woman about to open a mobile app on her phone
PHOTO: Rob Hampson

Pop quiz: should your company develop a mobile app?

  1. Yes, it would really boost our profile.
  2. Sure, everyone else is doing it.
  3. Of course, we can get a lot of data from that.

Trick question: it’s none of the above. The correct answer should be “only if it serves our customers.”

“For someone to take the time to actually install an app on their device, they're making a real commitment to a company or a brand,” said Adam Fingerman, founder and chief experience officer of mobile developer ArcTouch. A consumer’s phone is the “most personal device that they have. It's their entire life,” he says. For that user to not only dedicate storage space, but also be faced with a daily reminder of that company’s icon on their screen means that that app must enhance the customer experience, and this is especially true for retail apps. Is it any wonder that Alligatortek research shows that shopping and ecommerce apps are not only the fourth most downloaded app category, but also the fourth most deleted?

What Do Customers Want From a Brand App?

“We literally have hundreds of apps on our phone, and in my case, and I think other consumers as well, we're just getting apped out,” said Gordon Littley, managing director, Global CX Practice at a leading telecommunications firm. An app “has to serve my needs and has to serve my needs quick. As consumers we demand personalization and we demand speed ... if either one of those are missing, I'll probably drop [the app] right away.”

Those may seem like high stakes for an app to overcome, but they’re certainly attainable, and consumers are by no means reluctant to shop on their devices. Statista predicts mobile commerce revenue will reach $338 billion this year, more than double 2017 figures. A 2018 study by Synchrony indicated that two-thirds of consumers have downloaded a retail app. However, more than half of them did so in order to redeem a coupon or receive a discount. That might be enough to merit the initial download, but it won’t justify keeping it on your phone.

“You can tell pretty quickly if an app has the right amount of utility,” said Fingerman. “If it fails on the utility side, it's not useful. If it’s not useful, you can delete it.”

To find that utility, retailers must understand what exactly their customers want and need in an application. Starbucks has earned rave reviews for its convenient mobile ordering and rewards program implementation. Even apps that may not be accessed frequently, such as those for airlines and hotels, can still escape the dreaded deletion if they function in a way that serves customers.

Related Article: Is Your Mobile Onboarding Experience Scaring Away Customers?

Does Your App Meet a User Need?

“The idea of empathy in our design process [is] so important,” said Nicholas Farmen of software development firm Spire. Farmen said that part of the company’s development strategy involves talking to real customers and also creating personas that fit various demographics to determine what would appeal to every potential audience. His colleague Lauren Sherby, a product designer at Spire, said when she builds applications, she designs with three criteria in mind: usefulness, usability and delight.

“Does it solve a user's problem?” she asks. “Is it easy to understand and navigate? And then thirdly, is it delightful? Is there some element of joy and delight that the user experiences?” Delight can be tricky to navigate, however — if extra graphics or elements slow down the app or impede access to necessary functions, there’s a fine line between what’s cute and what gets the boot. “Above anything is solving a user problem,” Sherby acknowledged.

Related Article: Balancing User Experience and Creativity in Design

Don't Lose Sight of the Customer

Given trends over the last decade that have increasingly put power in customers’ hands, it seems counterintuitive that any retailer or app designer would favor a concept that doesn’t put the customer first. Yet it still happens, as marketers lose sight of customers in their struggle to keep up with current trends.

“It’s hard to balance the need to innovate the market with the need to listen and figure out where your customers are,” says Kate Hogenson, senior consultant at direct marketing firm Kobie. “A marketer’s role in the company is to [move] the company forward, but at the speed that makes sense to their customers.”

Related Article: What Does it Take to Lose a Customer?

Ask Yourself: Why Are You Building That App?

Businesses must realize that just because they can develop an app does not mean they should. A useless program is far worse than having none at all, and will only frustrate customers. That feeling will intensify if the app’s primary purpose appears to be collecting consumer data, perhaps the most egregious method of putting the company over the customer. Recent new laws such as the California Consumer Privacy Act are a component of the increasing power shift favoring consumers. But more transparency doesn’t change the fact that customers detest and distrust apps that involve unnecessary tracking, overwhelming push notifications, and an excessive sign-up process.

“If I have to fill in more than four to five fields to get access then I will be deleting,” said Erin van Remortel, strategic account executive at Astute. “Way too many apps add zero value. Their purpose is brand-centric. They want to know more about you versus provide value to you.”

That mindset will eventually lead to customers deleting both your app and their loyalty.