Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Commission a logo before building an app


Last month I wrote a guest post on the UK Microsoft developers blog:
Have you ever thought (or heard another developer say) something along the lines of this?

"I've finished the app, now I just need to create a logo and then I can submit it to the store."

As the title of this post might suggest, I want to share with you why I think being in such a situation is a problem.

To build and promote an app before worrying about how it looks is a traditionally developer-centric approach. Of all the people who have created successful apps that I've ever spoken to, or heard from, they claim that between just 10 and 40 percent of the success comes down to coding. It should, therefore, be clear that there is more to success than just writing the code and releasing an app.

Promotion of an app, whether paid or otherwise, is a key factor of success. This promotion shouldn't start only when the app is complete and ready to be submitted to the store.

...

Read the whole things at https://www.microsoft.com/en-gb/developers/articles/week04may16/commission-a-logo-before-building-an-app/

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Jumping on board the bot development bandwagon

Last month I wrote a guest post for the Apps World blog:

Over the last few months, there has been a massive growth in interest in creating chat bots.

Facebook Messenger currently has a reported 10,000 developers working on creating bots. Telegram, LineSkype, and Slack are also among those chat apps that have added bot support. Microsoft recently announced a Bot framework to make creating bots even easier and the likes of WeChat and QQ in China provide an indication of what is possible with such integrations.

There’s a lot of opportunity and interest in this area but chat bots are nothing new.

Over a decade ago I built a chat bot for MSN Messenger at the company I was at. The bot was fairly simple and wrapped the order lookup functionality that existed on the website.

....

Read the rest at https://apps-world.net/2016/05/26/jumping-on-board-the-bot-development-bandwagon/ 

Monday, June 20, 2016

The App Store’s 65% search stat is meaningless











Large parts of the mobile world are up in arms about Apple introducing search ads. Their complaint is that this will make it even harder for small apps/companies without large budgets to compete against larger competition.

Apple claim that "65% of app downloads are driven by search." Yes, that's a lot and search is definitely important but there's obviously some subtlety to that statistic too.

Let's start with what the doesn't include. 35% of downloads (the rest) come from browsing the directory of top apps and direct links from external sites.
It would be invaluable to know the breakdown. What percentage of people get their apps from browsing the top lists? Based on the download spikes that getting featured or included in a list create it is not inconsiderable.
This leaves all the direct links. This includes links in articles from press/bloggers, links from the websites of the apps and the companies or services to which they relate, and adverts.

When I think about what makes up that 35% I'm amazed at how small a share it is.

Clearly search is massive.

But then I take a step back.

In my technical/professional capacity I intentionally click on lots of ads and spend lots of time browsing various app stores. I look at apps and app stores a lot but don't use search. Such behavior is not normal. I know it's not and it's not what I observe others doing. It's also not what I do myself for most of the apps I install for my personal use.

I, just like most other people, have been taught that if you want an app you go to the store, search for it and then download it.

I recently set up another new phone and rather than just reinstall every app I'd installed on the last one I used this as a chance to rationalize the installed app list. I knew the apps I wanted so went through the mental list in my head and for each in turn I searched for the name in the store and then installed it.
If a friend tells me about a game they're playing, or I hear about a cool new app or game on a podcast or from a real person, I will search for it, by name, in the store so I can find and download it.

In all these, common, scenarios for downloading an app they are "driven by search" but they are a special kind of search and unlikely to be affected by advertising.

There is a fundamental difference between searching for a specific app and searching for an app that does a specific task, or a game in a specific genre.

If I know the app I want, the quickest way to find it is to search for it by name in the store. Any reasonably smart search algorithm and basic ASO on the part of the publisher should mean that the app I'm after will be very near to the top of the list, if not at the very top. If I'm after a specific app, even if I see another app advertised in the results I'm very unlikely to install the alternative.

If I want an app that does X and I search accordingly then I am more open to advertising in the results. Similarly, I may be swayed by what's top of the results if I search for a particular type of game.
These generic searches are where the advertising competition is going to be and so it will be hard to compete against those with deep pockets.
If you have an app or game in the store and you want people to install it you are still going to get the best install rate from people searching for it by name.

Yes, 65% is a lot but what really matters is how many of those searches are for a specific app and how many are for a type of app. If there are lots of people searching by type/genre of app/game, then I'm a lot less interested. If there are lots of people currently searching for the name of an app but installing one different to the name they entered then I'm a lot more interested.
Either way I expect search ads to end up like Google Ads on the web. Larger companies/apps will end up having to create ads for their own products which would have been at the top of the search results anyway as a way of fighting off competition while they will be useful to smaller companies going after particular niches.


