This guide is designed to help teams in enterprise, engineering, heritage, regeneration and beyond understand how apps and mobile technology work. We’ll explore the opportunities they offer for business transformation – boosting productivity and increasing customer engagement – and the issues to be aware of when commissioning your project.
1. Brave new world: What apps and mobile technology mean for organisations
It’s no exaggeration to state that over the past decade, innovation in mobile technology has kickstarted profound, unprecedented change in the way we communicate, travel, shop, meet and entertain ourselves.
In 2017, we downloaded 352.9 billion mobile apps (source). This shift towards a constantly-connected, digitally-enabled future represents a valuable opportunity to engage customers, employees and stakeholders where they are – sparking real-time, two-way conversations with users, where print, TV and radio media limited them to one-way communication.
Building brand engagement is only the most obvious benefit of mobile technology, however.
Apps and mobile technology can be used to control enterprise systems; to streamline engineering and manufacturing processes; to offer immersive, interactive visitor experiences for heritage organisations. And that’s just the start.
To take advantage of the opportunities on offer, organisations must understand how mobile tech works and how to get the most from it. Much of the information out there about apps and mobile tech is competing and confusing, however.
That’s why we put together this guide: to offer teams of all types a comprehensive guide to apps and mobile technology – whether they’re toying with the idea of building an app, or have already decided to invest in one and want to maximise the value of their project.
We’ll help you understand whether your organisation needs an app; showcase the technological opportunities on offer, and cover the key points you should consider when commissioning your project. We’ll also offer a breakdown of the process our creative technologists follow to build our clients’ apps, so that you can use them in your next project. In doing so, we’ll help you make the most of your app budget and avoid the mistakes businesses often make.
At Calvium, we’ve been building mobile experiences for nearly two decades, working with household names in the engineering, heritage, digital placemaking and creative sectors – including Rolls-Royce, National Trust, The Guardian and Historic Royal Palaces – to create apps that inspire, educate and solve. Our collaborative, exploratory approach has, in turn, earned us ISO 9000 and ISO 20001 accreditation, and The Drum recommended agency status (formerly Recommended Agency Register (RAR)).
We know what works and what doesn’t. So what are you waiting for?
Let’s get to it.
2. What’s an app, and when do you need one?
To understand the potential of app technology, it helps to start with the basics.
What’s an app? What uses can you put them to, and what kind of problems can they help solve? Which alternative technologies are appropriate for your business? And if you’ve decided to commission an app, what do you need to understand before you kick off your project?
What’s an app?
Who are apps for?
Apps can be targeted externally – at customers – or internally – at staff, to make business operations more efficient.
In either case, the app is part of a larger ecosystem – product, service or operations – and part of a broader brand offering.
Enterprise apps like those we build for Rolls-Royce, for example, take complex IT and engineering systems and make them accessible to employees on their own devices. The goal here is to improve business operations, streamlining a particular aspect of workplace activity that would otherwise turn into a productivity bottleneck.
Apps like the one we built for Yodel, on the other hand, have a purely customer-facing focus. Their purpose is to create a new point of interaction with the business and its brand or to make an existing interaction easier.
When should you commission an app?
Apps aren’t always the answer.
A surprising admission from a business focused on building mobile experiences. But a crucial one for teams to understand before they make any investment in app technology.
Simply put, apps are better suited to some contexts than others. That’s why we favour a process-driven, problem-first approach in all our work. First, we seek to understand the challenges faced by our clients, and then determine whether an app might be the right fit for them – in turn helping them make the best tech investment possible.
To make your decision about whether to commission an app, it’s important to understand two things: what mobile apps can do, and the alternatives; and the specific problem you want to solve.
Understanding mobile technology, and the alternatives
As of October 2017, 85% of the British population owned a smartphone (source). In turn, today’s consumers have access to a wide range of sophisticated app technology, right in their pockets – from HD cameras to blood pressure monitors and sophisticated Global Positioning Systems (GPS).
The functionality of these apps can be simple or complex – from offering digital brochures to support sales executives, to using tablets to improve productivity and performance across enterprise systems.
In general, apps fall into one of three types:
- Those that use technology built into the app – like an interior design app that uses a smartphone camera.
- Those which interface with another service – like a shopping app that provides access to a catalogue of products.
- Those that connect mobiles with other devices – like Bluetooth-enabled apps that control washing machines or fridges.
