Last week Mashable posted an excellent list of tips for companies who want to create mobile apps. Given that it’s Mashable, I wasn’t surprised to see that most of the advice is from a management/financial perspective. How much an app should cost, how long it will take to create, how much effort you need to put in to keeping on top of the developer, etc.
While all of those things are very important, I wanted to provide a few extra pieces of advice based on my perspective as a user of apps. Things I wish I could say to almost every company that makes an app, be it for iPhone, Android, Windows Phone, even BlackBerry.
If more companies and app creators would keep these four things in mind there would be many more happy users in the world. And when you make people happy, they’re more likely to give you money, recommend you to friends, and stick with you well beyond the initial interest they show in your app.
1. Put Effort Into Every Platform You Choose For The App
One of the most frustrating things I encounter as an Android owner is apps that come out for multiple platforms but are obviously much better on one of them. Usually iOS apps are better than their Android counterparts, and not because of the difference in platform.
Often the functionality is more robust on iOS, the interface more attractive, the usage much smoother and more intuitive. Updates to Android often come slower as well. In the really bad cases the app simply doesn’t work, force closes on a regular basis, or just does not act as it should. It becomes clear that the company doesn’t care as much about the Android version.
Why, then, should customers support it?
I’m sure this has happened to plenty of Windows Phone and BlackBerry users as well. While I can understand a company not wanting to put as much effort or money into apps that serve a small sliver of the market, this argument can’t be made for Android. And isn’t a good excuse, regardless.
If you make the commitment to release an app for a platform, you need to be prepared to give it just as much development energy and company support as every other platform. If you cannot do this, then don’t release the app on that platform. I’d rather not see an app then see a half-assed effort. Or, worse, pay money for it.
2. Provide A Way For Users To Contact You For Support
When things go pear-shaped with an app users should have a way to contact you to either figure out what’s going wrong or self-troubleshoot the problem.
I’ve seen too many apps that give you no way to contact a dev except to donate to them via PayPal. Links on the Market or App Store don’t lead to any useful information or contact info. Finally, users are left with no choice but to leave a low star rating on the app and uninstall.
If you’re a larger company, there’s no excuse for not having some support structure in place, even if it’s a small GetSatisfaction board where users can search for their problems and maybe even help each other.
Smaller startups don’t have as much money or resources. Still, a forum or GetSatisfaction or something similar should exist alongside a warning that, while you can’t answer everyone as quickly as you’d like, there will be some help on offer.
You’d be surprised at how many users are willing to help each other.
3. Remember That Not Everyone Is Online At All Times
Most people use apps on their phone, and smartphones are very often connected to the Internet. However, this isn’t true for all people at all times.
Smartphone owners enter dead zones sometimes, even in big cities, especially if they ride public transportation that takes them underground. Folks also like to use their apps on airplanes, which are not all equipped with in-flight Wi-Fi. Don’t forget that there are millions of iPod touch owners (plus a few Android PDA lovers) and that Wi-Fi isn’t ubiquitous.
If it makes sense for your app, remember to include some data caching in the functionality and give the user control over it.
I encounter this frustration most often in RSS or news reader apps like Flipboard or Pulse. They work perfectly fine when connected and even update the articles on hand automatically. However, try to access those articles or their images when offline and you either encounter partial posts, no cached posts at all, or not enough data cached.
NewsRob, the best RSS readers for Android, gives users detailed control over their feeds. You choose how many articles to download, what to download with them (images, full web pages), when to look for new articles, and how long the data should stay in the cache.
This doesn’t only affect RSS readers, mail clients, messaging services, and other such apps, but any type of data someone might want to access offline.
4. Tell People How To Use Your App
There’s nothing more annoying than an app I can’t figure out just by looking at the interface and using it. That doesn’t happen to me often because I’m a pretty savvy tech user. I’m sure it happens to less-savvy users way more.
You have nothing to lose by offering some way for your customers to learn how to use the app. I suggest creating a quick tutorial that opens on first use. If you’re afraid of annoying more savvy users, offer a way to skip the tutorial and dismiss the message about it forever.
Also, don’t forget to invest in creating a Help file. If your help file only links to a webpage on your website, you’ve failed. Again, not everyone is connected to the Internet at all times.
Tutorials and how tos don’t have to be boring. The SugarSync app makes a game out of learning the program and offers a bit of extra storage space for free to those who complete the tutorial. DoggCatcher includes a podcast of basic to intermediate usage tips in the initial list of feeds that users can play whenever they want.
If more practical, include pop-up tips that appear the first time a user accesses them that are easily dismissed. Give the user an easy way to turn these off just in case.