So you think you want an app?

A post I published on the British Council’s internal blog which has relevance to all companies who do digital product development.

Six questions to ask if you think you want an app

Have you or your department ever thought about building a mobile app? If so, read on.

The British Council has had over 11 million app downloads since the first apps were published in 2010. Most of the apps published have come from the English Product Development team and are aimed at adults and children learning English. As well as those apps, the Arts team in the UK, the Exams teams, and the teaching centre in Korea have also published apps through the app stores such as the Apple App Store and Google Play.

Over the years we have received quite a few requests for advice about building apps, so I thought I’d share some of the most common questions that we ask when someone approaches us.

Do you really want an app?

App development is not cheap. The actual amount depends on complexity of course but is generally more than web development. It can be costly to develop, costly to promote and costly to maintain. Sometimes a mobile-friendly website is all that is needed to reach your audience. However, if you need your users to use hardware features within the phone (camera, microphone etc), then an app provides a better experience. If you want a built-in monetisation system, Apple and Google deliver (although very few apps make good money). However, in many cases a mobile-optimised website, available through a mobile web browser, is all that is needed.

How are you going to make your app available?

Publishing an app is not like publishing a web page. Apps are submitted to the Apple and Google app stores and if they meet their guidelines and processes they will be released under the publisher’s account. Apple, in particular, are stringent in terms of quality assurance, i.e. they will not publish an app which is broken or breaks their, sometimes subjective, guidelines.

If your app is self-contained (i.e. all the data needed to run the app is contained within a single package), Apple and Google will host the app for you. If you have content that needs to be downloaded into the app, you will need to find a hosting solution for that content (the app itself will still be hosted by Apple or Google).

What are you going to say about your app?

Metadata about the app needs to be managed – that is the descriptions, keywords, screenshots, videos and all the other mandatory information provided in the store along with your app. You can see the sort of information needed in this example from one of the English Product Development team’s apps:

The app stores are global marketplaces so if your app has global appeal you will need to manage the metadata in many languages. Getting the metadata correct is essential to people finding and understanding your app but this is not easy and needs constant monitoring and tinkering to see what works.

How is your app going to be found?

There are now well over a million apps in both the Apple App Store and Google Play store. Getting potential users to find your app is very difficult. Even if your app is focused on the marketing of another product, you will still need to promote the app in order for it to be found. App companies often spend at least the equivalent of development costs on marketing and often much more.

The best way to increase downloads is to be featured by Apple or Google but with strict editorial guidelines and lots of other apps clamouring for attention this feature is hard to get. Many apps sink without a trace.

How are you going to maintain the app?

OK, you’ve got your new app and it’s been approved for publication by Apple or Google and is now in store. Two months later, the next version of iOS (the iPhone/iPad operating system) is released and breaks your app. You start noticing lots of people are complaining about a feature not working on a popular Android device that you did not test on. The one-star ratings start racking up. Even a typo can’t be quickly dealt with like it can on a website. App maintenance is essential if you want any longevity for your app. Depending on how the app was built, you can almost guarantee that testing and maintenance is needed around each major operating system update (about once a year). Most developers will provide a certain level of bug support as part of development but this may only last a few months so some ongoing maintenance period needs to be paid for. It also takes time to monitor, reply and action the comments that people make in the app stores. Apple and Google require you to have emails for user support so this needs resources too. All this needs onward management.

How do you know if it’s successful?

The stores provide basic insights into your app: the number of downloads and, if applicable, the income generated each day as well as reviews, ratings and store rankings. But how are people using your app? How much time do they spend on it? Do they follow any calls for action? The remote nature of app users and the fact that there is a third party in between you and your user (i.e. the app store) means this information is hard to get. App analytics have improved a lot recently but this takes time to plan, implement, analyse and act on.

There is of course a lot more to app development but these are some of the key questions to ask at the beginning. If you have any specific questions, feel free to ask below.

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