In each case, apps also generate valuable data for the owner, which can be used for marketing or product or service development.
The list of possible applications for apps is almost endless – which makes the platform a tempting prospect for so many teams. What makes a successful app experience is one where mobile is the right platform, however.
Workplace training apps are an example of function and form meeting perfectly. Digital training schemes can be gamified, deepening employee engagement. Employees can choose to use their own smart device. Training administrators can track results and tweak programmes on a live basis.
Alternatives to mobile apps
Apps represent a considerable investment for any organisation – which is why it’s important to understand that other digital platforms are more useful and appropriate than apps in many contexts.
Websites, for example, can often prove a better investment than an app.
Websites act as an information hub for customers seeking to find out more about a business. They’re therefore suited to rapid, one-off interactions when users are guaranteed to have an internet connection. Apps, on the other hand, offer convenience and functionality and are well-suited to providing repeated value – in turn building engagement with the user.
In this way, apps and websites can be more or less appropriate at different stages in the customer journey. For example: a homeowner may visit various energy providers’ websites to choose their new gas or electricity supplier. Once they’ve signed up to their new provider, they may use an app to monitor their meter readings – a task that’s well suited to the immediacy and convenience of a mobile app, over a desktop site.
Other alternatives to apps include chatbots or mini-sites. Early on, teams should ask themselves whether an app is the best way to achieve their goal.
Beware of gimmicks
In the wrong hands, mobile technology can fall victim to shiny toy syndrome, with organisations building apps because new technology itself appears interesting and exciting. The days of getting good PR because an app uses AR, AI or another advanced technology are largely over, however, and apps rushed to market for PR alone rarely provide meaningful value to customers.
The lack of hype around app technology partly explains why app download rates have fallen in recent years. Apple’s App Store is now more than a decade old, which means businesses have had time to learn what types of digital experience are best suited to smartphones. This is a good thing for the platform. Reduced download numbers are a sign of the maturity of the app ecosystem.
The key to app success is to offer a high-quality experience aligned with specific users’ needs. And to do that, you need to understand the challenge to be solved.
Understanding the problem to be solved
Successful apps solve specific stakeholders’ or customers’ problems. Teams must therefore have a good understanding of the challenge they need to tackle, from the perspective of their target user.
Front-line staff who deal with these problems on a daily basis are an invaluable source of insight, and should be consulted throughout the design and development process – as covered in Section 5 below.
Several signs suggest a business could benefit from an app. They might have loyal customers and, therefore, an opportunity to build a deeper relationship with them; the business’ current purchase process might be too complicated; their customer base might have developed into a community, which an app could offer value to. Most significantly, customers could be looking for the business to provide a digital service that a website alone cannot offer.
These are only indicators that mobile technology could be useful, however. A more accurate way of identifying customers’ problems – and whether an app could help solve them – is to consider your marketing funnel.
A business might seek to generate awareness and interest around their event series, capturing customers at the top of the funnel. An event app might offer ticket-holders the chance to send their questions directly to a speaker ahead of the event, for example, alongside traditional print/digital preview content.
Further down the funnel, a supermarket might seek to encourage customer loyalty by offering a reward scheme, like Tesco’s Clubcard or Sainsbury’s Nectar programme. In this instance, an app would prove much more useful than a traditional print loyalty card scheme – able to be updated instantly, providing live user analytics and capturing customer attention even when they’re not in store.
The insight above is relevant to customer-facing apps. Within business operations, there’s a different approach to be taken. Enterprise apps are effective when they’re strategically developed and tactically deployed. Most businesses have the strategic goal of “improving productivity” and the tactical problem of a system that’s out of date, but too expensive to scrap and rebuild entirely. Apps that simplify or eliminate one productivity-killing task – be it expense reporting, process monitoring or mapping complex equipment to computer controls – address the productivity problem at a tactical level.
Interrogating the problem to be solved by an app in these ways makes it possible to set a clear, measurable goal for the app project – which is the key to proving its long-term value to the business.
With the marketing problem and project goal identified, teams must then choose how to measure the success of their tech project.
Most marketers instinctively – and rightly – seek to track effectiveness in terms of ROI. It’s important to recognise, however, that many app projects are designed to meet objectives that cannot be measured in terms of cost.
For example, you may use an app to build customer awareness around a new digital service. In this instance, app downloads may not translate directly into sales of the service. Relatively few apps are designed to generate revenue in and of themselves. The apps we build in partnership with Rolls Royce are a case-in-point. Often, these apps are designed for ideation, communication, training or instruction, and downloaded by a small number of highly-skilled users.
