So You Want to Build a Mobile App? 8 Things to Consider

In our last mobile commerce blog post we explored if retailers should have a mobile application, mobile website or both? Over the next 4 posts we’ll dive a little deeper and look at some of the issues you should consider when proceeding to develop a mobile application for your store. In this post we’ll look at 8 things you should carefully consider and evaluate before committing to your developing your first mobile app.

1. Which platform?

The obvious choice is the iPhone! But before you dive straight into to developing for the iPhone just because your CEO has one, consider the other smartphone platforms and if they might make more sense for you:

  • Blackberry
  • Palm Pre
  • Windows Mobile
  • Symbian
  • Android

Apple is is certainly dominant, holding about an 18% share of the smartphone market and with an app store that eclipses the competition both in terms of catalog size and number of downloads.

In fact with more operators now selling the iPhone and the imminent release of the iPad we can expect to see Apple’s dominance and growth rate continue to increase. But before you rush to build the iPhone app, consider your customers. If they are mainly business users then you may have more Blackberry than iPhone users. If you’re not sure, consider polling your customers to find out. This is also a good chance to ask them if  a) they want a mobile app and b) what functionality they want from it.

2. One step at a time

Don’t run before you can walk. Build for one platform first, release it and measure its success. Get the first platform right before you think about building more. Just because Amazon has apps for iPhone, Android and Blackberry doesn’t mean you need do.

3. Who will build it?

It’s unlikely you have the right development skills in-house or want to build an in-house team, so you’ll have to look either to your platform provider or a systems integrator with mobile app development experience to work with. If your mobile platform provider has a mobile app add-on then this is probably a good starting point as the integrations needed with your ecommerce platform will already be developed. If not then you’ll probably want to go through an RFP process with a few different vendors. The cost of building a single app can range from $20k to over $400k depending on the business model and functionality you want. Some vendors may try and lock you into a revenue share / joint risk model. Evaluate this carefully, it may be cheaper in the short term, but if your app turns out to be successful like eBay’s (eBay are expecting to generate 1.5 billion dollars of revenue via their mobile channel in 2010)  this will get expensive quickly.

4. Don’t rush

Even if your competitors already have an iPhone app, don’t get pressured by your execs into rushing your app. Make sure you have developed the feature set that will excite your customers and make your app resident on the home page of their phone. If you mess up with the firsst release and deliver a poor experience or worse, a slow or buggy app, not only will you damage your reputation with your customer base, but they will remove the app as quickly as they added it and you will lose your chance to impress them with later releases.

5. Make the experience consistent with your web store

The users of your shiny new mobile app have been users of your web store for years. Make sure that their mobile experience is consistent with their web experience. Follow these simple guidelines to ensure a holistic cross channel experience:

  • Offer your full catalog on your mobile app
  • Ensure pricing, discounts and promotions are consistent between mobile app and web store
  • Surface all your product content in your app (images, descriptions, ratings and reviews, tech specs, product availability)
  • Provide merchandising (cross sells, up sells, etc)
  • Personalize the experience
  • Provide self service account management capabilities
  • Let them transact via your mobile app

6. Integrate with your existing ecommerce platform

Your existing ecommerce platform whether vendor supplied or developed in-house will play a huge role in your mobile app development. Many of the the services your mobile app will need are already provided by your ecommerce platform. Ratings and Reviews, shopping carts, cross sells, order history, shipping options, product catalog etc should all be integrated between your web and mobile channel. Your development teams will need to expose these existing services in a way in which your mobile app can consume them. This is often done using a lightweight REST web services API.

7. Have a roadmap

You can’t release new incremental versions of an app every week like you do with your website, so make sure you create an app roadmap that clearly identifies and prioritizes future functionality. Plan to release new versions approximately every 3 months, but try to avoid doing releases more regularly than this as your users will get annoyed if they are always installing a new version of your app. If your app is a success, your execs will be pushing you to accelerate the roadmap!

8. Measure

Your executive sponsors will want to see results, so make sure you’re in a position to report back to them. Like your website, you need full analytics on your mobile app. Make sure you’re at a minimum tracking the following analytics:

  • Number of app downloads and installations
  • Number of app removals
  • Number of app starts
  • Average usage time
  • Order analytics by the mobile app (number of orders, avg order value, conversion rate etc)
  • Where the app is being used (GPS data)

The good news is that the popular analytic engines including Google Analytics and Omniture already have API’s for you to embed them into your mobile app.

If you’ve decided a mobile application will add value to your ecommerce business considering the above, you need to know the dos and don’ts of mobile application design – coming next post.

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11 Responses to “So You Want to Build a Mobile App? 8 Things to Consider”

  1. Some really great tips Peter and I believe that no. 6 is the toughest one as not all the platforms support APIs and with all the security issues it is a real challenge.

    P.s. The last point “Measure” should be numbered 8 ;)

  2. A small correction to the table of apps: Android Market is >30.000 not just >3.000 and the iTunes App Store is up to >185.000 now.

  3. I think the clear choice for development is droid/berry the apple road is nuts.
    Every time you want to update the app to fix bugs you have to go through their crazy approval process and hope the fixes your customers need, get to them before they lose interest in you product altogether.

  4. The Apple approval process isn’t really all that crazy. Having updates for your app could be used to your advantage if it makes the app better and entices the user to engage with the app more.

  5. andrew says:

    FYI: As of late April 2010, The Android App store is at 38,000 apps.

  6. Compare to iphone, other platforms have better open-source support, and cost very little compare to develope apps for iphone.
    however, there is little room for windows, palm and blackberry. I think Google’s Android is going to be a big player v.s. apple. But should improve its UI and speed up its development. From a user point of view, iphone is much ‘faster’ to use and fun to use.

  7. Justin says:

    Is it straight forward to design an app that basically takes you to a website for you to browse etc like the ebay app?

    Tks in advance

  8. Mary says:

    This is great research information for a newbie considering a mobile app.

  9. nannette says:

    I want to bulid a app for photograph and sale the photos can anyone help me please

  10. charles says:

    Nice article. I’m trying to build my own app right now and you have given me some good info that I can use. Thanks.

  11. Joe says:

    Having control of the road map is a bigger challenge than discussed above. The execs and the marketing team would always want to push for monthly releases and I get your point. This can be annoying to customers. Do you think that developing for one platform at a time makes sense?

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