Companies might be tempted to jump on the mobile app bandwagon now that smartphones and tablet devices are proliferating the consumer market, but industry insiders caution against such efforts if they have no clear idea what the app is supposed to achieve and how much commitment they are willing to put into these projects.
Mobile is growing "astronomically" and the high prevalence and penetration of mobile devices has led to a torrent of mobile apps launched, including those that were created just for the sake of doing so, said Jonathan Stark, vice president of application architecture at Mobiquity, a U.S.-based mobile computing services company.
As a result, many organizations treat mobile app development as just another item on their must-do checklist, he told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail.
"Unfortunately, many companies end up releasing mobile apps that are both shallow and disposable, or flashy but lack substance, because these were created in a vacuum."
An October study by mobile market research group Distimo found that 91 percent of the top global brands has a mobile app for at least one of the major platforms, including Apple's iOS and Google's Android mobile operating systems.
Purpose and commitment essential
Sunny Kok, CEO of Green Tomato, a mobile app consultancy in Hong Kong, stressed that regardless of the type of mobile app it plans to develop, a company must answer two questions before embarking on the project.
The first is what the purpose of the application is, he said. Highlighting that apps with a clear, single purpose "are the most successful", he added that the purpose will also help a company design and optimize the user experience of the software. For one-off mobile-based marketing campaigns, it might be better to work on a mobile ad or Web site instead, he said.
Secondly, companies should ask themselves how much commitment it is willing to put into developing and maintaining the app, Kok pointed out. App development is not a one-off exercise, and, beyond the need for app updates to fix bugs or refresh content, the IT team will have to cater to users' demands which change over time, he added.
"For a mobile app to really benefit a brand, the app needs to be a sustainable one. This involves long-term commitment across different departments in the company like marketing and IT.
"Besides budget and manpower, brands that are committed with their apps also make sure these are consistently promoted internally and across all their existing promotional channels so that they can leverage existing resources to gain exposure for their apps," Kok said.
Stark agreed that mobile apps should not be treated as just another channel, as it will not work. Instead, the whole company needs to be correctly aligned on a clear, brand-wide mobile strategy, he urged.
Additionally, the organization needs to prepare its IT backend systems to support such a strategy, he noted.
"One big issue we see with our clients is their existing backend systems just don't cut it for mobile. Data silos, nightly syncs, and redundant databases across business units may be fine for desktop-style usage, but mobile has created a 'real time, all the time' expectation that these types of systems can't deliver," Stark explained.
For instance, a large retailer may use separate customer databases for their retail and online loyalty programs, he said. But for consumer using the retailer's mobile app, they will want to be able to walk into a retail outlet, get directed to the item they want, and then pay and redeem rewards either online or at the cash register, all without even pulling their wallets out.
"This kind of experience requires a level of backend system integration that we're just not seeing right now," Stark said.
Pre-empt user needs
Both Kok and Stark stated that another factor for companies to consider is how to maintain a good experience when using the app, and managing user expectations and feedback are par for the course.
Stark said that if companies are waiting for user feedback, they are "already too late". According to him, every app should include analytics from the start to track usage and consumer engagement.
"This is the only way to be proactive with upgrades and prioritize future development. Analyzing real-time usage gives a company the opportunity to surprise and delight its users by delivering updates that meet their implicit needs," he said.
For DBS Bank, its mobile strategy is geared toward delivering innovative, value-added mobile banking services that complement its network of banking channels, said Sandeep Lal, managing director of eBusiness for DBS's consumer banking group.
"Mobile banking remains a new frontier for the industry, and its ability to shape the future of customer engagement is immense," he noted in his e-mail. The bank's various mobile apps include DBS mBanking, DBS Shopper, DBS Indulge and DBS TravellerShield, which cover banking services, dining and shopping offers, and travel insurance, respectively.
Lal added that user experience continues to be an important factor for its suite of mobile banking products. For instance, to keep its mobile user experience safe and simple, only the most used services out of its full list of over 85 services available on Internet banking are offered on its mBanking app, he explained.
For sports brand Adidas, having a clear roadmap with planned updates and key features that guide its management and maintenance of its miCoach fitness app is key to the deployment, according to Kevin Vacca, global brand marketing manager for miCoach at Adidas.
He added that both consumers' needs and expectations and mobile technologies evolve, so it is imperative that the company continues updating the app's experience.
"Given the nature of the miCoach app, users often identify areas where we can improve or provide recommendations for features that would be beneficial to them. We have a team of developers in place who monitor these comments and feedback, so if there is a critical issue, we can provide a solution quickly," he said.
There is also a customer support team, which is proficient in 11 languages, to help users who face problems using the app, Vacca added. It also addresses all feedback--whether good or bad--across various platforms such as app stores, miCoach forums, Facebook and Twitter, he said.