Mobile applications are everywhere, but what makes a useful one? I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes a great mobile application while on the road (training on the bike, not the plane :^) . Here are my thoughts on things to consider when picking a mobile application for your business.
1. Not the Lowest Price!
As consumers one of the first things we are conditioned to consider in any purchase is price. Thus price is important in choosing a mobile app right? WRONG, with mobile applications price should not normally be a consideration. Consider two applications that perform the same general function. App “A”, at $5.99 is half the price of App “B” at $9.99. “A” is a great deal right? But compare a $4 savings against other considerations that will affect you ever single time you use the application. Price is irrelevant when you consider the value of your time or the integrity of your data.
Price is irrelevant when most mobile apps cost less than a movie ticket. Avoid the temptation to pick a mobile app based upon price.
Mobile applications are becoming more intuitive and easy to use all the time. But for business applications that integrate with other systems or services, there are times you are going to need assistance and the vendor needs to be in a position to provide it in a timely fashion.
Make sure support is available and it is clear how to engage a developer”s support function. Is the developer providing timely support via a published email address or even willing to talk on the phone?
Look for online resources like documentation or video guides that allow you to quickly answer your own questions. Also, online user forums and FAQ’s should also be available.
Many applications may not require much support. But for those that do, when you need it you need it badly so make sure it is available before you buy.
Make sure your vendor has support elements in place and is in a position to help when needed.
3. Data integrity.
Phones have an annoying habit of getting lost or damaged, and they have a life expectancy approaching that of a fruit fly. Migrating to a new phone is a common use case and lets face it upgrading to a shiny new phone is a little like Christmas morning. But, what happens to data you entered into that old puppy? After a few uses you have spent as much “equivalent value” of your time as you did buying the app. Loosing data is equivalent to loosing time (or worse if the data cannot be re-created!).
Make sure you understand what happens to data when you migrate to a new device or upgrade the application. Don’t assume all applications always magically look after data integrity for you. It’s a great test of a developers support function to ask them about this before sales.
4. Feature Velocity
It’s hard to earn a living in the mobile application space. It’s like the pop music business in that there are low barriers to entry and for every top ten hit maker, there are thousands of struggling artists. In the music business if one song doesn’t “make it”, artists create another and try again. And so it goes in the mobile application development business. Many developers are forced to take a “shot gun” approach to developing applications. Create many apps and hope like hell one of them is a hit. Regrettably, many developers are forced by necessity to abandon additional development on applications early in their life cycle. The result is an application with little or no future enhancements.
Look for evidence that the application has a future. Also look for signals from the developer that they plan additional features and are listening to user feedback.
5. Performance and Usability
My favorite apps are those that have desktop equivalents, but are so easy to use that I chose to use the mobile version. For example, the BlackBerry contacts application. Even when I have MSOutlook open and on a screen in front of me, I’ll reach for my BlackBerry to look up contact info. It doesn’t make much sense to me except it is just easier and faster to use than is Outlook.
Great mobile apps have been designed with careful consideration to requirements such as, one handed use, minimal clicks or gestures to do something useful, and careful placement of UI components to optimize the most common usage scenarios.
Also, look for applications that support off line operation. There are still lots of operational scenarios where data coverage is poor over the cellular network (like in most airplanes!). Applications that must have a network to do anything useful are going to drive you nuts. First because, even with today’s fastest 3G networks, device to server latency is high enough that usability suffers. Second because data usage is a billable item in many countries. Look for applications that minimize their use of the radio network and are designed to avoid latency in the user interface. Caching data on device with intelligent synchronisation is key to having a responsive application and minimizing potential for extra wireless data charges.
Look for applications that have a free trial so you can confirm the performance and usability meets your expectations before purchase.
In building the ReportAway! series of mobile applications we consistently focus on optimizing these 5 considerations because we not only develop ReportAway! we also use it in our own day to day business operations.
This is not a complete list, but it is the top five things I think are important when looking for a mobile application. Please add a comment if you think I’ve missed anything important to you.