Does your business need an app?

Business, small and large are becoming increasingly obsessed with digital platforms. And with good reason. But like any new industry, we need to ask the tough questions up front. Do we really need all the shiny new toys? Does your business really need a smartphone app or mobile app?

What follows is the transcript of an interesting chat I had with Jessica Hubbard of Finweek. Some of the thoughts were featured in an article of hers, but we went into a lot more details - so I'm posting the full interview here. Hope you find some tidbits in here.

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Jessica Hubbard: When does it make sense for a business (particularly SMMEs) to develop an app?

Andy Hadfield: Apps are all about a mobile experience, a single-purpose focus - and target market. So, think through those questions as an SME. What part of your business/proposition is best experience in a mobile environment? Is there one or two things that you can do simply and efficiently through an app (that your customers would value)? And is your target market using apps?

Running through the numbers is quite important. We tend to either grossly underestimate or overestimate app takeup in the SA context at the moment. Let's do some matchbox maths. 8.5 million SmartPhones in the country. Knock off maybe 3 million that are just too old (designing for older Android/Nokia devices can be a nightmare). That leaves 5.5 across multiple platforms (iPhone / Android / Blackberry / Nokia / Windows Phone). Now assume that only 50% of those phones are "app active", as in the users know how and where to get apps. See the numbers shrinking a little?

Then, unless you're going to use the web app approach (designing a highly functional mobisite that you wrap up inside an app), you're looking at developing 5 different applications, 1 for each platform. If you thought designing a website was tough, multiply that by 5.

Now, I don't want to scare SMME's off, which I probably have! But the moral of this story is to do your research and pick your platforms well. Apps can be the most incredible focussed product experiences - and they give you an opportunity to get into your customers pocket. But they don't work for everything... and they can get expensive.

JH: What surprised you most in the process?

AH: The attention to detail required to create a mobile experience. People flippantly talk about the size of the mobile screen, but it's only when you're developing a mobile user interface that you truly appreciate how small mobile screens can get. Small screens mean graphics and fonts need to be big, so your users can see them. It means you can't have too many actions or buttons on the same screen. In essence, it forces you to be simple. You know the saying "I didn't have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one" - that applies ten fold when designing mobile apps.

JH: What are the major considerations regarding design and distribution?

AH: Simple, sexy, functional design is the name of the game. Remember you're competing with vast US and European app developers and technology companies. Sure, you're offering a different service to them. But your customers are used to using THEIR apps - which means they've become used to a level of design, a level of usability and user experience that you have to work hard to match.

Distribution is an interesting argument. In app stores where the number of apps is in the hundreds of thousands - it's pretty hard to get discovered. You need a way of getting to your customer base to TELL them you have an app available. Don't expect to upload to the app store and "be found". It's highly unlikely that will happen.

JH: What makes a great app? 

AH: Usefulness. Fun apps are fine, but fun wears off. If you really want to leverage the fact that your company is carried around in the pocket of your customers - you need to find enough utility to cause them to open that app every day, or at least every couple of days. People may download apps because they're sexy or fun or popular. People use apps because they're useful.

JH: Can you describe your app and what it does? Feedback so far?

AH: Of course! Real Time Wine is a social discovery app for wine. We try solve two problems. Firstly, getting into wine can be a daunting experience. Wine is complicated, the language used to describe wine can be really hard to understand and every year, you've got a fresh new bunch of wines to learn about. How many industries drastically change their products every year?! Secondly, if you've ever walked into a supermarket/retail store, you'll know what I mean by "The Wall of Wine". It's a scary thing, hundreds of bottles lined up from floor to ceiling. We want range from a supermarket, that's why we go there. But with that many options, we often battle to choose.

That's where we come in. Real Time Wine tries to capture and enhance the "moment" you have with wine, be it at a supermarket (trying to choose) or at a restaurant/dinner table with friends and family. In the supermarket, you need options, you need a list to work off to narrow down the choices. We have our Popular page for the crowd favourites and a Wish List that you can add a wine to everytime you stumble across something that gets recommended by the community. A self-populated shopping list! At the dinner table, it's all about the social experience. We believe everyone should be able to give their opinion on wine - and if everyone does, we'll be able to sort the good ones from the bad (at the right price bracket!). The app allows you to check-in to wine (save it to your profile), rate it, review it if you want to (in normal language) and share these recommendations with your friends.

Oh, and then a whole bunch of stuff to make it fun. Well, more fun than drinking wine already is!

Feedback has been amazing. I've been blown away by how many people have jumped on to help test and mature this concept. We had an early adopter community (who got first access and helped us debug before launch) of over 300 people. That's pretty special. On the 10th of July, we had our first record day in terms of number of reviews submitted: 53. That's not ratings. That's people actually taking the time to write something down about the wines they were drinking. Not to shabby for Week 1!

JH: What are your favourite apps?

AH: I'd have to go with Clear and Flipboard. Clear is simply the best To Do app I've ever come across. It's got a revolutionary 3D style interface - but better than that. It's dead simple. Pull down to add a to do item. Swipe to say you've done it. Runs my life, that app...

Flipboard is a sign of the future of how we'll consume news and content. It takes any stream you can find on the internet (from your Facebook friends, to RSS and other curated content categories) and produces a virtual magazine. It has to be seen to be believed. Imagine all the good content being shared by your friends on Facebook and Twitter - now in a beautiful magazine format that you can flip through an explore. It's one of the only ways I read news now.


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