Whenever I find a good article, I like to share it with my friends. Such is the case in this post on creating “Blockbuster Mobile Apps”. Jeana Lee Tahnk with Mashable does a great job as usual.
In an ever expanding and increasingly competitive mobile app marketplace, it’s becoming harder for developers to create apps that stand out for being more entertaining, engaging and worthy of consumers’ attention and money. There are approximately 350,000 apps in iTunes, 65,000 in the Android marketplace, and thousands more being developed as we speak. Whether an app is the brainchild of two parents who want to entertain their daughter, or a creation from a huge developing house, there’s no telling exactly how an app will fare once it hits the open market.
So, what exactly does it take to create a killer app? A good idea, focus, determination and lots of luck certainly help. But there are other factors that up-and-comers can glean from seasoned developers who have been there, done that, and done it well.
I had the opportunity to speak with a handful of leading app developers in the mobile marketplace — established leaders whose products in iTunes consistently top either the highest-grossing or most-downloaded lists. These developers know their stuff, and generously gave a sneak peek into what it takes to create a blockbuster app. Remember, to be the best, you have to learn from the best. Here’s what they had to say.
Customize for the Device
The experience that a gamer has on an iPhone compared to a gaming console is dramatically different. Developers need to be aware of the limitations a smaller screen has on the overall experience and create apps that are designed for the particular device. Engaging with a game should be easy and seamless for users, and according to Jason Kapalka, co-founder and chief creative officer at PopCap Games, Inc., it’s important to remember that “iPhones aren’t PCs or consoles.” Seems glaringly obvious, but what developers often overlook is that people use apps on their mobile devices much differently than they do on a more interactive gaming device like the Wii or Xbox.
“When we built Bejeweled and Plants vs. Zombies for the iPhone, we spent a lot of time making sure the controls felt right on the touchscreen. There are lots of iPhone and iPad games that have amazing graphics and great depth, but if the controls are awkward or frustrating on a touchscreen device, none of that matters.”
See the Potential for the Platform
Rob Murray, CEO of Firemint Pty Ltd and developer of Flight Control, urges developers to not only take the platform’s limitations into consideration, but more importantly, look beyond the limitations to see where the potential lies. “Why do people want to play a particular type of game on this device? What makes it more compelling than a desktop or console?”
Murray is a huge proponent of identifying what the device can do for your app and not the other way around. “Take Flight Control and the iPhone. We embraced the touch screen and used it to great effect. The control scheme is intuitive, elegant and accessible and takes advantage of the ability to interact directly with the game.” Taking a feature like the touch screen and maximizing its ability to add to the user experience can make engagement that much more profound. Murray adds, “With each advance in mobile technology comes the potential to do something unique.”
Make it Personal
Most great inventions are born from a personal need or desire, and Dave Castelnuovo, from Bolt Creative and co-creator of Pocket God, thinks that app development is no different. In many cases, developers are so focused on filling a niche in the market or creating something that they think will be successful, but don’t take into consideration what they personally would seek in an app experience. “The game industry is a hit-driven business and requires you to make a connection with the audience,” Castelnuovo says. “You can make that connection much stronger by creating something that you naturally respond to instead of guessing how someone else will receive it.”
Once you have something that hits you on a personal level, you can have more confidence in putting it on the market. If it speaks to you, there’s a good chance that it will for others as well. At the same time, Castelnuovo advises developers against agonizing over every single decision. Create a good quality product and set the bar high, but leave room for adaptability and know when to move on. “The original Pocket God app only took us one week to develop and was only meant to be a stepping stone onto bigger and better things. Since we didn’t have expectations for it, I think it freed us to do something unique.”
Get Feedback Early On
Semyon Voinov, a creative director at ZeptoLab and one of the creators of the wildly successful Cut the Rope apps, stresses the importance of getting the app out to as many people as possible from the early stages of development. Once the app is in their hands, observe how they interact with it and analyze what doesn’t seem to be working. “When you notice your friend is not in a hurry to return your device, you are on a good track,” adds Voinov.
Prototype, prototype, prototype. Don’t keep development under cloak and dagger. Showing the app to friends and family from the get-go will give you a better sense of the collective feedback, and you can tweak the app as it is being developed and come out with a more refined product in the end. The key is to customize the process at every stage, expose it to everyone you know and get the feedback before it is released to the public.
