Why Your App Will Probably Fail

happy shapes

When clients tell me they want to make an app, the question I ask is: why?

The potential rewards of creating a successful app are huge. The internet has recently crossed the mobile tipping point; in the US alone, adults now spend more time accessing digital media from their mobiles than from desktops.

And phone users spend significantly more time in apps than in their mobile’s browser — one research study from 2014 puts the figure at 86% of time in apps vs. only 14% in the browser.

The flipside of these findings is that people install and use fewer apps on their phones. Recent research indicates that users install an average of roughly one new app a month.

App discovery is a huge challenge, but so is app engagement. Out of the 30 or so apps the average user will have on their phone, they will actively engage with less than 10.

And yet, in July 2015, there were 1.6 million Google apps available on the Google Play Store, and 1.5 million IOS apps on the Apple App Store, with thousands more apps released every day.

From a standing start, the odds of launching a “go-to” app – one that users access frequently, or spend lots of time in – are lottery-like.

Your chances of success can increase if you already have an audience. But an existing user base isn’t a guarantee, and asking mobile web visitors to download the app can backfire and sound too much like nagging. For example, the Daily Mail website has largely failed to get its millons of site visitors to engage with its app, which accounts for only around 1% of its traffic.

Before You Build an App

So, should you build an app? Maybe, maybe not – but do your customer research. Ask questions of and about your potential audience. Do they need an app? Will the app experience be truly better than your mobile web experience?

And if you answer yes to the latter, why isn’t your mobile web experience better? Too many sites are “mobile-friendly”, using crude responsive design techniques that simply hack off or inelegantly fold up features in smaller devices. Before jumping to an app, ask: can you go beyond mobile-friendly? Can you make your website mobile excellent?

How will you overcome the challenges of app discovery, of on-boarding, of re-engagement? To succeed, your app must be truly world class, like WhatsApp, which offered services that were available in other apps, but focused ruthlessly on simplicity-of-use.

Another way to succeed is to to provide something that app users crave and can’t get elsewhere – this is more likely to succeed for a niche market. Highly motivated users will tolerate some faults.

Don’t Let Me Stop You

I don’t want to (and probably can’t) talk you out of creating an app. None of the above reasons stopped me creating and launching a simple, free pre-school game app a couple of years ago. But my motivation was primarily self-education; that “Happy Shapes” was installed somewhere between 10,000 and 50,000 times was an unexpected bonus. (Note: I no longer update this app, so it may not work in newer devices.)

If you have greater ambitions than mine, be prepared – know your audience, get behind your app and push hard, and continually improve it. Otherwise, like millions of others, your app will probably fail.