Don’t confuse Web developers with app developers

More and more IT professionals are feeling the heat from business leaders to quickly open up their products and services to mobile users. But while the move to create smart phone applications is important, many of these projects are doomed to failure because companies lack both proper market strategy and developer expertise, according to software development firm Atimi Software Inc.

The Vancouver-based firm said that the mobile app projects usually start after upper management suddenly and urgently realizes they “need to do an iPhone app.” It is not uncommon for in-house or external app developers to hear a business leader say “let me make an app that does something when I shake it,” said Scott Michaels, vice-president of Atimi Software.

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This type of thinking often leads to what Michaels calls the most common mistake for mobile app projects: an app that users won’t care about.

A classic irrelevant app is one that takes a current company Web site, which is made for desktop consumption, and wraps it up into a mobile app.

“That’s almost always a failure,” Michaels said. “The user will say, ‘I already have access to your Web site.’”

If your in-house developers or the app development house you’re outsourcing to actually proposes this type of app, it should serve as a red flag that this team of “application developers” is really just a team of “Web developers.”

According to Michaels, other questions to ask could be how successful their previous apps were, whether they have a quality assurance team, and whether they provide expertise in creating a marketing strategy after the app is completed.

Michael Carter, president and CEO of Toronto-based MyThum Interactive, is dishing out similar advice. He said simply transporting your content from the Web onto the mobile platform is one of the biggest mistakes a company can make.

“Creating a mirror image of your Web experience on mobile, to me, is a recipe for failure,” he said, adding that while the look and feel can be similar, the actual experience has to be far different.

This was a pitfall that many newspapers fell into as the Internet emerged in the mid-90s. Publishers who avoided simply dumping their content onto the Web, and instead, actually designed features for the new medium were the most successful

The key to being successful in the mobile space follows a similar path, Carter said, and will force successful companies to deliver some kind of value-add to their customers.

For companies that choose to outsource when creating their apps, Michaels warned that “cheaper does not mean better.”

Often times, smaller development companies will be willing to create your mobile app for an almost unbelievable price. “The reason for this is they’re not experienced and basically want to use you as an example,” Michaels said.

Choosing this route will have little impact on your immediate bottom line, but will dish out a major setback to your brand reputation and any future mobile apps you wish to create.

“If people hate your app and delete it off their phone, even if you fix it later, you’ll have to convince them to download it again,” Michaels said. This is often the most difficult proposition an organization can face, he added, especially with over 15,000 new apps being added each week to Apple’s App Store.

To weed out these developers, Michaels advises that organizations request their app development shop to demonstrate the capabilities of the previous apps they’ve built.

“‘I want to see your applications,’” he said. “Just with that simple question, you’ll find a lot of companies end up saying that they don’t have any. They’re willing to do it at an unbelievable price because they’re not experienced and want to use you as the example.

“That might up end up being a disaster and the recovery always ends up being more expensive,” Michaels added.

This advice should also be used for assessing in-house developers, who are often extremely enthusiastic on creating an application even if they don’t have the experience working with the particular mobile OS you’re targeting, he said.

For organizations that find themselves in this position, but still wish to experiment, Michaels said it would be wise to create a scaled-back but functional application, rather than a broad app that tries to do everything, but really accomplishes nothing.

An experienced app development team will be especially useful if your company is going to truly create an innovative, eye-catching and useful app. For Mauro Lollo, co-founder and CTO of Oakville, Ont.-based IT services provider Unis Lumin, that kind of app might entail transforming mobile content into a utility.

“Imagine you walk into a Home Depot, you’re cruising down an aisle and you see a product that you think you need but you really don’t know how to install the thing,” he said. “So instead of going to find a worker, you use the camera on your cell phone and take a picture of the barcode on the product. The application will then find the product and play you a video of how to install that product in your home.”

This type of interactive application works to further the sale in a retail setting, saving both the customer and the business time and effort, Lollo added. “It can almost be like a self-serve help desk in your pocket.”

Instead of utilizing a smart phone’s camera feature, businesses can also develop services to take advantage of a device’s built-in GPS capabilities, he said.

One example of this could be a grocery chain rolling out a location-specific advertising app that pitches its weekly specials based on the users’ proximity to the store. “Being context-aware can change the nature of the media you’re trying to send out,” Lollo added.

One quick and easy way to conduct some market research on your potential app and make a stronger business case for creating it, Michael said, is to scour the hundreds of well establish mobile app review blogs available online. This will allow organizations to see what mobile traits users rate positively and could offer companies a good starting point.

– With files from

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