The initial rush to build mobile apps is settling down, and none too soon. The world has endured the release of a whole lot of mediocre, or even useless, mobile apps. App stores everywhere are chock-full of them. Many companies were gripped by a burning need to create mobile apps for little more than bragging rights. What such apps did for users was often an afterthought. As a result, many corporate apps have languished in app libraries with very few downloads.
Some organizations will probably let it rest there, but others may learn from their mistakes and set out to create better apps. Here are some best practices that your company can employ to ensure that any apps you develop in the future are more intriguing to users:
1. In order to succeed, a mobile app must solve a problem, deliver important functionality, save time or money, entertain or enlighten, or offer a novel service. To put it another way: Successful mobile apps deliver useful benefits to the user.
My favorite example of an app that does something useful comes from Bank of America. Available in Android and iOS versions, the software lets you deposit a paper check by taking pictures of both sides of the check. The entire process takes about two minutes.
As a rule of thumb, anything the Web already does well doesn't need an app. That's why delivering your content, creating a marketing brochure or engaging in e-commerce are not especially useful benefits for a mobile app to deliver. Bottom line: Don't start building an app until you have a rock-solid idea.
2. Focus on one thing and do it well. My experience on more than one planning committee for mobile apps leads me to believe this may be the most important recommendation. It's far too easy to go feature crazy, which could wind up derailing your project later in the process. Brainstorming is good; let the ideas flow. But when you have exhausted that process, pare the ideas down to the best one or two.
3. If you build it ... nope, they probably won't come. App stores aren't a direct channel to everyone who has a tablet or smartphone. In fact, unless you're in the business of developing software, you're probably better off spending your business development dollars in some other fashion. If lots of downloads are important to you, you'll have to do a good deal of promotion.
4. Apps need optional user notifications. With most mobile apps, the user must launch the application to check on new developments. Notifications aren't appropriate for every app, but when it makes sense to add them, don't miss the opportunity to do so.
5. Don't force users to run your app instead of visiting the corporate website, and don't make them go to the mobile version of the site (but do make a mobile version available). Mobile screens are getting bigger, and 4G cellular service makes the Web much more usable on mobile devices. Tablets in particular don't need a dumbed-down mobile version of your website.
Mobile browsers are improving. Instead of thinking that you can build an app that replaces your website, concentrate on improving the user experience and utility of the mobile version of your website.
If you've built a mobile app, feel free to add your own wisdom to my list of tips by tweeting to me or sharing with me on Google+.