Everyone is going mobile now. You hear this everyday and feel the pressure to build mobile apps that support your business, engage your customers and set you apart.

There is no doubt that the mobile market is red hot and that there is a lot of energy to “just do something” and see what happens. While tempting, you’re not going to rush ahead and just build a “science experiment,” a toy app or another social media app. Instead, you want to do it right and are probably asking yourself these kinds of critical questions.

Do we really need a mobile app?
What should the app do?
How will it fit in with everything else we are doing?
How do we ensure that people will use it?
How much should it cost?

There is no one answer to these questions, but we can share what we have seen in other situations and explain how Ballast Lane Applications can help.

Step 1: Pick Your Mobile Opportunity

You probably already have lots of ideas for mobile apps to support sales, marketing, product, customer service and other areas. You can’t do them all — some you shouldn’t do — so where do you start? Based on our experience, we see three good criteria filters to frame the discussions on where to go mobile.

Ballast Lane Insight

Good mobile applications for your business will make it through three screens: is it good for business, is it a fit for mobile, and can you build it.

Mobile apps that provide strategic value fit into one (or more) of three business driver categories. This is the first and most important filter since you won’t be able to justify the budget to build a really great mobile app without one.

Business Driver 1: Earn the right to communicate with prospects

  • Give away a useful tool to potential customers to start engagement
  • Provide current customers with research, location, coupons, peer insight etc.
  • Open feedback channels through polls, blogs and rating systems

Business Driver 2: Give your current customers more tools

  • Provide product catalogs to help customers find exactly what they need
  • Engage product fans to help make the product better (e.g., site surveys)

Business Driver 3: Re-purpose existing assets

  • Translate a media (books, audio, reports etc.) into apps for new revenues
  • Make customer data accessible in new ways that delight your customers

Business Driver 4: Improve internal and external processes

  • Increase casual employee contributions (e.g., information gathering)
  • Regular employee productivity, information delivery etc.

If you still have some ideas (which of course you will!), now make sure that they are a good fit for mobile devices.

Mobile Fit Screen

Apps optimized for mobile can do some really great things — especially if they take advantage of the device’s unique capabilities. Here a few of the general criteria that make an app idea a good fit for mobile:

  1. Uses unique device capabilities such as location, camera and contacts
  2. Takes advantage of the device’s proximity to lower the barrier to usage
  3. Adds to the user’s current activities through sensing context
  4. Provides a reason to come back to the app regularly
  5. Has functionality that spans browsers and other devices

Ability to Execute Screen

The last screen to apply to your top app ideas is whether or not you can actually make something great. Do you have the content? Can you develop an app that users will “get” right away? Do you have the support processes in place to keep the app up-to-date and effective?

You’ll know you have a great app candidate if it scores well on all three screens.

Ballast Lane Offer

We can work collaboratively with your team to pick the best place to start, expand and complete your mobile app strategy.

Step 2: Design and Architecture

OK, now you have an app that you want to build, a rough idea of its key functions and how it will support your business. Next up is the design phase which will now make or break your mobile project.

Isn’t product design always a “make or break” step? Yes, but with mobile apps it’s even more important. Users are accustomed to outstanding, beautiful and useful mobile apps (mail, social media, games etc.) and are thus even quicker to lose patience with poor design or functionality. Additionally, mobile design is more challenging because it’s all about removing complexity, anticipating needs and cleverly allowing users to explore deeper into the app on their own without guidance.

Ballast Lane Insight

Winston Churchill’s saying “I am sorry this letter is so long, but I didn’t have time to write a short one,” applies perfectly to the challenge of mobile design.

Design Steps and Best Practices

Design Steps Best Practices
Wire frame & paper-prototype
  • Design for thumbs and fingers
  • Don’t rely on help or instructions
  • Leverage common nav flows
  • Design for all device types
User feedback and testing
  • Live focus groups to test concept
  • User surveys to prioritize functions
Content creation and formatting
  • Design complete content model
  • Think through content management
  • Create complete test set
User interface design
  • Single color palette and graphic style
  • Rethink navigation flow
  • Focus on fit and finish
Second round of user testing
  • You will be surprised by people’s likes
  • You will be surprised by people’s dislikes
Final design documentation
  • Write out key algoritms
  • Specify APIs & data model
  • Don’t go overboard

This process yields a design that developers can begin to code against.

Step 3: Build Collaboratively

This is where the fun starts — seeing your vision becomes something you can start using and sharing.

We have team members (primarily Boston-based) who will quickly build alpha, beta and release versions of your mobile app and any server-side functionality required. They work on several projects simultaneously which keeps innovation high and downtime low.

Ballast Lane Offer

We can build your mobile app with the right-sized team that works on several projects simultaneously so that our speed matches yours.

Typical Team

Designer and Project Manager who designs the overall app and works with the client and team to make it happen.

Mobile Programmers who are experts in iOS or Android who build the app leveraging approaches and libraries from previous projects.

Server-side Programmers generally skilled in PHP/ MySQL and HTML/ CSS.

User Interface Designer who is an artist and a doer (a hugely valuable combination!) who puts together the look and feel and builds the graphics assets used by the app.

Productivity Tools

A major benefit to developers today are the great tools available for project support and increased productivity. Here are a few that we use everyday:

We like these tools because they are easy to use and really inexpensive. By working with us, your team will learn how to use these tools too.

The Boston Advantage

Boston has a strong mobile developer community with many talented professionals who are building their own apps and also working with others to build theirs. The educational opportunities, tech meet-ups, and other forums means lots of information sharing and innovation. We like this environment and think it makes sense to use these local resources.

Ballast Lane Insight

Local teams composed of professionals connected to the wealth of Boston’s mobile community help keep our app development work at the cutting edge.

Step 4: Market and Promote

Congratulations, you are now well on your way to harnessing the value of your mobile strategy. Now it’s time to share the good news about your new mobile app and entice customers and others to give it a try.

Building awareness is a process with many steps and many options. However, whatever the plan, it needs to start the first day of your project with design choices that allow users to easily learn about and share your app through free access to a great “starter” content, multiple reasons to share and easy ways to provide feedback.

Ballast Lane Insight

Most people learn about mobile apps from their friends — often by using someone else’s phone to check out the app for the first time.

Once the app is available, include an info link (or smartphone QR Code) in all your existing media – emails, advertising, collateral, events, etc. These links need to go to sites with authentic reviews, discussions, and feedback from the peers of those investigating your app.

The best way to get that “authentic” conversation started is to reach out directly to your best customers to ask for their participation. Next ask your industry partners to assess the utility and business models and add their own spin. Be prepared to listen and re-think your strategy. Finally, start a dialogue with your market’s “Influencers,” journalist and Bloggers. They’ll only pay attention when they see a groundswell of interest from the groups you reached out to initially.

As you are thinking about the messages that will get your user’s attention, you can find inspiration in the Magnificent 7 of Mobile:

  1. Mobile is available anytime — all the time
  2. Mobile is personalizable exactly the way the user wants
  3. Mobile provides the perfect tool at exactly the right time
  4. Mobile is great for local information and alerts
  5. Mobile provides Instant gratification to engage or buy
  6. Mobile is customer service with 1-click-to-call
  7. Mobile can deliver immersive media

There really are no hard and fast rules or “magic bullets” to the above. The most important thing about promotion is to get creative and remember to be polite by always waiting for your users to opt-in.

Ballast Lane Offer

We believe in our clients success and are willing to enter into risk-sharing arrangements for marketing and sales projects.