The 3 keys to getting value from custom-built apps

Whether a company is building for mobile users, the desktop or the web, custom apps can solve a lot of enterprise problems – if IT does all the right things in the right order.

Custom-built apps offer immense potential for many organizations. They allow IT departments to tailor solutions to the unique nature and circumstances of their workforce. They can meet specific enterprise needs, fit existing work and data flows, and boost both efficiency and productivity.

And as much as they allow companies to streamline operations and provide new data about operations – directly and indirectly affecting the bottom line – they can also bolster employee satisfaction and confidence and enhance a company’s  image internally and with customers and the general public.

That said,  the task of creating an app – whether for mobile, desktop, web or cloud – can also be something  of a gamble. To be successful, a custom app has to hit a sweet spot with users, IT, and stakeholders throughout an organization; improve operations and workflow; and create new opportunities. While there are no easy guarantees of success, following some simple guidelines can help companies start off in the right direction.

1: Understand the problem you're solving

The most important factor for an app's success is whether it solves a problem -- either a problem (or several of them) that haven't been solved or isn't solved well by existing solutions/workflows. One way to ensure an app doesn't deliver value is to create an app just for the sake of doing so. Thus, the first step in even considering a custom app is to identify the problem it will solve.

Identifying the issue (s) is only part of understanding it. Understanding what an app needs to do requires research. Much of that research is internal and involves talking to (and learning from) the staff members, managers, and executives that will ultimately be an app’s core constituency. Doing that accomplishes two things.

First, it establishes trust and rapport. This is important because it gets things off on the right foot. With IT still often seen as the "department of no" – or the team that fields technology problems (rarely fast enough in the minds of users) – establishing rapport can that boost the image of IT in general and an app initiative in particular. When there are rough spots during and after development, the sense that everyone is on the same team can be crucial.

Second, understanding the unique issues, demands, functions and needs at hand allows for them all to be directly addressed. It also allows the development team to understand the unique frustrations and challenges facing end users. Addressing these, particularly if an app will replace existing workflows (both official and rogue employee workarounds) is a big key to success.

But understanding the problem doesn't end when code writing begins – users and stakeholders should be consulted throughout the development process to keep the app moving in the ideal direction. 

2: UX is king (and must be platform-specific)

Saying that the user experience is important has been a staple of advice for years now, ever since the phrase consumerization-of-IT was coined. But, it's standard advice because it is both true and it's an understatement.

By now, people are used to having a massive selection of apps for every task. Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, and countless others have raised the bar for user interface design and experience higher than it was even a few years ago.

Those high expectations are now set for every piece of technology a person encounters – from a smartphone app to a fitness tracker to a car to the apps used for work. Add to that the fact that users know that there are countless well-designed apps literally at their fingertips and it's easy to see why this is important; companies have competition when building a custom app, especially if it is even remotely similar to something in the App Store, Google Play or Windows Store.

The good news is that if companies do a good job of understanding the problem(s) they’re trying to solve, they’ll understand  the experience users expect and the problems to avoid. You also have a group of experts (users) to draw upon in ensuring the user experience hits the mark. 

One often overlooked aspect of user experience is the importance of making apps that respect and capitalize on features of the platform on which they run. A mobile app shouldn't look like a shrunken version of a desktop app. A watch app should just display key context-sensitive data and minimal controls rather than looking like a phone interface strapped to the wrist. A tablet app shouldn't be a blown up phone app, nor should it be a desktop app designed for keyboard input.

Going further, iOS and Android apps should be similar but not identical. The unique functionality offered on each platform –  iOS, Android, Windows, Chrome OS, web/cloud, WatchOS, Android Wear, etc. – should be embraced where it makes sense. This shouldn't be gimmicky, but if integration with features like AirPlay, Google Assistant, AirDrop, Widgets, Chromecart, or others makes sense, implement it – even if it means differentiating slightly for each platform. (And don't forget to build in security along the way.)

In short: An iOS 11 app should feel like an iOS 11 app and an Android Nougat app should feel like one. 

3: Don’t finish and forget 

The development process doesn't end when an app is rolled out. Facebook, Google, and myriad other companies have trained people to expect constant iteration and improvement. This expectation extends to all apps, including custom-built corporate apps.

This means that app developers need to remain engaged with users, their needs and any on-going problems. It's also good practice to set benchmarks by which to measure success. These can be as simple as tracking installation on devices, watching the network traffic generated by an app, studying how often the app is launched, looking at when it connects to resources, and/or which features are used (and for how long). All of these can be identified and automatically compiled. But the best benchmark is connecting with users to determine what works and what needs to be added, improved or removed. 

Although one-on-one user discussion is a great way to gauge user opinions, there are automated options to collect feedback, including helpdesk statistics or internet social/collaboration tools, where mentions of an app can be searched and collected. 

In responding to feedback and rolling out updates, keeping users in the loop via email or internal social platforms can help promote ongoing interest in an app, particularly if users are encouraged to suggest changes or identify areas that need tweaking.

Putting it all together, custom-built apps can deliver exceptional value across every industry in thousands of different situations and contexts. But that value is determined by how well an app meets real needs, delivers a superb experience, and is updated regularly in ways that continue to respond to real-world usage. 

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