Thoughts?

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Is Xamarin a safe bet?


Today I was giving a talk at a conference that was as introduction to cross-platform development with Xamarin. Amongst the questions I was asked was whether learning to use Xamarin was a good long term decision. Technologies don't stick around forever. Silverlight has come and gone, WPF isn't getting much love or interest and the products of some companies get shut down once acquired.

Here are my thoughts:


  • The Xamarin platform isn't a competitor to any of Microsoft's own products, it's a compliment. That's one of the reasons so many people were expecting/hoping that Microsoft would buy them.
  • We are very much in a multi-platform / operating system world. Microsoft recognise this and are building lots of their platforms and services with this in mind. By providing tools for building apps for all platforms they keep their own (Windows) in the mix.
  • Mobile apps use a lot of external services. When developers are already building apps using Microsoft's tools for their apps it follows that they're more likely use Azure to host their services.
  • Microsoft also has their own services like parts of Azure, HockeyApp and (Xamarin) TestCloud which are valuable to app developers and can make money for Microsoft. Having app developers using Microsoft's tools for building apps should lead to them being more likely to use their other services with their apps.


Of course, there's no way to know the future and Microsoft haven't announced any public roadmaps for what they're planning but I expect to be using it a lot more in the future.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Why you need to make intuitive, six-dimensional apps

The following is an extract from the first chapter of ‘Intuitive UX: The Six Dimensions of Mobile User Experience’. The six dimensions are Context, Input, Output, Responsiveness, Connectivity, and Resources. They are introduced earlier in the chapter. In this article I will focus on why you need to use them to create a successful, intuitive, app.

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Lots of apps have been built without knowledge of the six dimensions of a great mobile experience and have still gone on to have some level of success. To rely on luck instead of striving to make your app the best it can be, and optimizing your chance of success, is a fool’s errand. But how does consideration of the six dimensions lead to a better app?

Consideration of each of the six dimensions with respect to your mobile app leads to improvements in each of these areas. You’ll better meet the needs of the user by first understanding what those needs are. You can help a person make better use of their time by making the app faster and easier to use. You can remove barriers that hinder comprehension and use by adopting common conventions and tailoring the app to the user. You can create real value and grow by word of mouth through a ‘best in class’ user experience.

These points are important because of your app's competition and the expectations of those who are using, or might use, the app.


Competition


Depending on the platform (or platforms) you build apps for you will be competing in the store with as few as several hundred thousand or as many as several million other apps that are bidding for attention and installation. Once you get installed on a device you will be competing with several dozen other apps for use.
Of course it is not that simplistic. You are not competing against all other apps in the store or all the apps installed on a specific device. Very few people will think “Hey, I need a new app. I will go to the store and see what there.” Retail therapy through apps does not work the same way as physical products. The people who do browse the store looking for new apps for fun are part of a small minority. Similarly, people do not typically take out their phone and choose, from all the installed apps, the one they want to use at that point. Unless they are bored.

Boredom

Boredom is a valid use case for many mobile apps, especially games and apps related to social media that let a person browse through a seemingly endless stream of content. Solo journeys on public transport and the period in the coffee shop while you are waiting for the barista to prepare your drink. These are the times that such boredom busting apps were built for.
Being an app that people can use when bored or have a few spare minutes and wish to pass the time is not, on its own, an opportunity to compete. Any game that can be played for a few minutes or even a few seconds at a time meets this criterion and they are not all competition for your app.
If the reason to install an app is that people might use it when they are bored, then it is no different to myriad other apps and so becomes a hard proposition to persuade users to install the app.


People get, and use, apps for specific reasons. If they want to access a specific service, they will look for an app that provides that. If they want entertainment they will look for an app that provides preferred types or sources. If they want to be informed about a certain subject, they will look to apps that focus on that specific area. In all these cases it is not the app that the user desires, but the information, functionality, content or value to which the app provides access.

Alternative apps are just a few clicks away


With over a million apps available in the app store it should be apparent that they are not all completely different. For almost any task you can imagine there are several apps available which will allow you to do some variation of a task. Do you want to edit your photos, record progress of important tasks, track your fitness routine, find somewhere to eat dinner, communicate with friends, meet new people, listen to music, track the latest fashion trends, monitor the status of an upcoming flight, discover new products, see the forecast for tomorrow’s weather, or read a book? If so, you will find more apps providing different ways to do all these things, and many more besides, than you ever imagined possible.