For these reasons, we advocate organisations consider ROO (Return On Objectives) as an alternative to ROI. In the example of the event app above, tracking both app downloads and app activity would constitute a useful ROO metric. We’ve outlined further examples of ROO measures in our article on the issue.
Budget is the next key consideration for teams. Putting an average price on app development is, however, almost impossible given the number of variables involved.
App projects are not one-off costs. Once an app or another piece of tech is launched, it will require maintenance and management, plus marketing investment to achieve user interest.
Development costs vary widely, depending on the type of technology to be built. Significant factors affecting the price include the operating system the app will run on, the complexity of the interface design and any databases to be built into the system.
Other considerations include whether the app requires users to log into their own accounts, or if it will include more advanced technology like AR (Augmented Reality), image recognition or connectivity with other smart devices.
To cut external costs, some larger businesses choose to develop their app in-house, using their existing IT team. Tempting as this option might be, it rarely saves time or effort. Apps built by inexperienced teams are frequently inconsistent, buggy, unsupported and offer a poor user experience. The time teams spend learning how to develop apps is time they cannot spend on their core support role, which can cost their employer further. We’ve written more on this topic here.
3. Key considerations when designing your app
A successful mobile project will be designed to function over the long-term on the most appropriate mobile platform, offering an experience that’s smooth, secure and – most importantly – valuable for the user.
Below, we set out the issues teams should consider before building their mobile technology brief.
Apps should generally be designed to last, unless they’re built for a one-off event or campaign. This makes sense in terms of recovering development and maintenance costs and in brand terms, too.
Offering an outdated, unsupported or non-functioning app suggests that the business in question doesn’t treat digital transformation or customer service as a priority. This is dangerous, given our expectation that businesses and organisations should be agile, flexible and responsive to change.
Sustainable design and the demands of app maintenance – including dealing with system updates and adding new functionality – should therefore be a key consideration for businesses from the earliest stages of a project.
Apple and Google’s recent changes to their distribution policies mean this is more critical than before. Today, apps updated and uploaded to either platform must use the latest Apple or Google SDKs (Software Development Kits). This change is designed to drive up the quality of apps available in either store and to make finding and downloading appropriate apps easier for users. Previously, high-quality software was hidden, crowded out by poor-quality alternatives.
As a result of the change, 2017 saw the number of available apps drop for the first time (source). For businesses, the new policies are highly significant, because by spreading the costs of developing and maintaining a new app over a longer term, app technology now constitutes a more significant investment than before. We’ve written a blog further exploring this issue here.
‘Mobile’ technology means more than just smartphones. Tablets, wearables, smart speakers and other devices connected via the Internet all offer a platform for branded experiences. Choosing the right one will determine the amount of value your app offers users.
Smartphones are the most ubiquitous – owned by 96% of UK 16–34 year-olds, 88% of 35–54 year-olds and 47% of those aged to 64 (source). Cheap to own and increasingly featuring 4G connectivity, rumours of the death of the smartphone have been greatly exaggerated.
It’s true that the initial buzz around mobile apps has slowed down. Smartphones still represent a lucrative opportunity for innovation and engagement, however. Where the first decade of smartphone development saw massive development within the sector, today it drives innovation outside it, being a key interface for future-facing technologies like VR (Virtual Reality) and AI (Artificial Intelligence).
Tablets offer similar functionality and computing power to smartphones, with screen-size being the critical difference. This allows for easier multitasking and more usable on-screen keyboards, so that tablets typically occupy a space somewhere between a smartphone and computer.
These distinctions encourage different user behaviours, compared to smartphones, typically focused on browsing, buying, entertainment and information-gathering, as well as being used in different settings. Many of our Rolls-Royce engineering apps, for example, are designed for use in laboratories or on the factory floor.
Wearables offer a more focused version of smartphone functionality, with added convenience for the user. Examples include watches, glasses, cameras, headsets and fitness trackers. Modern premium devices like the third iteration of the Apple Watch can even operate without a smartphone.
This said, wearable sales have so far been slow compared to those for smartphones, partly because some view the technology as being more intrusive for the wearer and those around them (source). In general, wearable technology works best where speed and convenience are key to the user experience.
