Creating a successful app: one size does not fit all

Apps that take off with users are profiled on a regular basis in various technology journals, websites, and blogs. We are curious to know why, exactly, this particular app “made it big”: was there something in particular that this app did that especially resonated with users? How about differentiation in social engagement, or user interactivity? While there seems to be a few  overarching themes that successful apps have in common, there’s also a bit of a wildcard element; in other words, two apps might be doing exactly the same thing, but only one hits the coveted top ten spot within the app store.

New frontiers

One of the hottest apps in the marketplace right now is a trivia quiz titled QuizUp. This app – only live since November 7th, 2013 – has already collected over three million users, is the number one app in the Apple App Store, and is growing at a rate of 130,000 new downloads a day. What is QuizUp doing that is creating this fantastic traction? Here are a few ideas from Forbes:

  • Interactive platform: There’s already a wide range of content available on this app, but users can also create their own content. This creates an endless stream of new material.
  • Social features: The average user on QuizUp spends around 40 minutes a day – yes, 40 minutes – within the app. QuizUp has made their app extensively interactive, with small communities springing up around niche topics. According to the developer, there are over 100,000 posts to discussion boards every day with 5 million chats.
  • Edutainment: If you can figure out a way to make an app teach something and actually be fun at the same time, you’ve hit on a good combination. QuizUp does this, big time: “We are seeing tweets all the time about kids saying they learned so much more from QuizUp today than they learned in school.” The team is aware of the educational opportunities that QuizUp can provide and is already working on content to supplement SAT, GRE, and GMAT preparation.  He excitedly observed, “Having a platform that is fun and you can actually learn from—that’s like the Holy Grail.”
  • Not the same as everything else: If you do a simple search within any app store for an app related to trivia, you’re going to come back with more results than you know what to do with. QuizUp has differentiated itself in this competitive field with interactivity, a huge amount of topics on any niche imaginable, and made the learning process enjoyable.

The major factors of successful apps

There’s no getting away from it: the ability to be socially interactive both on and off an app platform is expected by users in today’s marketplace. A recent survey from research firm Consumer Intelligence Research Partners finds that Facebook dominates mobile apps, both for users and for developers:

Facebook scored the top spot, ranked by 45 percent of those polled. Twitter came in second at 13 percent, followed by Candy Crush at 11 percent….. Facebook also topped the charts as one of the most popular app developers. The company's Instagram app landed in fourth place at around 8 percent. Among those polled, 54 percent put the Facebook app, the Instagram app, or both on their most frequently used list.”

People expect social features in their apps nowadays. The most successful apps integrate social sharing throughout their applications to both promote further distribution of content and pull in possible new users from users who are sharing within the app itself. For example, if you’ve got a shopping app, it makes sense to put a Pinterest button in there so users can share products that they like. Deep social integration will make it easy for users to promote their favorites to their circles, as well as leverage communities that form around viral content.

While social is definitely important, there’s quite a few more factors that contribute to a successful app:

Availability in major app stores: The app store model – that of a centralized one-stop shopping location to take advantage of the gazillions of apps available – is a recognized success. It works because people don’t have to go from one website to another in order to find the apps they need.

Targeted app: Judging from the sheer amount of downloads from various app stores (numbering in the billions just from Apple alone); people are obviously very willing to try new apps. However, it behooves developers to take a long-view picture beyond just that initial download and figure out how they can focus on retaining those customers, making them into die-hard fans who will continue to use the app for the long haul. One of the easiest ways to increase app loyalty is to look at the data. Developers can take advantage of client-side interaction analytics to figure out what is driving their customer base behavior, and improve their apps in specific ways that speak directly to what their users are looking for.

Personalization:  A good user experience is at the core of any good app, and user-friendly apps are the most successful. Retaining customers beyond that initial download is tricky, but one of the best ways to go about it is to make the app more personal. For example, an app can read what preferences a user sets, what social connections are made, and construct the entire experience to make it simple for users to dig deep into secondary features, therefore creating longer use time which (hopefully) translates into greater longevity and loyalty.

Creating more user engagement: Giving out points, loyalty rewards, and other incentives to users is a surefire way to increase user engagement. For example, how about an app that gives you rewards for purchases made both online and offline? Notifications can be sent to loyal customers from within these kinds of apps about their favorite items and the whole purchase cycle can potentially start again.  The newest data about user engagement puts a very strong emphasis on loyalty as related to in-app purchases; basically, you can’t have one without the other. QuizUp does a great job of “gamification” of otherwise dry content; the user is compelled to keep using the app because there’s an incentive to do so.

Good design: Study after study shows definitively that good design has a direct corresponding result in customer trust and engagement. Users are instinctively drawn to good, unique design that offers a fresh look at known concepts and lets them interact with the app on an intuitive level. There’s a basic design framework that developers need to follow in order to create apps that offer easy navigation, deliver necessary content, and engage the user. If people can’t figure out how to use an app within a very short time, chances are that app is going to be dumped. Consumers aren’t looking for something that comes with a hefty user manual in order to make it work the way it’s supposed to; they are drawn to “out of the box” solutions that make them more productive, give them a little bit of entertainment, or solve a problem.

While this list covers quite a few important app development factors, it’s really just touching on the very basics of what makes up a successful app.  Remember the Old Spice ad campaign that featured a muscular guy holding up a product? That campaign had the “it factor”, an undefinable quality of coolness and fun that is instantly attractive. Apps that can bottle this kind of lightning will grow an incredibly large fan base in a very short amount of time – just like QuizUp. There are a few things we can take away from the Old Spice campaign as related to creating a successful app, including:

  • Be responsive to your users
  • Be entertaining
  • Leverage the influence of peer and consumer review sites
  • Make your app good enough to be shared
  • Deliver a focused message

Several well-known entrepreneurs recently gave out advice specifically to app developers on how to build a successful product. Here’s a pertinent piece of information from Paul Graham:

“The way to do really big things seems to be to start with deceptively small things. Maybe it's a bad idea to have really big ambitions initially, because the bigger your ambition, the longer it's going to take, and the further you project into the future, the more likely you'll get it wrong.

Don't try to construct the future like a building, because your current blueprint is almost certainly mistaken. Start with something you know works, and when you expand, expand westward.”

If you look at app development the same way you would eating an elephant – just one bite at a time – it becomes less overwhelming and more manageable to think about what it will take to build an idea all the way through to something that is successful. What do you find is the most important factor in a successful app? Share with us in the comments.






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