What Makes an App Successful?

Over the past year, I’ve developed a brief list of the essential qualities that I think make an iOS app successful. Much of it might also apply to “product development” in general, but it is based on my experience as both as an App Store customer and iOS app developer selling in the iTunes App Store. I was able to leave my salaried full-time job in 2011 and have been supporting myself by developing and releasing my own apps.

1. Be useful

Usefulness is value. For me, as a developer, this comes first because, ultimately, the Value you provide to your users represents your integrity.

Value can be created by some identifiable user need or by technological innovation. In the case of technological innovation, the hurdle you’ll face later on is the need to quickly and easily communicate how this new thing is going to be relevant to them, i.e, “I didn’t know I needed it until I saw it!”

2. Make people happy

Usefulness alone will not make a great app: Is the app a pleasure to use? Is it at least easy to use and understand? Do users love it? Really?

Read user reviews for popular apps and you’ll see that the word “love” shows up a lot. Users who feel this strongly about an app now have a vested interest in it; they “own it” in spirit and will spontaneously and passionately be advocates for it on your behalf.

If you’ve come up with a useful app but no one likes using it, then what you have is “medicine” and you’ll hear about that too. A colleague once bemoaned that people only review or rate apps they hate. Wrong. Users only rate apps they feel strongly about. Have you ever seen an app with an overwhelming number of three star reviews?

Traditionally, this area of development is encompassed by a cluster of design fields: user experience (UX), interface (GUI), usability, interaction, graphic, game, typography, sound design, etc…

3. Get people’s attention

There are over 750,000 apps in the App Store so this is the most important thing an app needs to do when it launches. People can only download the apps that they’ve noticed. At a minimum, this can be done by having an attention-grabbing icon and name.

People’s first response to something is emotional, not intellectual. Everything you show has to first pass this test. It doesn’t matter how useful, well-thought-out, easy or fun your app is; an app that isn’t desirable will sink faster than a stone because it failed to inspire people to want it.

Finally, once you’ve got their attention you need to communicate your app’s worth and relevance to them in just a few seconds. That means great screenshots, feature bullet points, and reviewer and user quotes. If this passes the their muster—and the price is right—then congratulations, you’ve earned a (hopefully) happy customer.

This is branding and marketing. However, marketing isn’t a bunch of press releases and ads that are sent out after an app is created, and branding isn’t a logo you slap on your app as it goes out the door. Both begin when you start to define your app and continue throughout the whole development process.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to send me your thoughts.

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