Devices connected to the Internet of Things (IoT) are another type of digital ‘object’. They include everything from industrial plant machinery to consumer goods like toasters, televisions and juicers. More than 75 billion devices will go online by 2025 (source), making the Internet of Things a key focus for commercial investment. Devices can be controlled either by other devices – like smartphones and tablets – or via their own interfaces.
Smart Speakers are a consumer-focused example of IoT technology, using both voice activation and voice recognition systems.
Using such systems constitutes a relatively new design challenge for developers, who must think about user experience in terms of conversational – not visual – design. Smart speakers are always ‘on’, using a low-powered chip to ‘listen for’ a particular word or phrase. They generally exist in shared spaces and encourage non-private interactions. Perhaps most importantly, they’re best suited for fast, lightweight interactions with users – which determines their suitability for different types of brand, product or service.
The software platform your app is built on will determine exactly how your app will work. Before accepting a brief for your project, an effective app development agency will, therefore, help you understand which platforms they work with, and why.
Developers must start by choosing whether their software should work for Apple or Google operating systems. Windows no longer supports its mobile system.
Developers then choose whether to develop ‘native’ or ‘cross-platform’. The former means using the development framework specific to each platform (Apple and Google), which means that an app needs to be developed specifically for each target platform, as they will only work on one or the other.
Cross-platform solutions work on both platforms and can be built using React Native or Hybrid frameworks; including Cordova and Ionic. At Calvium, we use React Native for the majority of our smartphone app development, for the reasons outlined in this article.
In the past, hybrid frameworks have been less efficient than native systems for a variety of reasons. Approaches like React Native access native capabilities in new ways and therefore bring the power of native development to cross-platform development, opening up new possibilities to how quickly and cost-effectively an app can be created.
Wearable devices, on the other hand, demand maximum efficiency. For this reason, developers building wearable apps must use appropriate native frameworks: Watch OS for Apple watches; Wear OS for Google devices, and Fitbit OS for Fitbit trackers.
Smart speakers require their own voice-specific development frameworks.
Application Programming Interface (API)
The Application Programming Interface, or API, is also worth considering. As with the choice of platform, questions about APIs are how questions – in this case, “how will this app work with other technology in the business?”
An API is an agreed vocabulary and set of conversational terms for apps and other technologies to talk to each other. By using a shared API, the app knows how to ask for what it wants, and the other technology can understand the request. Think of the API as a phrase book – a set of key questions and answers that make it possible to communicate across a language barrier.
If you want your app to send and receive email, send or receive data from a server or database, or control equipment in the workplace, you’ll need an API to do the “translation” work and make those systems compatible. This additional layer of work has to be done, either in-house or by your external developer, to integrate the app properly with the rest of your business.
Online or offline?
Apps can work online, offline, or a combination of both. A smartphone app that notifies the user of breaking news events might stay connected to the web almost constantly; a fitness tracker may only need to go online once a week, to stay in sync with web-based fitness services.
Whether an app works online or offline is an important design consideration, because it determines how much ‘space’ the software takes up on the user’s device, and the quality of the experience users receive in different contexts.
Content for mobile apps is typically hosted on a remote server, and ‘pulled’ to the device when required by the user. In this way, the YouTube app hosts virtually no video data on users’ smartphones and tablets. This means apps can be downloaded and installed while taking up relatively little device memory.
This arrangement works well where users have reliable internet connectivity. Offline apps, on the other hand, excel in remote locations like the middle of the ocean. Our app for Yachting Pages – the telephone directory for yachting crews – provides comprehensive supplier listings for yachts docking anywhere in the world, via a cleverly compressed database hosted on users’ smartphones or devices.
Similarly, offline apps can be useful for sales teams making presentations on the road. Our software for training consultancy Cabling Science likewise helps the business deliver information to students and alumni anywhere, with no need for wifi connectivity to access reference materials whenever they need it.
As well as making apps accessible anywhere, at any time, offline content is quicker to load. This is important, given that the app speed plays a key role in users’ decision to delete apps. It’s also why most apps use a combination of online and offline functionality.
Building offline apps demands considerable skill, because it requires development teams to install large datasets on phones or tablets without taking up excessive memory. This is why more apps aren’t developed to function offline: making them is tough. At Calvium, we relish the challenge.
Read our ‘A–Z of mobile development’
Questions about content
Apps use two types of content; that generated by the owner and that generated by users. This raises two issues which should be addressed early in the planning and design stage.
