5 Factors of Mobile Application Success

A member of my team was asked to evaluate the potential success of a client’s mobile application. In order to understand what “makes or breaks” any given app, she analyzed the successes and failures of a number of branded mobile apps. From this qualitative research, she identified five factors that will predict the success or failure of a branded app, outlined below:

1. Entertainment factor. One of the most important criteria of rating mobile applications is whether or not it’s entertaining. This can also be looked at as novelty – is the app clever enough to catch the user’s attention, even if just for a short time? App stores are filled with applications that have tried hard to be clever and entertaining but have failed miserably.

One of the best examples of a branded application that was developed to be nothing more than entertaining and clever (while engaging users in the brand itself) is the Virtual Zippo Lighter app. The app contains an image of a lighter that opens and turns on when the user flicks her wrist while holding an iPhone, and was primarily marketed to live music enthusiasts. As evidence of the near-perfect union of entertainment factor, innovative use of technology, and brand experience, the Zippo app landed in the Top 20 downloaded list within the first year of its launch.

On the other end of the spectrum is the LongHorn Steakhouse branded app, featuring the image of a steak on a grill. Users can flip the steak and hear the meat sizzle, but this is the extent of the experience. There were several missed opportunities here: restaurant locator, a “call ahead” feature to reserve your desired steak, even a link to the restaurant website would have improved the engagement of this app.

2. Utility factor. Beyond sheer entertainment value, brands have the opportunity to use an application to provide a valuable utility. This is definitely a sweet spot for mobile marketing, as it ensures that users will continue to interact with an application long after the entertainment value has worn off.

For example, Charmin sponsored the existing SitOrSquat app, which enables users to find and record information about bathrooms anywhere in the world. Similar to the Virtual Zippo Lighter, Charmin’s SitOrSquat represents a near-perfect synergy of brand messaging and consumer need – with an entertainment factor based in novelty.

Pepsi attempted to provide a mobile application that was both utilitarian and entertaining with 2009’s “AMP UP Before You Score” app. “The app gives pick-up lines and tips to help men seduce 24 female stereotypes, such as the cougar, the artist and the bookworm.” (“Killer Apps: Worst Branded Mobile Applications,” Forbes.com, 2009.) Instead of engaging consumers, however, it drew heavy criticism and was quickly removed from the App Store.

3. Usability factor. A successful application is the result of a significant investment in understanding and implementing the user experience. The best apps in this category create an interface that is seamless with content, features, and the device itself. Those that succeed in creating a seamless user experience are often taken for granted; however, those that fail are harshly criticized. It is easy for application designers to fall into a trap of over-designing; forgetting the user experience mantra that “intuitive is familiar.” (“iPhone app design mistakes,” Smashing Magazine, July 21, 2009.)

4. Functionality factor. Mobile applications should not simply replicate a website – this is what mobile-optimized websites are for. Instead, mobile apps should take advantage of all the inherent features and functionality of the mobile device, such as GPS, camera, and motion sensor.

The Barnes and Noble application enables users to browse through the online store and purchase directly through the app – typical for most retailers. However, the most impressive (and helpful) aspect of the app is that it leverages the phone’s camera, allowing users to search for books, DVDs, and CDs by taking pictures of the items. The app then provides a link to purchase digitally or will locate the item in the nearest store.

5. Maintenance factor. An application should be considered a long-term investment with a lifecycle almost as long as the average branded website. This means regular updates should be factored into a comprehensive maintenance plan. Updates can range from new content pushes to code adjustments (dependent on the OS update schedule).

Ensuring that your application meets more than one of the above factors will stack the odds of your application succeeding.

Based on “Five Factors of Mobile Application Success,” by Sunni Thompson.

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