Digital Transformation , Strategy — 10.25.2018

Do You Really Need an App?

I’ve heard it time and time again: “I think we need an app.” It is a natural progression — a company sees an opportunity, and so the knee-jerk solution is to build an app that will take their business to the next level. But how do you know that an expensive, labor-intensive app is actually what your company needs?

For every company you read about in Inc that builds a successful app, there are dozens littering the App Store graveyard because they weren’t maintained or didn’t solve the right problems. The last thing you want to do as a successful business is to have your first foray into the digital space create a negative impression.

As easy as it may be to ask for an app that will be your game-changer when you feel this urge coming on it is important to take a step back, identify the root of what you want this app to accomplish, and evaluate your options. In this article, I will describe four common scenarios facing some of my best clients. They started thinking an app was the answer, but after slowing down and digging deeper, realized that there was a better way to achieve their business goals.

Scenario 1: You have internal software that you want to start selling externally

I recently worked with a client in the insurance business, and they wanted to improve the internal software their agents used to sell and calculate insurance premiums. Many businesses might look at this as an opportunity to create an app so that customers could bypass insurance agents entirely and, thus sell more software cheaply.

No brainer!

However, they were keenly aware that part of the reason their customers bought their insurance is the customer service they received from their agents. Taking those people out of the equation would have negated any gains they made with more automated software.

Rather than leap to building an expensive app that may create a worse situation, they partnered with us to research the problems their agents had with their software. What followed was a more thorough design phase that revamped their existing system with a modern UI and workflow. Building an app would have undercut the value that they provided for their customers and hurt business. By digging into the problem, this client changed course and spent their money on something valuable.

Takeaway: Take time researching to understand why customers value you before building a digital product. This will help ensure you don’t undercut your value.

Scenario 2: You want to bring an existing product to a new market

When you’re going after a new market, it may be tempting to build an entirely new app. After all, it is a new audience with new needs, right?

Not so fast. Does this audience actually need an entirely new product? Or, do they just require a handful of new features, or a new position in the market?

We had a client facing this same challenge, and instead of investing the time, money, and resources into creating a new product, we helped them prioritize additional features that their existing product needed. That was coupled with an effective brand hierarchy that helped attract the right customers to the right feature set. The positioning and branding around the additional features gave the impression of a new app, but without the extra workload on long-term maintenance costs.

New markets may ultimately be served by a new product. But it’s smart to explore other possibilities first. This will lead you to find solutions with lower operational costs, while giving you more information about what is resonating or not in the new market.

Takeaway: Explore opportunities in positioning and packaging before investing in new development.

Scenario 3: You need to improve internal processes

Inefficient or ineffective internal processes is a recurring problem in large companies, and it might be easy to assume that the only way to find an app that fixes those problems is to build one yourself.

But before you go running to the dev shop, how can you be sure that you’ve exhausted all avenues and the product you’re looking for really isn’t out there? When partnering with clients in these situations, we start with scouting the landscape and doing a deep dive into the market to see if there is something already out there. Often times there is. While spending money and time to dig into what’s available may seem hard to accept at first, it’s certainly cheaper than spending six figures building a custom solution that will become outdated in a year.

On the other hand, you may find that you absolutely do need to build a custom app. But the wonderful byproduct of doing up-front research is that your opinion and vision will be much better informed. As a result, you’ll end with a better solution.

Takeaway: Building apps to solve internal organizational challenges can be solved in many ways. But it should always start with better market research, landscaping for best practice, and internal research to fully understand what the biggest problems are.

Scenario 4: You need to get funding for a new product idea

If you need funding for a new digital product, it is easy to assume that you have to build a prototype for the pitch. It’s all too common to have someone come to us with a clunky, hard-to-use product because they threw money at a development shop to build anything they could use in a presentation.

A common misconception is that a working prototype is the best way to pitch or sell a digital idea. This is not always true. When Tony Fadall was first pitching the Nest thermostat, he used a round styrofoam model for his prototype. He wanted the focus on the opportunity and vision, and a clunky hardly-working prototype wasn’t going to help his case.

Instead of charging full speed ahead on your new idea, you guessed it: pump the brakes. Treat this new app as if its a startup; create a pitch deck, plan it out, design it, and socialize it internally. Not only will you have an easier time getting buy-in if the app actually does come to life, but you will have a much clearer roadmap of what you want this app to accomplish, who you’re creating it for, and what value you’re providing.

Takeway: Again, an app might be the best approach for your idea but it should start with a pitch and concept to refine and socialize it first.

Each of these scenarios is completely valid, and our clients’ desire to build an app comes from good intentions — they truly want to address a problem or opportunity they see within their company. But the greatest intentions don’t always yield the best results.

When you pause to evaluate your options you may still come to the conclusion that an app is the solution to your problem, but you will be better equipped with knowledge to ensure that every step of the way, you are making the best decision for your company.