First, copyright. Ownership of the content in – and data generated by – an app is often a matter of confusion for teams. One size does not fit all, with rights to information determined by the contractual relationship between those who own and those who build the app. For more information, read our copyright primer.
Second, security. The use of passwords in apps is a throwback to desktop systems which lacked any alternatives. As a result, there are better, more secure alternatives to user protection that draw on the likes of fingerprint, eye-scanning and voice-recognition technology included in many smart devices. We’ll cover this point in more detail below.
UX (User Experience) design aims to make apps easy and satisfying to use – thereby increasing engagement. As such, it’s crucial to the effectiveness of any app. This includes software without a screen, like that used in smart speakers.
Below, we’ve listed the key factors and features behind successful UX design. These design qualities help prolong user engagement and increase their enjoyment.
Simplicity is number one. Mobile technology should be intuitive to use, enabling users to perform the app’s key functions without hesitation or questions.
Consistency is reassuring for users, making the app easier to use and putting your brand identity at the forefront of the user experience. We’ve discussed this at length in our article on making the most of small screens.
Accessibility is next. App interfaces should be clean, easy to parse, and include content accessible to those with visual and other impairments.
Finally, apps should be non-intrusive. On average, we check out the apps on our phones 150 times every day (source). The likes of push notifications can drive this figure upwards, but can annoy users for the same reason.
Some apps must strike a certain tone with their target audience, which can require adding character.
Playful apps add a level of delight to the user experience – the value of which should not be underestimated for keeping users engaged.
Gamification is an extension of playfulness, encouraging users to continually engage to earn extra value from the software. For more information – including what UX designers can learn from social media – read our article on app psychology. This field has earned much attention in recent months, having raised important ethical questions around the addictive effects of smartphone gamification.
User experience effectiveness is especially noticeable in software designed to immerse the user, like the heritage experiences we’ve built for National Trust and Historic Royal Palaces. When mistakes are made, ‘digital chewing gum’ is the result – where irritating notifications, glitchy interfaces and ineffective automation break the illusion created using aural, visual and haptic AR (Augmented Reality).
One example of successful design that recognises each of the UX factors above is Niantic’s Pokémon Go game. A watershed moment for AR foreshadowed by our work at HP Labs, Pokémon Go is well branded, accessible to both casual and heavy users, offers social media connectivity and is – needless to say – cleverly gamified. This winning combination, explored on our blog, means that the app boasts 20 million daily users, even now that the buzz around the launch of the game has died down (source).
While your app may not be designed to attract the same number of users, the lessons offered by highly-focused, well-designed apps remain invaluable. Pairing this good design with sophisticated digital technology is the next issue for teams to consider on their journey into app development.
4. Which app technologies should you use?
To get the most from mobile technology, it’s crucial for teams to understand the technologies poised to shape apps in the short and long-term future.
With the ubiquity of 4G coverage in the UK, smartphone developers can now make the fullest use of instant responses and other technologies requiring high-speed data. 4G connectivity also enhances the possibilities for widely-used technologies like geolocation.
The latter are smartphone systems that detect a users’ position in outdoor spaces, and deliver location-specific content accordingly – for example, by sending traffic updates to users on the road.
Our extensive work with heritage organisations and urban developers also showcases the power of geolocation to create sophisticated ‘hybrid’ spaces within physical environments. These are made up of digital ‘layers’ of information and media – delivered using AR and other mobile-delivered technology – that combine to create immersive ‘digital placemaking’ experiences for visitors, commuters and workers within a space.
To date, we’ve built geolocational heritage experiences in locations including London, Florence, and New Jersey. We’ve also worked alongside creative technology initiatives for The National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company, and social work services for AAB Housing Association in Norrebro, Denmark.
While digital placemaking isn’t relevant for all organisations, the examples above offer rich inspiration for businesses wanting to enhance how users interact with their business in the physical environment – for example, by improving their in-store shopping experience for customers.
Augmented Reality (AR) is one technology we build into geolocational app experiences. Bursting into mainstream consciousness with the release of Pokémon Go in Summer 2016, this technology works by overlaying a set of digital images, sounds or haptic stimulus (i.e. touch-sensitive) to a physical environment, using app technology hosted on a smartphone or wearable device.
In Pokémon Go, this content was visual: collectable digital creatures presented themselves according to the user’s location. Our digital placemaking apps for heritage organisations use a similar mechanism, to deliver rich media soundtracks and physical feedback to bring historical sites back to life – metaphorically razing them from the ashes, as with our award-winning ‘Lost Palace’ app.
