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What Makes a Good Mobile App?

Updated on April 25, 2016

“I have an idea for a killer app. I wonder why it’s not on the App Store yet!”

Yeah, ok. We’ve heard it all before. Provided you’ve got app development experience or enough money in the bank to hire a reliable vendor, you may actually build and publish your masterpiece.

What’s next?

The mobile software market is choking with apps! Gartner claims by 2018 less than 0.01% of all mobile applications out there will be commercially successful.

Does your future app stand any chance in the cruel real world?

There’s no such thing as “best mobile app features”; even if you develop an augmented reality game (that’s something new at least), you can’t drive app sales by simply being innovative! Software development is a complex process which requires great expertise and is always preceded by a comprehensive marketing research.

How to make a good app: tips for future app millionaires

  • Validate your idea. Airbnb started as a simple website with several pictures. Drew Houston and Arash Ferdowski (Dropbox) made an animated video to tell users what their product was about. Nick Swinmurn, Zappos’ founder, spent a lot of time delivering shoes manually. Guess why? It was the simplest (and cheapest!) way to find out whether their ideas were worth investing in. Building a minimum viable product is a must (especially if you’re going to raise funding via Kickstarter; you need something that at least looks like the real thing);
  • Get to know your audience. Not long ago CB Insights studied over a hundred startup failure stories and revealed some curious stats. It turns out 14% of business newcomers fail because they don’t know who their target audience is! You surely don’t want to be among the outsiders, do you? The target audience identification process involves two stages. First, there’s some general reasoning (perhaps you shouldn’t market a football mobile game to housewives aged between 40 and 50). Then you conduct a comprehensive marketing research and find a niche for your product. And that’s where your MVP app also comes in handy. If you take the Dropbox approach (put up a simple website with an explainer video), you can launch an advertising campaign & get a small group of users. Then you can estimate customer lifetime value and find out what they expect from your product. In an ideal world you should also create detailed buyer personas (through interviews, polls, etc.). In case you’re a startup & barely raised funding, you may start small and employ behavioral targeting (for example, promote your drawing app among the guys who subscribe to art blogs or attend design classes);
  • Focus on the app’s core functionality. If you don’t have another Instagram up your sleeve, your app must at least solve a real-life problem (connect taxi drivers & passengers like Uber or provide users with useful fashion tips like Goodlook). What’s more, your application should do it very well. It often takes a single elaborate app function to rich the goal. Feature Creep is listed among the top 10 reasons why software development projects run over time, exceed budget or simply fail. Once again, building an MVP is a great way to avoid creeping featurism. Let’s take Uber, for example. Today the company can easily launch a 10 minute food delivery service and shut it down in several weeks (after all, they’ve already got an endless source of revenue – why not splurge on other projects?). Back in 2009, Uber was a fleet of black cars operated through a simple mobile app. In order to join the Uber list, users had to contact Travis Kalanick (the company’s founder) by email and get access codes. You can always enhance your app’s functionality later on! For now, simply do one thing well;
  • Choose the right platform. Although the majority of new titles are launched on iOS, building an Android mobile app first sometimes makes sense. The platform choice depends on several factors. First, you need to find out what operating system your target audience dwells on. Android currently dominates the US, British, German and Chinese markets. When it comes to emerging economies, Apple’s share is even less significant. However, the App Store brings 75% more revenue than Google Play (despite the lower download rates). And that’s why you should opt for the right app monetization strategy in the first place (paid app, freemium, in-app advertising or in-app purchases). Sure, Android users don’t usually pay for content, but they are more likely to tolerate in-app advertising (especially gamers). Also, the App Store and Google Play have different developer guidelines. Both publishers prohibit offensive content (e.g., porn, gambling, violence, alcohol and drug glamorization). Still, you can successfully get around some of the Google Play restrictions and develop an erotic app. Finally, there’s a 30% difference in app development costs (Android developers have higher hourly rates);
  • Provide excellent performance. According to AppDynamics, poor performance is the reason why 90% of mobile app users abandon an application. Your app should seamlessly run on any gadget within your OS (particularly hard to achieve with Android), be free of bugs and load fast. And that’s one of the reasons why cross-platform solutions (HTML 5, JavaScript, CSS, etc.) still cannot compete with native applications. Even if you launch a successful mobile app, you should constantly improve software quality through updates (65% of mobile users say their expectations of app performance increase over time);
  • Marketing is king. An average smartphone holder uses 26 apps per month, with social media apps taking 21% of all the time they spend on mobile. Another survey shows 65% of US smartphone owners do not download any apps over the course of a month. And yes, only 40% of users look for mobile applications on the App Store and Google Play. App marketing is essential. Developers (purely tech guys) don’t usually make great businessmen – and that’s why successful software development companies employ digital marketers, content managers and large sales teams. If you look through mobile app marketing success stories, you won’t find a one-size-fits-all solution. The iTranslate Voice team, for example, had created detailed customer personas and analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of their competitors before they wrote a single line of code. Sometimes it only takes proper App Store Optimization (relevant metadata) to propel your app to the top. And “virality” (the term tech bloggers use to describe the overnight success of Flappy Bird and its Angry rival) is often created by marketers.

