Do you need an App for that?

January 11, 2019

Tony Zipparro

If you release a lot of new software, you’re always thinking about user experience. This usually means focusing on the experiences users have as they use your software. But there’s a different, sometimes unspoken UX concern that’s often overlooked. To App… or Not To App?

The decision to build (or not to build) a dedicated mobile app for your software is central to your users’ brand experience. It’s a strategic decision that influences your go-to-market strategy and has major cost outcomes, yet we see lots of companies approach it unprepared. Many approach the issue with absolute conviction that they need an app for their new application (even when many do not).

A classic example was a recent platform upgrade for a longstanding, desktop-only software brand. Their new software was designed to be mobile-ready, and it’s just as at home on an iPad as it is on a MacBook. The publisher took great pains to balance out the “in application” needs of its desktop and mobile users, but throughout development, they kept coming back to one troubling question “don’t we need an app?”. There was a latent expectation that an app might be necessary, even if they couldn’t articulate any specific reasons why they might need it.

It’s a mindset that’s common among companies accustomed to operating ahead of the technology curve; their cultures aren’t used to avoiding any technological advance. Forward-looking and growth-oriented software companies often think a slick mobile app is necessary for any new software release, but in reality the necessity of an app depends on who you are, your users, and your goals.

Who needs an App?

For big brands, regardless of market, the answer might be that an app is always something you “Need”, if only because your customers expect it and you need to match the competition.

Products for consumer markets, ones built to attract adoption by millions of users, also need dedicated apps because mobile app delivery models enable unprecedented reach. Two recent studies suggested that there were 25 billion IOS apps downloaded in 2016 and as many as 90 billion apps downloaded for Android in the same period. Getting your app into the App Store and Play Store, then are two keys to putting your software within reach of millions (perhaps billions) of individual customers.

And Who Doesn’t?

But in some circumstances, building an app may be an unnecessary expense that you can safely avoid. There are at least three times when your software company can probably say “no” the the App Question:

  1. Brands with a B2B or niche user base and <10,000 users. – Your effort is better spent optimizing your application for login via a web browser.
  2. Brands needing to support both desktop and mobile users from a single platform. – The simplicity of a single login channel simplifies everything from maintenance, and uptime to onboarding, and it enables better usage analysis and ROI recognition.
  3. Brands where cost and time to market are their overriding competitive concerns. – Focusing on a single product release and using a single development team controls costs and prevents release delays.

The Downsides of App Development

Overall, an app does not provide a universal, “don’t miss” benefit for every software brand. However, there are some “can’t avoid” costs that come built into the app model, ones you might be happy to avoid altogether. Here are some downsides to building an app for your new software:

Development Costs –

If you plan to develop a complex app from scratch, it’s surprisingly easy to drop a quarter of a million dollars (or more) in development alone. Unless it gains you access to additional markets, provides a sustainable competitive advantage, or puts you in front of a customer group that’s absolutely necessary for your business to succeed, this may be an investment you can avoid.

Costs of Doing Business –

At last glance, app distribution channels took between 5% and 30% of app purchase revenue for themselves. Yes, software contribution margins are high, but losing a quarter or more of your revenue from your bottom line is an extraordinary expense. The percentage varies based on the kind of app, as well as the outlet, but even 5% is a significant cut from your take.

Limited Upside –

The flipside of the abundance in the App Store model is that it is crowded, and it can be difficult to gain real visibility there. You’ve probably searched for an app only to find yourself inundated by false matches; I know I have. If you haven’t had that experience, try this test.

Pick any non-mainstream app (not Facebook Twitter or etc…) and search for it by What It Does, rather than by its complete and correct name. How many results did you get? Was the app that started your search among them? If so, was it among the first, or did you have to scroll through dozens of look-alike apps from other publishers to find it?

Other Distribution

Of course you can make your app available for download from your website, but then the “reach” of the App Store becomes a moot point, and the only true benefit to your users is the added utility (if any) of having a desktop app shortcut instead of a bookmark to your login screen in their mobile browser.

Limited UX Downside

Getting back to the original idea of UX, I’d argue that unless the reach of app store distribution is a necessity for your business model, your decision to develop (or not develop) an app for your software really boils down to a UX issue. If you’re still on the fence, here’s three questions to ask yourself:

  1. Does the User Experience of encountering your software through the App Store justify the expense of putting it there?
  2. Does the User Experience of accessing your software via a mobile app prove to be substantially-better than accessing it through their mobile browser? (If you can’t answer yes to either of these questions, app development might be a luxury your brand can avoid. And even if an app would have some positive impact upon your UX, ask yourself a third question:)
  3. Is this a UX issue that’s worth $100,000 (conservatively) of your bottom-line profits this year to overcome?
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