AR makes it possible for those in the local government and architectural sectors to visualise proposed building developments for stakeholders, who often experience a surprisingly visceral reaction when new plans are presented to them in AR format. We’ve written about the rich potential for Augmented Reality in other sectors here.
When using apps that store personal data, users have a reasonable expectation that their information will be kept safe. Smart devices offer a host of options for controlling data access, many of which are far superior to the humble password. These technologies should be considered at the planning and design stage.
App technologies include biometric systems like eye-scanning or fingerprint recognition and digital keys to prove a user’s identity, like software-generated codes. Some apps combine more than one method via ‘two-factor authentication’ – doubling up data security by demanding two types of evidence of a user’s identity.
All types of digital security require users to demonstrate this via something they know (like a password), have (like a Bluetooth-enabled fob), or are (including fingerprints and other biometric measures.)
To build an effective data security solution in an app, developers must balance ease-of-use with the level of protection needed. It may be inappropriate, for example, to log users out of an app that contains minimal sensitive data every time they leave the screen. In a banking app, this level of protection would be necessary and reasonable.
The ‘Cloud’ is a catch-all term for software systems that are hosted on large, remote computers. This includes the ‘online’ apps discussed above: those that interface with servers over the web, to perform functions that would be too difficult or too inefficient for a smartphone or tablet to perform itself. Apps can also run software ‘in the Cloud’ while the app is closed on a user’s device – pushing notifications about traffic conditions or calendar appointments to their phone or tablet with no action required from the user.
Gmail, Hotmail and other email providers are all cloud-based, as are most locative navigation apps (e.g. Google Maps). By hosting their services in the Cloud, apps require less storage space and processing power from users’ devices. Better still, developers can tap into existing online services and build them into their own app for little or no cost. Firebase is one of several providers offering systems that perform user authentication, image manipulation and the storage of user preferences on behalf of other apps (amongst others).
Apps with exceptionally high user numbers, or which perform complex functions, often require developers to write custom software. Otherwise, cloud-based services offer a cost-effective toolkit for rapid app development and deployment to users.
Voice-activation and voice-recognition
Voice interfaces are poised to become an important part of app design in the future, being useful in settings where users cannot touch a screen (like factories), for users with physical disabilities, and for children.
Voice activated systems ‘wake up’ phones when a certain word or phrase is spoken – with Apple’s, “Hey Siri,” and Amazon’s, “Alexa,” being the most familiar examples. In this way, voice-activated systems act as a gateway for other mobile functionality.
Voice-activated systems are relatively difficult to customise, as the likes of Google and Apple prevent developers from creating new ‘wake’ phrases to limit the amount of battery and computing power required by the technology.
Voice-recognition systems are more complex. Users give instructions or make enquiries to their phone using their voice; these signals are converted into computer data and interpreted by the system, which then delivers a response. If mistakes are made at any of these steps, the quality of the user experience suffers.
Voice-recognition systems are typically cloud-hosted and have the benefit of appearing to offer a more ‘human’ interaction between user and device. Voice design is difficult, however. Developers must design their voice-recognition system as a conversation, with all the numerous possibilities this entails.
Importantly, voice recognition systems are also less effective than visual interfaces at expressing their functionality – or lack of functionality – to users. Screen-based mobile apps offer users a limited number of options at any time. This is not the case with ‘invisible’ voice-activated apps. For example: a user may wonder why Siri cannot tell them how many voicemails they have, when the software can read their text messages.
Teams should think hard about using voice technologies for this reason. What can initially appear to be a sophisticated technological opportunity can turn into a frustrating experience for customers, unless an appropriate amount of work is done to make the software feel seamless and intuitive.
Above, we explained that websites offer a faster, lower-risk (but less functional) alternative to apps by not requiring users to download and install software.
Instant Apps – a Google innovation – seek to overcome this difference. Currently available for Android devices only, Instant Apps are small portions of apps, temporarily downloaded from a mobile browser like Google Chrome.
Like ‘full’ apps, they offer functionality and a high-quality user experience that websites aren’t capable of, but don’t require users to download a large piece of software. If the user likes using the Instant App, they can be encouraged to download a full version. So far, most instant apps have been a quick-access variant of something that already has a conventional app too. Video players like Vimeo and Periscope, shopping apps like Jet, and games have all taken the Instant plunge. What do they have in common? All of them demand long loading times, during which users may go off task or be put off the app entirely. Avoiding that wait time is the appeal of the Instant option.