What makes a good app: success stories (to draw inspiration from)

Alto’s Adventure

Alto’s Adventure has never been absurdly popular – and it means users won’t get sick of it anytime soon. Snowman, an independent software development company from Canada, didn’t use dark patterns to boost app reviews and weren’t particular about timing. Instead, they decided to focus on quality.

The development process took 18 months (4 times longer than expected). Harry Nesbit, the game’s sole artist and developer, didn’t know anything about snowboarding and had little coding experience. He experimented with several cross-platform app development tools and finally opted for Unity (that’s right, building cross-platform games makes sense). Snowman chose not to bother about snowboarding techniques and tried to simply recreate the feeling of being high up in the air. And that’s how the story about a young shepherd who’s trying to rescue his llamas came to life.

The game hit the App Store a year ago and received critical appraise from top IT experts. As of now, it holds strong at holds #67 on the Top Paid Games chart and gets approximately 400 downloads a day (over $ 1300 in daily revenues). Alto’s Android version is scheduled for a 2016 release (and it’s going to be free – another tip from successful vendors!). Snowman also became one of the first third-party developers to launch an Apple TV app – and hasn’t left the tvOS top 10 ever since.

Angry Birds

Angry Birds was built by Rovio – a small Finnish company that was founded in 2003 by two cousins. Before Rovio started working on the Angry Birds concept, they’d already launched five successful mobile apps (outtake #1 – experience does matter!) and…51 (!) flop games.

Angry Birds took 8 months to build. Its storyline is pretty simple: for whatever reason, a bunch of malevolent pigs steal the birds’ eggs and build a hiding place (some kind of fortress made out of wood, grass and stones). The birds of course get extremely angry and seek revenge. You play as the birds and have to destroy the pigs’ shelter. The action takes place on a beautiful sunny island in the Pacific (a great contrast to Helsinki’s dull landscapes). The game is pretty easy to play (you adjust the trajectory of a bird’s flight with your finger) and very addictive (otherwise it wouldn’t have sold 2 billion downloads).

So, what’s the secret behind Rovio’s success – besides the impressive game dev experience and clever concept?

Well, it’s excellent timing! The Finnish duo realized that smartphones and app stores were about to become the next biggest mass media out there. They launched the game for iOS first, and iTunes was still young. In 2015, there were over 3 million mobile apps on Google Play and the App Store, so the competition is pretty tough. You can’t turn back time, of course – and you don’t have to, because there’s an alternative. Apple TV will soon be the next iTunes, and there will be only 10 thousand tvOS apps there by the end of 2016. If you have a great idea for an app, why not leverage its potential on a big screen?

What makes a good app?

Although we did our best to answer the question, we’ve probably failed to satisfy your curiosity. Building a mobile app is a long and exciting journey (and not a smooth one!). Your project will – most likely – run over time and exceed budget. At some stage, you’ll probably lose heart and give it up – only to start the dev process all over again. Stay strong, focus on quality, validate your app concept and find a reliable developer who will take your bright idea off the ground & help you mitigate possible risks!


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