Feel like your small business needs a mobile app to stay competitive and relevant, but not sure where to start? Here's what you need to know.
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Australians are in love with mobile phones and mobile apps. In that context, it can seem like developing a mobile app for your business is an essential step. With online sales in Australia topping $246 billion in 2012-2013 (according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics) and more than 76 per cent of Australians accessing online services via their mobile phone (according to the Australian Communications and Media Authority), some sort of mobile strategy seems essential. However, careful planning is required to make sure you can get value from your investment.
Make sure you really need (and can afford) an app
Make sure you can answer the most basic question: Why does my business need a mobile app? If the only answer is "Because I think it would be cool", that's not sufficient justification. If the main answer is "because everyone else is building one", you also need to think carefully. While it's true that if everyone else in your sector has an app and you don't you might look sluggish, it's also true that there may be more effective ways of differentiating yourself from rivals.
The most common reasons for having a mobile app are often the same as setting up a web site: to provide basic information about a business (such as product range and opening hours) and to offer online sales. In both cases, you may be better off relying on your existing site, rather than building new and separate apps. You only have limited technology resources, so you need to deploy wisely.
If your current site doesn't render well on mobile phones, consider shifting to responsive design, which is designed to effectively scale down from laptop or desktop use to tablets and phones. If your site doesn't have a responsive design, chances are it's overdue for a redesign anyway!
Choose which platforms you'll target
If you can make the case for paying someone to build an app for your business, one fundamental decision you'll need to make is which platform you'll build for. The Australian smartphone market is dominated by two platforms: iOS (for the iPhone) and Android (for Samsung, HTC, Sony, LG, Motorola, Huawei and others). Ideally, you'll build apps for both platforms — that way you'll reach the most potential customers.
Obviously, that pushes up the costs involved, so you may be tempted to just develop for one phone platform. (When that happens, it's often the platform you use yourself.) We'd advise against that unless you have specific evidence that your customers overwhelmingly use one rather than the other — and even then, you need to be cautious that you don't accidentally limit your customer base.
Search online and ask for references
There are a number of tactics which you can use to try and locate a suitable developer:
- Ask for recommendations from other business owners you know, and from industry associations. This has the advantage of letting you find out not just the kind of apps a given developer or studio produces, but also how easy they are to interact with.
- Check the credits for apps you admire. The vast majority of business apps will be built by third-party studios, and these studios will usually be credited in the relevant app store (the iTunes App Store for iOS, Google Play for Android). Some studios may have rates higher than you want to pay, or be unwilling to take on smaller clients, but you won't know unless you ask.
- Search online freelancer hiring services such as Freelancer.com and Elance, both of which have large pools of developers willing to bid on specific projects. You'll feel overwhelmed by choice here, so seek out developers with a track record in business apps. Developers from offshore will undoubtedly be cheaper — that's the reality of modern app development.
Once you have a target list of potential developers, contact them and seek out two specific details:
- Examples of previous apps they have worked on
- References from previous clients
Note that to get this information from online hiring markets like Freelancer or Elance, you'll generally need to post a specific project — you can't just ask for references cold. Either way, the most important part of the process is the final element we'll discuss: writing as detailed a brief as you can.
Be as specific in your brief as you can
Hiring a developer and saying "I need an app" is asking for trouble. The more detail you can provide, the better. This is a non-exhaustive list of issues to include in your brief:
- Which platforms will be supported?
- Which features will the app include (e.g. location list, product list, online ordering, access to existing small business blog)
- Can the app easily be connected to existing business systems (e.g. for tracking inventory?)
- How will relevant business graphics be incorporated?
- What format will data used for the app be supplied in?
Precision also extends to what developers charge. Committing to a per-hour rate for a developer without a clear estimate of how long the project will take is asking for trouble. A fixed-price rate is a better bet — but be clear about what will be delivered as a result, and what charges will be associated with any changes or updates.
Managing an app development process isn't easy, but with tenacity and attention to detail, you can get improve customer satisfaction and expand your markets. Good luck!
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