Top five things to consider before building a mobile app for your business

building a mobile app

Lightning struck close to our house the other day and our internet went out. When AT&T arrived the service tech pulled out his iPad, plugged it into the cable box and started running diagnostics tests on our system. Five years ago mobile apps consisted of Emojicons and simple games, today mobile apps are becoming ubiquitous business tools that help organizations stay connected and productive regardless of location.  Getting our first app in Apple’s AppStore was a learning experience for us in terms of working with remote developers and patiently working through the app submittal process. We are proud to be the first company to make a mobile app available in the AppStore that is completely dedicated to marina operators. But as I reflect back on the experience, I thought it might be useful to consider whether a mobile app is really for every business, all the time.

Have you thought about developing a mobile app for your business? Do the systems you already have in place offer mobile extensions or functionality? Before we started developing mobile apps at Exuma, we thought long and hard about the problem we are trying to solve. For us we wanted to deliver mobile apps to users of our business management system. The bet we placed over eighteen months ago was that the people that worked at the companies using our software would be more productive. But we had to prove that hypothesis first.

Before you spend a lot of money developing a mobile app, there are five questions you should ask yourself before you spend the first nickel.

1.  Is there a business need?  If the answer is “a mobile app would be cool” you may have fulfilled a desire, but you haven’t solved a business problem. What is the problem you are trying to solve with a mobile app. If you have work force that travels to see customers like service techs or sales people, you can certainly justify a mobile app.  There are numerous apps that manage remote workers and service techs that are counter-productive if stuck behind a computer.  In our business, service techs need to be working on boats or RVs.  Sometimes these units are far from the nearest computer.  Some of our clients send service techs to repair boats that are on the other side of the globe.

2.  What are you going to build?  Once you’ve decided that a mobile app would be useful for your business you now need to decide what it is you want to build.  In other words what is the concept and purpose.  This is one area that you don’t want to skimp on.  You really want to get this right before investing in a mobile app.  We are firm believers in the Lean Start-up process which says that you should create a value hypothesis about what it is that you want to build before you build it.  There are three key points to consider when you are trying to determine the value you want to create:

Target Market – Do you want to build an app to attract new customers or engage with existing customers? Do you want to keep better tabs on employees or give them tools to be more productive while on the road or in the field?  This key question needs to be evaluated first and if you are like most businesses a need could exist for both.  If so you need to determine which target market will provide your business with the highest return on investment.

End-user – This goes hand in hand with the target market but is your end users customers, potential customers or both?  How about employees, managers or ownership? Who is the beneficiary – who will benefit from your new app? Note that it is not always the end user.  If you want to build an app that tracks the whereabouts of your employees, the owner or manager clearly benefits more than the employee.  No more martini lunches for them.

Context – Lastly it’s time to circle back to the overall value of the app and ask yourself  how this new app will tie into your other projects and systems.  In other words will this app be a standalone app or one that ties into your existing business management system?

This idea of identifying a need and deciding what to build is so important that I want to walk you through our thinking when we decided to go into the mobile app business.  First and foremost we needed to develop a theory (hypothesis) that we felt would add value to our customers.  We then needed to test those assumptions by asking customers if they agreed.  Our value hypothesis was this:

We believe that mobile devices are much more than an adjunct to a company’s business management system(s). Our goal is to build applications specifically for mobile devices that optimize the user experience on the class of device being used. Our customers spend the majority of their time selling, servicing or managing the storage and safekeeping of boats and RVs. When they are not doing this they are in front of customers. It is counterproductive to have people waste time seeking out a computer to find information or enter data into their management system.   Furthermore, some of our customers are managing a paper process whereby technicians write down notes and times logs on paper in that someone has to enter into the computer system. A mobile app will give anyone in the enterprise access to their management system so they can look up or enter information while interacting with customers or working in the field.

3. What will it look like?  Some people will argue that once you’ve decided “in words” what you want your app to do, then its time to make a decision about the platform.  I disagree.  For me you don’t know what you want until you know what it will looks like.  At the end of the day it’s all about the user experience.  Smartphone or tablet, iPhone or Android; none of that matters unless you deliver a superior user experience.  So for me the next step is a mockup.  A mockup is nothing more than a drawing.  As matter of fact often the simplest thing you can do to convey to a developer what you want is to draw a picture.  Think back to your fourth grade art class.  Whatever skills you may have had then is overkill for what you need to do now.  Simply convey in a drawing what you want with buttons and display area to look like.  Just draw boxes with words in them for starters.  Here is a really simple drawing that I received from a customer which eventually led to the design of LaunchTracker.

