In an increasingly mobile-centric world, in which people are becoming more dependent on their smartphones and tablets to perform an ever widening range of complex functions, mobile applications (apps) have become the new ‘must have' for companies of all sizes and across sectors.

However, as this is still a relatively new field and a nascent technology for both companies and the developers and designers involved in the process of developing apps, several common mistakes or misjudgements have emerged that in many cases undermine the innate commercial potential of well-developed apps.

A Reason for Being

First and foremost, companies need to carefully consider whether there is a real need – ie. a solid business case, for an app. In some cases, companies want an app just for the sake of having one; and because apps have become the darling of the mobile world. They see other companies developing apps, and are fearful of being left behind or being regarded as luddites. These are all the wrong reasons for developing an app, and often lead to wasted time, resources and frustrated customers

Before rushing headlong into creating an app, companies need to question what the objective for developing the app is. Very often, companies create apps that simply repurpose or repackage content that is already available on the website or mobi site. This commonly leads to low takeup of the app, as it is more efficient for consumers/customers to access information via the web rather than downloading an app.

Something Different

Essentially, an app needs to offer the end user something different, and something which he/she cannot access in any other form from your company or offering. In addition, it should enhance existing services and add value to the user experience. As a study from the Neilson Norman Group highlighted, an app should only be considered if it adds “value-added functionality” to its audience. Taking this into consideration, companies should ensure that their apps maximise the potential of functionalities such as GPS tracking; location-based services; barcode scanning using the device camera and more, which will automatically differentiate the app from existing website services and content.

The local financial services sector has made excellent use of mobile banking apps, for example, which provide the end user with a seamless and unique mobile experience. These services differentiate from what is already on offer on the banks' traditional websites, which is in part why the takeup has been so rapid and successful.

The study from the Neilson Norman Group (NNG), which although focused on the usability of apps on tablets, provided some useful insight into the most common uses for apps on tablets, which more than likely also reflects the trends on smartphones. According to the NNG, the most common uses for apps on tablets are:

• Browsing: news, sports, videos, webs
• Consuming: books, articles, movies, games, music
• Checking in: social media, email
• Comparing: restaurants, shopping
• Locating: nearby businesses

If companies have sound and well thought out reasons for developing apps that provide specific functionality with a clear cut purpose –that would significantly enhance their current services and/or content –then developing an app can certainly be a key differentiator and value add for a business looking to gain competitive advantage.

Keep it Simple

Once the decision has been taken to develop an app, the focus needs to turn to creating the most seamless and straightforward user experience possible. One of the most common errors in local app design is creating apps that are far too complex and attempt to do too much. The minute an app becomes difficult to use or navigate, users will look elsewhere. Developers therefore always need to keep in mind that in most instances, app users are making use of the functionality while on the move and/or while doing something else – so the app needs to be simple and easy to access and use. This principle has significant ramifications for the design process – so the basic functionalities of the app need to be clearly defined and thought through before the actual design process begins. According to the study by the NNG, the following factors emerged as the most common app user issues (for tablets):

• Accidental touch (links, images etc.)
• Swipe ambiguity: different areas of the screen requiring different gestures, leading to confusion
• The inability to ‘see' what gesture they have made and no way of reversing it
• Learnability issues due to the problems described above. A user can't learn to use an app that has conflicting gestural areas
• Flat design minimizing signifiers (what buttons to press, links, etc.) in app and websites
• Poor rescaling makes for poor usability

Taking these finding into account, the study emphasises the importance of ‘keeping it simple' when it comes to app design and development, and thus limiting the amount of actions that a user needs to take within the app.

If companies have a strong business case for developing an app, and place strong emphasis on creating a simple and accessible user experience, they will be well on their way to harnessing the immense capabilities and commercial benefits that great apps can provide.

Information for Editors

If you want to know more you can contact Nick Durrant, MD, direct for comment and feedback.

Published on: 9:03AM on 30th October 2013