Is developing an app still a route to market knowledge, great ideas and hard riches? Done right, and with luck, the answer remains a resounding yes. Annual app sales now account for roughly US$20 billion of revenue across the Apple and Google app stores, and Gartner predicts cumulative revenue will hit US$77 billion by 2017.
Meanwhile, both Facebook and Google are hungry when it comes to acquisitions: in the last year we've seen Facebook buy WhatsApp for US$19 billion, while Google has gobbled up travel-app developer Jetpac and translation specialist Quest Visual for undisclosed sums. Undisclosed, but undoubtedly very high.
Yet the majority of app developers aren't raking it in. A 2014 Gartner report claimed that less than 1% of apps were financially successful, while Midia Research found that only 50 companies were responsible for 81% of sales. It's a market for superstars.
Success Vs Failure
So, what differentiates a successful app from one that never makes it off the starting block? For one, the original idea plays a big part. Ben Paterson is creative producer at Figure Digital, developer of the virtual pet app, Animin. “Ideas for apps are ten a penny,” he said. “Everyone and their iDog down the pub has an idea for an app, and 99% of them are either rubbish, insane or completely undevelopable.”
Successful apps are about satisfying needs, not inventing them. It doesn't matter whether that need is a way to control a hot tub from a smartphone or enable property developers to keep on top of ongoing projects; as long as the app does something users want, and does it well, it has a chance of succeeding.
A great idea also needs to be backed up by a business case. As Chris Williams, managing director of UK app studio B60, puts it: “The first key step is to understand the business need and requirements. This is fundamental. Many apps fail because they have no real need, or the plan to make money from it isn't thought through.”
Image: B60apps – Building an app plan
Usability is just as crucial. Rob Hayward, a successful UK freelance app developer who has worked with Formula One and The Comedy Store, says you need to make it “effortlessly easy”. “You've got someone's attention for a fraction of time, often a few spare seconds while they're doing something else. They want a couple of taps and everything is done.”
Williams thinks that a successful app “provides the features the end user needs while keeping the interface as clear, simple and easy to use as possible”. B60 pulls this off by understanding user habits mainly through a combination of in-house expertise, workflow analysis and client consultation, although it also sees value in focus groups and end-user research.
Mobile-development studio and marketing agency Rokk Media also spends a lengthy research phase looking at potential users, sorting them into personas and following those personas on a journey through the app. “We look at what they want to achieve and what their hopes and fears might be – particularly the fears, since understanding the concerns users might have can help you point them in the right direction,” said Martin Dainton, Rokk Media's chief creative officer. When developing an app for internal use by the non-technical sales team of a car dealership, for example, Rokk ensured built-in guidance and simple instructions were provided at every stage.
For Createanet, it's a question of careful prototyping, so that the key interactions are in place before a single line of code is written – and then putting usability at the core of the design. “The beauty of apps is that they're simplistic. You have to come up with an interface you can use with your thumb,” explained King. “They're quite fickle. If you find something and it engages you then you're on board – and that's all about usability.”
Independent developer Nick Kuh would put usability ahead of even function. “I try to keep the UI as simple and uncluttered as possible,” he said.
However, the biggest hurdle on the track to app success is how to stand out in such a crowded market. “My biggest obstacle these days is a saturated app store,” said Kuh. “That, combined with competitors spending large advertising budgets on masses of paid-for installs, makes app store discovery very difficult.”
Figure Digital's Paterson agreed, suggesting that “the biggest obstacle of all is getting the word out there and raising awareness, to find that community of users you originally had in mind and to ensure they hear about your app and have a chance to try it out.”
How? “We have a philosophy that great content finds its users,” said Paterson. “First, make something amazing. Second, find your advocates: those users who will effectively do your marketing and PR for you. Finally, continue to develop, tweak and innovate based on what these key advocates want.” Nick Kuh concurs: “Focus on making apps that will retain users. Enable your users to reach out to you, and listen to their feature requests and concerns. Continue to iterate and don't give up on a good product.”
Finally, as Rokk Media's Dainton explains, you need to acknowledge that the launch is the beginning, not the end. “You have to spend time marketing apps, nurturing and developing them, and when there's a new release of the operating system – particularly with Apple – you've got to update them.” Not only will this keep the app fresh, but it will also ensure that Apple's habit of cycling out deprecated code doesn't leave you with an app that no longer functions.
Unless you have the skills to design, code and test an app yourself, development doesn't come cheap. “Some people expect to get an app developed for $300, and they can't,” said Createanet's King.
It's possible to find solo developers who will tackle a project for a few hundred dollars, he explained, but warned that the archetypal bedroom whizz-kid “might be really good at the coding, but he won't be so good at the design or the user experience side of things”. King went on: “If you can't spend money on decent development, then you won't get a company that will be around in a couple of months' time to support you.”