As well as understanding the mobile technological opportunities open to teams today, it’s also important to look forward and consider what might be possible tomorrow.
While the Internet of Things (IoT) has been steadily blooming over the past half-decade, growth in the field looks set to boom in coming years, with $775.5 billion of investment predicted in 2018, up from $674 billion the previous year (source).
While smart speakers, lighting and vehicles are the most recognisable examples of the technology, the IoT is also driving innovation within other vital sectors. Fitness and healthcare devices today generate abundant amounts of data for scientific analysis and treatment development.
Connected technologies enable hospitality brands to create bespoke, eco-efficient ‘mini-worlds’ for guests. In industry, machinery and tools are increasingly connected to and managed by digital devices, ushering in the ‘Manufacturing 4.0’ age.
Screen-based devices like smartphones and tablets will continue to act as key interfaces for these technologies in the future.
AI (Artificial Intelligence) is poised to reshape much more than mobile technology – potentially affecting the very way we act and think. In the future, the technology will boost efficiency, communication and data processing. First, by enabling teams to make better decisions; second by recasting the role of humans in external and internal-facing communication, and third by empowering organisations to spot patterns in large datasets.
AI systems can only perform these functions having spent time ‘learning’ data, however. For this reason, the AI revolution in business is some way off, requiring large organisations to invest in gathering and processing large volumes of data, which can itself be resource-intensive. We’ve covered the today’s and tomorrow’s implications of AI in our article, here.
5G connectivity will empower innovation within all the technologies mentioned above, helping them achieve their full potential for businesses. Smart devices will benefit from cellular download speeds up to 10x faster than those provided by 4G networks, plus more reliable connectivity. This will mean smoother delivery of AI experiences to smartphones; richer content in geolocational apps, and increasing numbers of IoT devices able to function without accompanying smartphones and tablets. Worldwide 5G-rollout is expected in 2020.
Understanding the future potential for apps is important for teams; more significant, however, is that functionality that uses AI, the Internet of Things and other forward-facing technology is developed on solid foundations. This way, it can be expanded in future, to take full advantage of new technologies – and even those that don’t exist yet.
5. The app creation process, step-by-step
Successful apps are well planned, well built and well maintained.
Building app-based experiences since 2001, at Calvium we’ve refined our design & development process into an effective co-creative model. Clearly articulating our clients’ goals and keeping the development process under close control enables us to deliver innovative, highest-quality software experiences,
We break projects down into smaller ‘work packages’ that focus on particular aspects of the deliverables and provide appropriate touch points for interaction with our clients. We’ve set out these packages as a process below – alongside the other steps you’ll need to take to ensure your mobile technology project is completed on-spec, on-time and on-budget.
Step 1. Choosing your agency
At the outset, it’s important to choose an agency that matches your business’ needs and approach to work. As a minimum, we recommend using an agency with experience in your sector, as well as design and development expertise in your target mobile technology.
More than this, you should aim to find an agency that you admire the work of, that has a cultural fit with your organisation, and that listen to your needs and insights about your project. You’ll need to be working closely with your agency, so a good fit is crucial.
You’ll want to work with a team who understands your needs, including:
- An account manager that understands the business opportunities available;
- A project manager who can plan and communicate efficiently;
- Designers who are interested and responsive to your insights, and;
- Developers with in-depth knowledge of the technology they’re delivering – and the ways obstacles can be overcome.
To find out more about our team, click here.
Step 2. Briefing and discovery
Before contacting a prospective agency, it’s worth knowing a few key details about your mobile project. Specifically: the platform you think you’d like to build on; your goal; your budget, and your target market. These details are covered in our guide to writing a mobile app brief.
We kick-off every project with a discovery workshop to ensure these insights are in place before we begin design and development, for the reasons covered in Section 2 of this guide. Sometimes, in these workshops, new ideas are identified that could be better ways to spend budget, and this can be addressed up-front before deeper work is done on the initial idea – making the best use of everyone’s time.
In the workshop, we work with the business’ wider team to develop a deep understanding of their goals, needs and brand. This understanding informs everything we do afterwards, offering our client chance to explain their vision for an app and what success looks like to them.
