Mobile apps: Publish first, test never

When a user-experience company recently tested mobile apps from pharmacy chain Rite Aid and restaurant chain Applebee's, both apps greatly frustrated focus-group users. Is mobile development being ignored?

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When a user-experience company recently tested mobile apps from pharmacy chain Rite Aid and restaurant chain Applebee's, both apps greatly frustrated focus-group users.

The Applebee's app, for example, didn’t update pricing when quantity was changed, forced users to enter name and location multiple times, and forced some users to repeatedly trestart their orders. (Here's a video excerpt.)  With the Rite Aid app, the problem was that it served little purpose other than to dump users to the Rite Aid mobile site.

The point here is not to focus on the shortcomings of a pair of retail mobile apps. It is to ask how such fundamental usability flaws could be published from a $4.6 billion restaurant chain and a $26.5 billion pharmacy chain. From the perspective of Michael Mace, VP of mobile for the company that performed this testing (a company called User Testing), the problems discovered were not surprising. What is surprising is that more such holes are not routinely discovered.

Most large retailers still give unconditional priority to websites — as opposed to mobile apps and mobile sites — and that is because of lower direct mobile revenues. But that quickly becomes "a self-fulfilling prophecy," Mace said, because the lack of attention to those mobile offerings turn off customers and keep mobile revenue and mobile conversions low.

"They just assume if the response is stinky, it's attributable to mobile itself instead of them having done something poorly," Mace said. And that leads to an even bigger problem, which is that retail testing of mobile apps and mobile sites is done by the same people who created them. "They are blind to their usability problems. You can't user your own internal employees, because they are acclimated to it," he said. "It's just a matter of getting fresh eyes on your stuff. Go to a coffee shop and ask strangers."

That problem is similar to a very old marketing concept, known as the power of ignorance. That is where a company has a group of people who have created a product from scratch and attended the same 100 meetings, read the same 2,000 emails and conducted all of the internal presentations. If something key is missing — perhaps it got inadvertently dropped when it went from alpha version 4.1 to 4.2 — that group is the least likely to notice. Their brains will fill in the missing pieces. That's why it's important to bring in company employees who had not been involved in any of the earlier discussions; they bring the power of ignorance.

Although the Applebee's app had more technical problems — such as a user who "experienced a glitch where the numerical keypad would revert back to the QWERTY keypad every time he was entering his phone number" (video of that QWERTY delight) — it was the Rite Aid app that Mace saw as alienating customers more. It pushed customers to download the app, but when customers tried using it to buy something from Rite Aid, it just dumped them over to the mobile app.

Why waste customers' time dealing with an app when you have created little more than a shell that can't sell them anything without delivering them to the mobile Web? It is expected today to have a mobile app. But part of those expectations are to have a true app, something with full functionality that can do almost everything the site can do.

I do find it rather stunning that in October 2015, we have people belittling mobile, as though it's a fad that will soon disappear. If a site doesn't deliver — and deliver efficiently — on mobile, those dollars will find their way to your rivals.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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