Photo: Flickr / @superamit
The idea of developing a mobile app can be intimidating for small business owners. It’s a big undertaking, and the amount of jargon and level of expertise required to develop one can scare people off. However, it’s increasingly important for businesses to have an intuitive and useful mobile presence as smartphones and tablets overtake PCs in the marketplace, and become the most common way to access the internet.
The first question to ask is whether it’s worth it for your business. The number of apps in Apple’s App Store alone passed one million last year, so unless you can bring real value to customers with mobile technology, creating an app is unlikely to be worth the expense. It’s an intensely competitive and increasingly saturated market.
There are much less expensive and involved tools to test or engage with an online audience. A business can, for example, expand their Twitter use to see if they have a responsive and active online audience.
If the goal is just outreach and exposure, an app is unlikely to be the answer. Sharing content on other platforms that have a significant mobile reach, like Facebook and Yelp, can be a far less expensive option.
If a business thinks they can deliver real value with an app, the key is to start simple. Starting out with a big investment in a fully formed, professionally produced app is a mistake. The first step is to produce the simplest possible app, see how the audience reacts, and build form there. Experiment before committing.
There are two major decisions businesses have to make before getting started — on platform and price. The mobile world is fragmented, meaning an app built for Apple devices won’t work for Android. Businesses with audiences that mostly use iPhones should stick to iOS.
As for pricing, free apps are generally ad supported. Businesses have to decide which ad network to go with to maximise revenue. The largest player is Google, but there are other large competitors like Millennial Media, and JumpTap, as well as others that serve particular niches.
Paid apps have to carefully consider their pricing strategy. You have to consider the value proposition, and compare to other, similar apps to get a baseline to price against.
When it comes to actually creating the app, there are a number of options. Eachscape, for example, is a platform deliberately designed for non-developers. It uses an intuitive drag-drop interface to let the less technically savvy put together an app.
For people looking to get more involved, there are a number of options. Apple offers programs for developers, Google offers a set of tools for Android, MIT has a tool called App Inventor that walks developers through creating Android apps, and Stanford offers an online course on iOS development.
For others, there are a large number of tools that make the process of finding a partner and developing an app relatively painless. You can outsource to a freelance developer and have them bid on your project on a site like Elance, which is the largest of them. This can cost anywhere from $500 to $5,000, depending on the complexity of the project. They Make Apps has a large database of developers and companies at different price points. AppMakr helps you develop limited apps for free, or, for $29 dollars a month My App Builder helps people develop apps, taking them from a blueprint to the app store.
It’s not enough to be technically experienced. The most important thing is the user experience. Apps need to be easy to use, fun, and intuitive because the audience is so unforgiving. They have limited space on their mobile device, so the experience is even more important than it is on the web.
Finally, be aware that developing a mobile app is not a one-shot affair. The capabilities of apps, and what consumers expect from them, continues to evolve rapidly. Just because something’s cutting edge now, like HTML5, doesn’t mean that it isn’t going to be obsolete in the future, or that it won’t interact strangely with what’s currently standard.
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