Business Technology

9 ways to build an app if you're a business manager

8 min read

28 October 2014

The high-profile launch of new mobile handsets such as the iPhone 6, the BlackBerry Passport, the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 and the HTC Desire EYE has got many businesses thinking about launching a mobile app.

However, once the decision has been taken to build an app, it can be hard for project managers and decision makers to know how to get the ball rolling.

As with all projects, the key to success is effective planning.

1. Be clear about why you’re building an app

Customers and employees often expect businesses will have an app, but before you jump in and build one you need to think carefully about you’re aiming to achieve.

After all, if you just want a website that works on a mobile, you could just create a responsive website. Apps can and should do so much more. For instance, they can generate new business, boost customer engagement, improve internal processes and even boost revenues through paid downloads, advertising or in-app purchases.

The first step is to decide what outcomes matter to you.

2. Understand your target users

To create a genuinely useful app, you need to think about your target audience. It’s useful to carry out research with users on early app concepts to understand their thoughts and feedback.

There’s no point building a highly sophisticated app if many of your users are unfamiliar with how apps works. Similarly, it makes little sense to build an app requiring constant connectivity if they’re mostly based in rural areas or spend much of each day on the tube.

The best apps have a clearly definable audience and are tailored to meet their needs.

3. Clearly define what the app will do

An app needs to satisfy a particular need or carry out specific tasks.

The key qualities of a successful app are simplicity, usability and reliability. As a rule, apps that do one thing well are better than those that do lots of things poorly. But if you do need to incorporate several functions, it’s important to brief this to your development team at the outset because adding extra requirements late on will increase costs and delay delivery. Potential changes should also be briefed to the design team so they can consider these later changes from the outset.

4. Content is king

An app will stand or fall on the quality of its content, so it’s vital to think about where this data will come from.

If your proposed app allows users to read news stories or view image galleries, for example, there is an important decision to be made. Embedding content within the app is simple and quick to code but can make updating information difficult. By contrast, downloading content from a server takes more time but makes updates relatively straightforward. It’s important to consider the server’s performance to ensure that this doesn’t cause any issues with the app’s performance.

5. Design an intuitive user interface

If users find it difficult to navigate around your app, this will push up abandonment rates and reflect badly on your business.

On early app prototypes it’s beneficial to undertake a usability test to gain users’ thoughts and feedback to ensure that the user interface is a perfect fit. It’s also handy to help spot any potential usability issues early in the process. Things that are obvious to you may not be to your users.

When looking at the user interface, you must take into account that users of different devices will have different expectations. Apps on Android devices generally do not behave the same as those on iOS devices so you risk alienating part of your audience if you impose a one-size-fits-all approach.

6. Use a team capable of delivering a great app

You may need to take a step back and ask whether you really have all the resources in-house to deliver the app you want.

It may be that you need to use a mix of internal and external teams to cover all of the tasks involved. Few organisations can call on backend systems engineers, user experience designers, graphic designers, developers, testers and project managers with direct experience of mobile apps and time to spare, so you’ll probably need to outsource some or all of the work.

If you do bring in outside help, make sure you’re clear on who’s responsible for what and how much it will cost. Also assess the suppliers’ experience and references, and where the work will be done. Will the supplier be able to provide any added value?

7. Ensure the app will be launched under your brand

Relying on third parties to build an app can cause problems if you haven’t clearly defined who is in charge from the outset.

Unless you’ve already agreed otherwise, don’t let an external organisation launch the app under their name. That’s because it can be hard to change the name later on.

But more importantly, users will get confused – it’s your app so it should have your branding all over it.

8. Get the source code

The source code is the information underpinning your app so it’s vital that you take copies. If you own the app, the contract should give you the rights to own the code too.

Having the source code gives you the luxury of choosing who should do the maintenance or upgrades that you’ll need in the future. If you’re working with external organisations on the build, ask them to provide copies on a regular basis and ensure they send the final version on completion.

It’s also worth getting someone else to independently check that the code is correct – after all, you can never be too careful.

9. Test, test, test

It’s impossible to launch an effective app without regular testing.

You should get testers in as early as possible during the development process because this will help them to understand the full scope of the project, identify potential flaws and map out a suitable test plan. As the app progresses, they will need to test it in different environments and locations and try it out across a range of devices and platforms, performing a full test on key devices and a scaled-down test otherwise. They should also see how it reacts to common issues such as a sudden loss of connectivity or battery failure.

A robust testing process will ensure that you get actionable feedback and – ultimately – a successful app.

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