LaunchTracker sketch

Before we received this, we had developed a mobile website using HTML5 and jQuery Mobile to show customers what our app might look like.  I considered this site our minimum viable product. The site covered a broad range of things like time-clock, WO parts, add/view customers, etc.  But the LaunchTracker portion was really clumsy.  If it wasn’t for our customer’s input, we would have built the WRONG product.  Remember, it’s all about the user experience.  Once we had this feedback in place I created a more “realistic” web mock-up that looked like this.  I delivered a requirements document to our web development team that included the following mock-up.  For tablet apps or more complicated designs I prefer to use Balsamiq for mock-ups.  Once the mockup is complete you can naturally move to the next question.

 LaunchTracker Mockup

4.  What type of devices should you support? This question of what type of mobile device to build your app for is a raging debate within both the tech and financial community.  The warfare taking place in the market between Apple and Google is interesting and fierce.  You can’t count out Microsoft or to a lesser extent Blackberry either.  However with a mockup or wireframe in hand the question of smartphone, tablet or both can be answered with more intelligence than just guessing what your users will want.  What I recommend people do before they make these difficult decisions is to ask the end users first.  

If you are building an app for internal use, management can either mandate a particular device or poll employees.  As I stated earlier, the application being developed is also a big consideration.  If you are building a dashboard app to review financials and key business indicators, a tablet would be far more effective than a smartphone.  If your users are customers, then a survey to your customer base would be more effective.  That’s what we did and we learned that 1/2 of our customers use Android and about 1/2 use iPhones.  If you are attempting to get new customers using an app, deciding on a platform can be far more difficult.  You would need to study the demographic characteristics of your target market.  One great resource for this is AppFigures public rankings. First find apps that are similar to what you want to create and then look up those apps on AppFigures.  There you can see the rankings by device type and app store for any app that is ranked in the top 400 of any category.

5.  Who will build it and how much will it cost?  These questions are lumped together because they are so closely tied together. There are lots of places to find good app developers.  I have used both oDesk and Elance to find, hire and manage contractors.  These sites connect buyers with contractors from around the world with varying degrees of skills.  Be very, very careful here.  If you have never hired a contractor on one of these sites and don’t have good project management skills, it can be a dangerous place to venture.  If you are going to hire someone who has limited use of the English language, communication can become a real challenge and the art of building software requires constant, clear and precise communication.  

One of the features that I especially like about oDesk is the snapshots it takes of your contractor’s screen while they are billable on your project.  One developer I was using was caught red handed surfing Facebook and billing me for it.  I promptly received a refund for this time.  One place many people often overlook is their local community college.  Speak with a recruiter or out placement staff member at the college about potential candidates.  You can also hire a local or national firm that specializes in app development.  These firms typically cost more but bring a higher level of knowledge, reliability and command of the English language to your project. 

Before you think about the cost, it is advisable to have a return on investment calculated in your mind.  Cutting corners and trying to go cheap here will cost you more in the long run.  Plan on 4-6 weeks at a minimum for a simple mobile app to be designed, developed, tested and submitted to the AppStore.  Approval on Google Play is nearly instantaneous but Apple’s AppStore can take weeks for approval as each app is tested for various compliance issues by Apple before approval.  Apple will also reject an app if there are too many apps in the AppStore already for the type of app you want to build.  For instance, Apple won’t accept anymore emoji or flashlight apps because they have too many already.  However if that is the kind of app you intend to build it is unlikely you have read this far.  A small app can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000.  If you are using a well known national firm, require lots of custom graphics or need to tie into a server environment you can plan on spending a lot more.

I hope I haven’t scared you away from taking the plunge and building an app for your business.  It is an exciting and rewarding experience.  Just make sure you are going into the project with your eyes wide-open.  So, would a mobile app help you in your business?  Drop us a line or comment on this blog post to let us know what your needs are, or whether or not you agree with this approach.

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