When there are multiple options available to a person, it is necessary to distinguish what you provide from the competition. Uniqueness is not enough to stand out. To really compete your app should have meaningful differences that make the app more desirable. The ready availability of alternatives means you cannot rely on your apps mere existence for success.

Even if there is not an alternative or competitor for an app right now, you cannot rely on this always being the case. New apps are released by the thousands every day. If your app is based on a new or novel idea, there is little to stop someone else coming up with the same app idea. If you have spotted an opportunity for an app, others may also see the same opportunity. In fact, the existence of your app in the store may show others who have the same idea that it is valid and serves a need that people want solved with an app. Furthermore, if you create an entirely new app and it becomes popular, your success will attract competitors who will look to benefit from your success.

You cannot stop people from trying alternatives but you can ensure that the complete experience of using your app is the best it can be so that people come back even after trying alternatives.

Competition is not limited to other apps


Alternatives do not just exist in the form of apps. Many apps are created for use as an alternative to a website or other computer system, or as alternative to a manual or paper based system. Imagine going back to using the website of your social media network of choice rather than a third party client that does not have every feature you require. Or consider a remote worker who finds it easier to record information on paper and later enter it into a terminal when they return to the depot rather than struggle to enter the details on a mobile device they carry with them.

Switching to any of these alternatives may be simpler for some people than changing apps. It is, therefore, important to be aware of alternatives and ensure your users’ experience is sufficiently more preferable, so that people start, and keep, using it.


Experience still matters even when there is no competition


Two scenarios exist in which there are no alternatives to your app. This is not an excuse or reason to ignore the experience of the person using the app, and a full consideration of the six dimensions is still important in these scenarios as it is good for the person using the app and ultimately the business providing the app.

The two scenarios without alternatives are:

  1. The official app of a service for which third party apps are not available.
  2. Internal enterprise apps. (Also known as ‘line-of-business’ apps.)
For an app that is tied to a specific service, the experience of using the app is directly tied to the service in the mind of the user. Consider an online movie streaming service. No matter how good the backend servers or the range of titles available, if the only way to watch the movies is via a slow, clumsy app, it provides an unpleasant experience, and the user is not going to think ‘the service is good but the app is poor’. The user going to think that ‘the whole service is bad’. In such a scenario the concern should not be that person will start using an alternative app, the concern is that the person stops using, and presumably paying for, the entire service. They may then go to a competitor.

For apps that are only used internally within a business the incentives for a high quality experience when using the app are different, but just as important. For a long time, and in many situations, there has been an argument that the experience of enterprise apps does not have to be good and people will use them as they are because they have no choice in the matter. Here are some of the reasons why this should not be the case:

  • Such apps are typically tied to productivity and if an app is causing the person using it to do their job slower it can have a financial impact on the business. On one app I worked on I made changes such that an often repeated task could be done one second faster. The consequence of the time saved, when multiplied out across the number of times the task was performed, and the number of people using the app, resulted in a change was worth the equivalent of around $15,000 per day (or approximately four million dollars a year) to the business.
  • Apps that are difficult to use can frustrate or annoy the user. It is generally accepted that you do not want to annoy or upset your staff if they will be representing the business to customers, as their negative feelings may be projected on the customer or potential customer. I have seen, first hand, the negative implications of a member of staff complaining about the app they have to work with in front of a potential customer and the cost that had to the business when they did not win that customer’s business.
  • Unduly complex and complicated apps require training. Not only does this have an initial cost to the business but also adds to the cost of onboarding new staff and ensuring temporary and cover staff are able to use the app correctly.
  • Repeatedly having to use a tool that frustrates users can be bad for emotional happiness and morale. There have been numerous studies that indicate happier staff work harder and are more productive. Giving staff tools (apps) that makes them less productive and not work as hard does not make good business sense. Additionally, studies also show that unhappy workers also end up taking more time off work due to illness. Again this has a financial impact on a business.
Hopefully these examples clearly demonstrate to you the importance of creating apps that fully consider the experience of an app, and that it is not sufficient to have an app that is merely functional.


Expectation


It is very rare for any app you build to be the first ever app that a person uses. Because of this your app will be compared with other experiences. This includes the operating system and the apps that come with a device.

