Does Your Business Need a Mobile App?

After building dozens of apps, one founder shares his advice

Mobile technology has changed the way we live, from the way we access information, to the way we make purchases and communicate. As mobile use grows, desktop use declines, with mobile in the U.S. now accounting for 51% of digital media consumption compared to 42% desktop. In August of 2016 alone, it was estimated that Americans spent an average of 87 hours, or nearly 4 entire days, browsing the internet on their smartphones.

Businesses have been forced to adapt to this growing shift in consumer behavior or risk falling out of competition. To remain relevant and thrive in an increasingly mobile marketplace, companies have placed an emphasis on optimizing their websites for smartphone accessibility and in some cases, have developed their own mobile apps. But with over two billion apps available in the mobile marketplace, is creating a company-specific app the right call? And if so, what are some best practices to help your app stand out from the crowd?

Austin Kettner is a co-founder of The Bit Factory in Akron, Ohio, a software startup accelerator and partner of The Akron Global Business Accelerator, both northeast Ohio regional partners of Ohio Third Frontier. Kettner has developed around 30 mobile apps for his own startups, such as Wonderkiln, Clusio and GoGoPop, and also as a contracted developer for other companies. The seasoned entrepreneur spoke with us about the value apps can, and can’t, have for a business, and how to know if you need one.

First, do you really need an app?

Is your app unique?

The mobile app market is saturated with countless apps, so before you go spending significant time and money developing your own app, ask yourself if your experience will be unique to other apps on the market. What does it offer that’s different from existing applications? Is it going to provide the customer with a new or improved experience? If that’s not an easy question to answer, a mobile app is not for you.

Is there an existing app that could more effectively drive business?

One of the most glaring examples of businesses making the wrong call on app development is the case of individual small businesses. Local restaurants, barber shops, cafes, etc. often fall into the app trap, burning money to develop a specific app for their establishment rather than focusing on improving their visibility on existing platforms such as Yelp and Grubhub, which millions of people already use to influence their purchase decisions. But if you offer a unique or significantly improved experience over everything else on the market, an app may be for you.

So, you decide to build an app. Here are some tips.

Don’t overcomplicate things.

Consider carefully the true value of your app; what is the essential function that people will be downloading it for? If the core function is a marketplace to buy or sell goods, dedicate time to simplifying aspects of relevant processes, such as how users can input payment information. Focus on perfecting your main features and avoid overcomplicating the user experience with unnecessary bells and whistles.

Contract somebody close by

There are talented developers everywhere. Identify local companies with apps you consider well-designed and reach out for recommendations. Try to avoid contracting out your work to somebody online that you can’t meet up with in person. Lines of communication remain much clearer and project goals are communicated more effectively in person. Don’t underestimate the power of hashing out your app’s design together with pen and paper.

Develop flexibly

The two major mobile platforms are Android and Apple, and each operates using its own language. Android phones use Java and Apple phones are programmed in their native Swift. In the past, this meant developers needed to develop natively, or write two different sets of code, if they wanted to be compatible with both Android and Apple. That’s no longer necessarily the case, as development frameworks such as React Native and Apache Cordova allow developers to code for Apple and Android, and deploy seamlessly on both. This saves time, money and effort compared to native development, and makes for easier troubleshooting.

“I think in summary, my advice to entrepreneurs is to spend time assessing your true need for an app and, if you decide it can benefit your company, plan diligently for what you want the user experience to be like,” said Kettner. “Mobile app development is time-consuming, it’s complicated and it can be very expensive. It can also be a tremendous boost for your business when done correctly, so just take the time to make it right the first time. Don’t build an app just for the sake of building it.”

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