Step 3. Planning
Brief issued, your development team will begin the planning and build process. At Calvium, we start each build with a kick-off meeting, at which we confirm the project proposal, and set milestones and project timelines.
From here, we use agile methodologies to ensure projects are delivered in a controlled manner. This requires splitting each stage of development into a series of ’sprints’, where specific functionality is developed in a focused period of time. After each, we conduct a review and update our client on progress made via their project manager.
Step 4. User Experience (UX) & Specification
For an app to succeed, it needs to be easy to use. We break the app down into user journeys and work out how a user is likely to flow between different tasks. These are prioritised and grouped to help simplify the overall structure and translated into wireframes to show what functionality should be offered on each app screen, and how users will move between them.
We then build prototypes based on the wireframes, and pass those prototypes to users. Users test the basic functionality of the app for themselves, which helps us test our own assumptions about how users will move between tasks and screens by comparing them to actual end user use and experience. Once we know how people actually use the app, we can repeat these steps, reiterating the wireframe to create a workflow that makes sense to end users.
Documenting this process gives us a full app specification that covers everything the app does and what people can do with the app. This includes ways in which a user’s experience could be interrupted (errors) and the variety of states screens can be in at different moments.
Thinking about the app in such detail can reveal issues at a time when they can be fixed quickly and efficiently, rather than during development, when changes can be costly. If a client already has an app, this process will draw heavily on their experience to-date and knowledge of their customers, to ensure the app does the right thing for their users. A good specification keeps everyone on the same page to avoid misunderstandings and surprises further down the road.
Step 5. Visual Design
The visual design of your app must dovetail with the UX design.
This is important for two reasons. Visual design is responsible for your users’ first impression of your app. It also ensures your brand is consistently, and therefore effectively, presented across the mobile experience.
Your visual design will be based on the wireframes and specification from the previous step, and on your existing brand identity and visual language. The final app should look and feel like part of the same service as any other properties with the same branding.
Step 6. React Native Development
During this phase, the app is written by Calvium’s in-house developers using the React Native Framework and any native development as required.
Throughout, at least two developers will be involved in the project. Whenever a developer finishes a feature, the other reviews their work and tests it before any change is considered finished. This process of peer review ensures all work is of the highest standard and that apps conform to the agreed specification as they are created.
During this process, we provide beta versions of that app that contain well-defined sections for our client’s comments and approval.
By the end of this step, we will have implemented the designs and specifications from the previous work packages, delivering a working app that matches our client’s expectations.
Step 7. Quality Assurance
In this portion of the project, we test the app thoroughly on a range of devices the app is designed for – whether iPhone, Android, tablet, Apple Watch or otherwise. Specifically, we review whether the app conforms to specification, is bug-free and enjoyable to use.
Our methodology here is end-to-end testing – following the flow of the user experience with the app from start to finish. This is a more thorough process than the ongoing testing during the development process: it’s focused on testing the entire system of app, API and user experience as one entity.
By testing this way, we can identify specific dependencies and points where the experience slows down; we can also make sure that the right information is passed between various system components, and that the API is allowing those components to communicate correctly.
Step 8. Publication
This done, we’ll be ready to submit the app to the relevant distribution channel for users to download. We work with our clients to finalise their app descriptions, the imagery they use for the app screenshots and other details to help promote the apps.
Step 9. Take-off, and afterwards
The launch of a mobile app is exciting, but it’s not the end of the road for the owner or their development team.
We help our clients build their app into their wider marketing strategy, in turn helping them gain traction and attract downloads for their new software – as covered in our article: ‘7 ways to keep your app front-of-mind’.
App marketing and monitoring must be ongoing, to proactively respond to app store changes and broader industry developments, as well as unforeseen software issues. These challenges can include updates to operating systems – making the app unstable – and the release of new technology.
Other agency teams will seek to follow a different process to the one outlined here, and different projects will require extra focus on different steps. What remains consistent for any successful mobile project is the importance of goal-oriented planning, a clear brief and rigorous testing – and a commitment to maintaining and making the most of your app investment over the long-term.
6. Conclusion: Taking the next step
Successful apps are made up of two halves: user understanding, and expert design & development.
This is true of all mobile technology, regardless of the type or size of organisation in question. This guide has sought to offer a comprehensive kick-start guide to the key opportunities presented by mobile systems, the principles underpinning effective app design and a framework for building high-quality, high-value mobile experiences.
What will you do with it, now?