People have been spoilt. They have been exposed to a wide variety of very high quality apps and other software experiences. In light of this, any app you create will not just be judged on what it does, or on how it compares to other apps in direct competition with yours, but with every positive experience they have had. You may create an app that is a million times better than your competition, but if it is not easy to understand or use in comparison to other apps used on a regular basis, it will not be seen favourably. Being the best of a bad bunch is not good enough. You should strive to be one of the best. Period.

Users have learnt to expect more over time. Go back what is a relatively short time, to the start of the millennium, and the majority of software was not great. PC software was mostly the same and a series of battleship grey forms. The rise of mobile phone apps over the last few years has changed all that. People want and expect something fast, beautiful and easy to use. It should help them achieve their desired task and get out of the way. It should improve their life or at least make it simpler or easier, and it must never frustrate or prevent a person from doing what they want.

It is also the case that what was once the high quality exception soon becomes the norm, and people want better still. Consumer expectations are high and are likely to only increase. A desire for continuous improvement has been set in people’s minds.

This comparison and level of expectation is not limited to just the consumer app space. The experiences people have outside of work inform their opinions inside work too. It should not be the case that people bemoan the fact that the apps they use at home or on their own devices are easier to use, faster, better or in other ways more preferable than what is provided as part of their jobs. As I mentioned earlier, when looking at alternatives, such negative app experiences can be financially bad for a business.


Planning for success


The software business is more like any other kind of business than many people wanting to create apps realize. At some point in time it gained a special place in the mind of the population as being a special case. I suspect it was due to the early stories of the success of a few developers. That anybody can have an idea, build an app and make their fortune overnight is an appealing story. It has led to the idea that anyone who can write some code can build an app and be a success. Ultimately though, this is unrealistic for all but a few lucky exceptions. If you have the expectation that you just need to write some code to be successful then now might be a good time for a reality check. To achieve success without doing the work to help achieve it is like buying a lottery ticket as a retirement plan. There is a tiny chance it may pay off but is not something I have ever heard anyone recommend.

Beware treating a mobile app differently to other products

The idea that a mobile app is special has thrown up some curious assumptions by those creating them.
Compare an app with a website. The technical knowledge and skills to create the two are roughly similar but you would not hear the developer of a website blaming a search engine if no one came to a new website they had built but had told no one about. For many people creating apps though they seem justified in blaming the store if few people download an app they have made but not promoted.
Imagine a friend told you they wanted to leave their current job in a bank and start a business making and selling loaves of bread. You would probably have lots of questions for then. Such as the following. Lots of companies are already making and selling bread. How will you compete with such large, established competitors? Many types of bread exist. Which will you make? How will you persuade people to buy your bread? How and where will you sell it? How much will you charge? Will you be able to make enough money to pay your bills? And so on. These are all reasonable and sensible questions to ask when starting an endeavor with financial considerations. If you were the friend hopefully you would ask these questions of yourself too. Now consider building a mobile app. There are a lot of similarities here. They are both probably low cost, low margin products with lots of competition. Both will require making something remarkable or sufficiently different from what already exists to be successful. Both products will also require lots of effort to tell people about the new product and persuade them of the benefits of purchasing. The questions you would ask you friend are equally valid for both scenarios. Do you consider such questions when thinking about creating a mobile app or game?
Treat a mobile app like any other product. Expect that making money and being a success with it will require just as much effort as if it was any other kind of product.

“Failing to plan is planning to fail” is a modern day proverb attributed to, the well-known author on time management, Alan Lakein. It is a phrase that is used often, in a variety of situations, and I believe it is appropriate to the business of mobile apps. There is also a corollary which is even more relevant, and that is that success which is not defined in advance is harder to achieve. If you do not define success at the start of the project, then when you come to measure it you are making a judgement call based on what happened. It is the same as waiting to see what happens and then deciding if you want to call it success or not. If you define what success will look like for you, you can do things that will help you work towards achieving your aim.

At the start of this chapter I gave you the formula for app store success but did not define success in and of itself. What you consider a success might be different from what someone else would consider as success. That is perfectly fine. What you consider a success today may be different from your idea of it next year and will also likely vary between projects.

Whatever your metric for success you can achieve it in your apps if you provide value, use the six dimensions to create and excellent experience, and do all you can to maximize your chance of luck.


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Competing with competition and the expectations of app users can be challenging, but once you appreciate the importance of this you should be motivated to respond accordingly. Creating an intuitive experience is the response I recommend, and through the rest of the book I will show you how to do that.  I will provide the background knowledge to understand why each dimension matters, and how you can apply them broadly in the future.