Go big or go home is the decree of Bart Decrem, SVP and General Manager of Disney Mobile, and co-founder of Tapulous. Building an app with a big audience in mind positions it well for wider adoption and greater chance for success. What worked for Decrem and his Tap Tap Revenge team was creating an app that they thought was fun, engaging and would appeal to a huge potential fan base. Offering interactive experiences on-the-go, appealing to both iOS and Android users and building an inherently intuitive interface made the team confident in their chances for success.
“Not only is the app [Tap Tap Revenge 4] free, but when we pick the music for the game and launch new music on an ongoing basis, we match it with what’s hot on the iTunes charts so we can have the biggest reach possible. At the end of the day, the most important thing to consider when developing a mobile app is your audience.”
Nothing in life is free, but au contraire, sometimes a really good app is. To get maximum exposure, you need to make your app available to the masses early on to get the early adoption rates and word-of-mouth buzz off the ground. You know you have a killer app on your hands, but no one else does, so you have to spread the word. They say that money talks, but in the app world, free talks.
Michael Bevin, co-founder of CandyCane LLC, and designer of top-selling games Fling! and Fuzzlefully supports the freemium model, at least initially. “Having made a great game, you still need to get it exposure somehow — whether by doing some kind of deal, giving it away for free initially, or at least having a free version.” You can eventually add more features and put a price on the app, but having a free version makes it more available to consumers to at least test out and see if it’s worth putting the money down.
Listen to Your Customers
You may have serious designs for what you want your app to be, but along with that must come flexibility and adaptability to your customers’ needs. If you look in iTunes and read ratings for apps, time and time again, customers get irritated when common complaints about the app are not addressed in subsequent version upgrades. That is a sure fire way to lose customers and quickly fall into iTunes oblivion.
Philippe Kahn, CEO of Fullpower Technologies, Inc., the maker of MotionX GPS, states that the company “spends considerable energy to differentiate, and focus on quality and customer support.” When you are dedicated to constantly innovating your technology and incorporating feedback, consumers respond and appreciate the concerted effort, which in turn creates a more loyal customer.
Delight the User
Among the hundreds and thousands of apps available in iTunes, there has to be something unique about yours that makes it stand out. For Dave Lieb, co-founder and CEO of Bump Technologies, Inc., and creator of the ever popular Bump application, offering something amazing is a primary criterion for creating a killer app. “The app has to delight the user in some way, it has to provide real value or entertainment in a way that isn’t transient.”
When users are delighted, they will tell their friends about it and word-of-mouth is a crucial part of any app’s success. Bump is the eighth most downloaded iOS app of all time in the U.S. and Lieb credits its users as having everything to do with that level of success. “We spent a total of $42 on marketing to create our original YouTube demo video: $22 for black felt for a backdrop and $20 for a pack of video tapes for a borrowed camera.” That’s a true testament to how powerful a delighted user can be in extending your brand for you.
Have a Vision
You may have a great idea, but you need to think beyond it and anticipate how the app will change behavior in a real-world setting. When SoundHound, Inc. began creating its innovative eponymoussound recognition app, they applied the need to an everyday occurrence and envisioned how users would interact with the technology they wanted to unleash.
“How many times have you hoped a radio DJ would repeat the name of the song you just heard, or have had a song stuck in your head that you didn’t know the name of?” asks Kathleen McMahon, vice president at SoundHound. The team envisioned these scenarios and set out to create a mobile solution and set a new bar for music recognition.
Creating an app that has a useful context and provides utility, in addition to entertainment, is SoundHound’s driving success. It’s all about vision. McMahon states clearly, “Know what you are trying to achieve. Are you going to be a one-hit wonder or tour de force? You can be either. However, if you answer, ‘I’m not sure,’ then question getting into the game at all. Killer apps are built on vision, not passivity.”
Never Give Up
Tenacity, persistence and never giving up are big reasons why these developers have achieved their stratospheric levels of success. Not surprisingly, nearly all of them included this likely, yet important piece of advice in their responses: Developers need to have the patience to continually ask themselves what is going to make their app better. In this crowded marketplace, an app needs to somehow stand out to get recognized. “Emphasize design and functionality. Quality cannot be overstated. Savvy consumers quickly identify the best products and if you truly offer something outstanding, the market will react,” says Jenny Kang, lead designer at AllAboutApps and creator ofAppBox Pro.
Ed Williams, VP of mobile applications at Excelltech Inc., the maker of the clever Fake-A-Call app concurs. “Don’t give up. Refine your idea until it can be easily implemented, and have a list of advanced features you can add with updates if your first release is well-received.” And although he never anticipated Fake-A-Call having such mass appeal, Williams is intent on releasing frequent updates, addressing customer concerns, always keeping the app relevant — and never giving up.