In other words, apps need a budget, which may be anywhere between a few thousand and hundreds of thousands. Even freelance app developers will look at the budget as a means of separating serious prospects from those without a realistic idea of what's involved. “I get lots of enquiries,” said Jason Kneen, who develops iOS and Android apps through his studio, BouncingFish. “A lot of them are rubbish, to be honest. They want to do the next WhatsApp or Instagram and usually have no clue about how the whole process works or the costs involved.”
Having worked with the likes of English Heritage and Friends of the Earth, Kneen takes the ideas that interest him and sketches out the work involved, then uses that to form a ballpark budget. It's at this point that those without a solid business plan back out.
Many would-be app tycoons also underestimate the costs of the back-end infrastructure that supports the app. “People look sites such as Instagram and Yo, and are unaware that alongside the front-end there's back-end infrastructure in place,” said Kneen. “This needs to be paid for somehow. There are cloud services that will do this for free, up to a point, but when they start charging you - when you hit a million users - you might suddenly receive a bill for $10,000.”
In addition there are design and technical challenges, from the difficulties inherent in building an app to work across multiple devices, resolutions and screen sizes, to issues concerning mobile connectivity and data flow.
Perhaps the biggest challenge in app development is time. App projects often run on short two- or three-month cycles, with immovable deadlines such as Christmas or sporting events with which to contend. “Anything is possible, within reason,” said Rob Hayward. “It's just figuring out what you can achieve in the given amount of time.” While there's always a temptation to add more features, app developers learn to resist. “If there weren't a limited amount of time, there wouldn't be any restrictions,” Hayward said, “but when you're delivering a product in three months, then extras need to do something vital – or at least tick a box with an investor.”
In a world where the changing of a single button can often result in hours of work, testing can be a major time sink, one that benefits from someone dedicated to the job, according to Hayward. This will not only cut down on lead times when adding new features, but could also uncover issues that developers and designers fail to spot. “You could be focused on how the design works, with different screen resolutions or languages, then a tester comes along, presses all the buttons in a different order, and finds something you wouldn't normally find.”
The submission process can also lead to delays. Kneen told us how agencies often expect an app finished on Friday to go live on Monday. “I have to say that we can submit it on Monday, but it may be ten to 15 days before it can go live.” Apple sometimes rejects apps for peculiar reasons, and you may need to resubmit several times before this reason becomes clear.
One way to work with the time issue is to forget about cramming every last feature into version 1, and focus instead on producing a good, stable version that you can update. “You might get to a point where you have a fully functioning app, but with two missing features that the client wants to add,” said Jason Kneen. “If they hold out they could miss a deadline, and there's no shame in having a version 1 app that does the job, then updating it two days later.”
Nick Kuh agrees this can be a viable approach, with developers “creating an MVP (minimum viable product), then iterating frequent app updates as they learn from their users and improve their product over time”. However, he also sounded a note of caution: “If you're launching a brand-new app based on a great idea then you want your initial offering to be polished at launch.”
Why? Because it's at launch that the app might benefit from press coverage and establish a long-term position in search results, while initial reviews will be more prominent and, in Kuh's words, “more likely to sway new users”. “The better you make your app for launch,” he argued, “the more chance you have of long-term success. Also, submitting a great first version to the App Store gives you your best shot at getting featured by Apple – the holy grail.
An ad for Bizzard's Hearthstone, a card-battling app that pulls in over $20 million a month
The bottom line
Is all this effort worth it? Well, few app developers end up selling up to Facebook for several billion dollars, but all those we spoke to were sustaining a successful business. “There's plenty of work out there,” said Jason Kneen, who became a full-time freelance app developer in 2011 and has been busy ever since.
“It's definitely possible to make a good living from app development if you combine the development of good indie apps with work-for-hire,” agreed Nick Kuh. “I've been developing solely for iOS since 2009, and five years on I'm still inundated with iOS projects and opportunities. I pride myself on the fact that every one of my own apps has earned enough through App Store sales to pay me back for the development time that I originally invested.”
Nick Kuh's Scrabble-style game Wordsy
What's more, there are major opportunities in the enterprise sphere. “From our point of view, the biggest growth has been in business applications,” said Rokk Media's Dainton. “People are starting to see that these devices are really useful on a business level. If they have satellite teams or those going into different areas and different departments, then apps really help with productivity.” It's a market Createanet is also chasing in earnest. “You might not make the next Angry Birds, but you could sell a lot of product into a 2,000-seat business,” said Kevin King.
In short, the gold rush might be over, but it's still possible to make a good living from app development, and keep your hopes of building a breakthrough app alive. It won't be quick or easy, but then building a successful business rarely is.