps can help business leaders carefully target specific audiences, as iHeartRadio CEO Bob Pittman outlined during his CTIA Super Mobility 2015 keynote on how mobile tech is changing the advertising landscape.
Design-focused leaders understand when, why, and how audiences use branded apps. Building an app without solving a particular problem or without a user-friendly interface can lead to failure.
A good user interface becomes particularly important with business apps because people want functionality, not a sales pitch masquerading as useful software. If a problem-solving app offers an intuitive UI, it can succeed. Take Switch, the employment app modeled after Tinder that lets job seekers and recruiters swipe right to indicate interest or left for a mismatch. It’s effective because it solves a pain point while offering a catchy, understandable, and fun-to-use UI.
Underestimating an audience or peddling an inoperative app can cause users to leave without looking back.
Fixing your app
The first step in addressing an app failure is to learn the cause.
To rule out coding issues, contact a third-party developer for a rigorous code audit. If the app is suffering stability problems, then obsolete architecture might be to blame; older apps rarely cooperate with newer iterations of iOS or Android systems.
Fortunately, open-source libraries are eliminating the need for developers to spend hours coding for basic functionality. In certain cases, a skilled developer can patch a dysfunctional app with open-source solutions.
Luckily, it’s not always necessary to reinvent the wheel programmatically, but a rebuild might be needed if the app’s problem isn’t code-related. In particular, an app might not be salvageable if it missed its audience, failed to solve a customer problem, or features an unworkable UI.
The bottom line is that with new languages and open-source frameworks, programming mobile apps gets easier as the industry matures, but standing out in a crowded marketplace grows more challenging.
Even the best-designed app can’t attain success without reaching the right audience. Problem-solving apps that are developed cleanly, marketed successfully, and designed for social sharing stand the best chance of success in today’s mobile marketplace.