Opinion

Creating the right app for your business

7 min read

23 February 2015

While often seen as big cost developments rolled out by larger businesses, smartphone applications (apps) are increasingly becoming useful tools for SMEs as the build cost comes down.

Over 75bn apps have been downloaded since Apple introduced the idea of a little piece of useful software that you could put on to your phone, according to figures released by the company last summer. Hundreds of thousands of companies and other organisations have introduced apps over the last year few years.

Trends such as bring-your-own-device (BYOD), in which employees use their own phones and tablet for work have also driven the growth of apps. Around 60 per cent of UK SMEs use cloud-based applications on mobile devices, according to findings from the British Chambers of Commerce and BT Business last year.

The survey was conducted among around 400 IT decision makers in UK businesses, with 250 staff and below. A total of 43 per cent said cloud-based applications were critical to effective flexible working and 52 per cent said access to company data was essential.

Apps can provide SMEs with other ways to reduce costs. EDF Energy, for instance, has an app that allows smaller businesses to monitor and control their energy usage. Kashoo, a service that provides financial statements, full bookkeeping features, automated bank data imports and expense tracking, offers customers a free iPad app. Another service, Box, allows employees to share and edit files with customers and other on phones and tablets. 

But finding apps that can connect effectively with customers or empower staff is difficult for companies that don’t have the staff and budgets to carry out extensive research or develop their own apps. That’s why a growing number of app companies are helping SMEs to create their own versions.

AppInstitute is a self-service, cloud-based platform that allows SMEs to create their own mobile apps for smart phones. It claims to be the only company to offer this kind of product in the UK, and it’s client base ranges from the OCR examining board at Cambridge University which creates GCSE study guides for students to NHS patient feedback systems – and they now work in ten countries across four continents.

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Ian Naylor, founder and CEO, was working for a web developer in Sydney Australia in 2009 when the app revolution was just starting. “One day I had an ‘aha moment’, that wouldn’t it be cool if our content management system could build apps, rather than websites,” he explained. Within three months he had left his position as vice president of the business and spent a year in Thailand working on concepts. “Once the concept and focus was refined to the SME market I returned to the UK to start the business, and haven’t looked back since,” he said.

He found decently-priced office space and a willing workforce at the Creative Quarter, in Nottingham, home to leading incubators and clusters of technology-based companies. An added appeal was that the area is also a centre of culture and a home to many of the city’s independent retailers, bars and restaurants, small creative companies and artists.

Within two years the company went from employing four members of staff to 16 and by last year they were working with 100 business partners. Naylor expects that to reach 700 next year.

SMEs are generally much closer to their customer, he finds, and this is useful when developing an app that will work for them. “Most businesses we work with are owners/managers, and are face to face with their customers every day, so they’re looking for solutions that don’t get in the way of that interaction, but nurture it.” Communication and customer loyalty are two high demand features across all SME sectors, finds Naylor.  

He has seen medical practices improve patient waiting time for appointments (and has won awards for doing so) as well as takeaways and restaurants doubling the value of their customers.

Most businesses start trying to create an app that is simply a mobile version of their website – and that’s a mistake, believes Naylor. “When it comes to app design and making a really useful app, less is most definitely more,” he revealed. “Picking one or two core use cases, and focusing the app around them makes for a much more useable and ultimately successful app. This mindset can been seen with all the big mobile first players, such a Facebook to FourSquare, who are all deconstructing their apps into many smaller versions, doing specific tasks, rather than one behemoth.”

He added: “Ultimately, a great app needs to provide additional value to the customer, just moving them from web to mobile paradigms isn’t enough. The app needs to reward them for making the change, that might be more convenience in communication, quicker service, or just in time discounts or offers, based on actions, locations or previous actions.”

AppInstitute creates apps for a number of takeaway food business and it sees, according to Naylor, on average a 17 per cent uplift in takeaway orders when a customer starts to use an app – because with the press of one button a customer can re-order from their order history. “Spending sub-20 seconds, rather than minutes on the phone rattling through your order,” he added, “means there is much less friction in the buying process, and so a much higher chance a customer is likely to do it more often.” And, after all, that’s what every business wants.

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