When to app – the customer view

I wrote a couple of weeks ago to revisit some thoughts about how native apps on devices can differentiate themselves significantly from “mere” websites. I’ve been refining that thinking in advance of a workshop next week to that will help people define and refine concepts for consumer-facing apps.

The starting point is to have a clear understanding of who the customer is, and what it is the publisher is trying to get them to do. That latter part – effectively how are you trying to change behaviours – might require exploration either through asking why? or how? a few times. A change of “buy more products” probably needs to be explored through asking how? a few times. Something lower level like “start a conversation” needs a few whys? (probably inevitably back up to “buy more products” in many cases). Undertpinning all of the rest of this model is the idea that inherently an app (or a website) is trying to change a customer’s behaviours (or maybe maintain their behaviours). If that’s not the aim, then what’s the point? Most apps marketplaces, it has to be said, have their fair share of apps that fall into that latter category.

Once the customer and change objective have been defined, it becomes a matter of working out what things can be mixed-up and combined to both give things to the customer (working to engage the principals of reciprocity – the positive psychological reaction that is provoked when someone gives us something) and also to be able to positively reinforce when the desired behaviours are being demonstrated.

The “things” here can be access to existing products or services, data, processes, and then a whole series of features that can be exploited as a result of being able to deliver a app to a device rather than “merely” a web site: these are the things that can make an app really worthwhile in the eyes of a customer.

First off are (mostly technical) things that can be done which will improve the customer’s experience of interacting with a brand or publisher through technology.

Cope when there’s no network
The “Ballantine/Plank Correlation” (I’m being deliberately tongue in cheek there) states that the smaller the size of a devices’ screen, the more likely the device is to suffer interruptions to network connectivity. If you think about it – a mobile phone these days will frequently be used when there is no network accessible. A desktop computer less so (unless your ISP is playing up). Screen sizes in between kind of sit on a sliding scale.

If an app is being developed, how can it provide a seamless experience to the customer if network connections are likely to be either slow, flakey, or non-existent? Mobile phone email apps are a great example of this; likewise is the communications behemoth Outlook. I find it endlessly frustrating when I install an app (particularly on a phone or tablet) and then can’t use it at all in a place like a tube train in a tunnel.

Do whizzy stuff with device’s capabilities
You can do quite a lot within a browser and HTML5; graphics are increasingly sophisticated; you can understand things about location; you can (to an extent) access a camera or the functions of a touch screen. But if you really want to make a devices’ capabilities sing, then you’re probably going to need to app.

Whether it’s heavy graphics processing in 3D gaming, advanced precision around position for Augmented Reality, or doing smart stuff with video or audio processing, there’s a wealth of innovation opportunity within a local app that just is out of reach for browser-based technologies today and in the foreseeable future.

Speed things up
“Speed” is very perceptual: designing an experience for a customer so that it appears to be fast (or at least doesn’t appear to be slow) can be greatly helped by using local apps to shape that experience.

Take the image-sharing service Instagram, for example. It’s basic activity flow is that a user takes a photo, adds some filters, and then shares it. Mechanically, all of the processing takes place on the local device up until the point of sharing. What that means from a user experience perspective is that there is no great delay in being able to Instagram something, because you aren’t waiting for the uncropped, unfiltered, full-mega-pixel version of the original photo to be uploaded to the web before anything else can happen. When it comes to photos and mobile networks, or video and broadband networks, processing first on the device can make a big difference to the user experience.

Secondly we have things that can be done in apps that make it easier to to business with a brand or publisher:

Easy to get hold of
An app, delivered through an app store or marketplace, gives customers a known route to be able to find and obtain an app that has levels of reassurance that just a website doesn’t, particularly where there is reasonable quality control and vetting of apps being published by the store owners (eg with Windows and iOS).

Easy to pay for
App stores, in app purchasing (and for “free” apps, in-app advertising) make it simpler and easier for customers to financially transact with brands and publishers.

Whilst for bigger brands who produce apps for their customers it might at first seem unlikely that such marketing activities might be charged for in an app marketplace, some brands have a long tradition of creating revenue from selling brand merchandise. In the summer, for example, I spent a few minutes in the CNN Store in Atlanta where all manner of promotional merchandise (clothing, mostly) was available to buy.

Knowing where you are
Whilst it is possible these days for a browser to be able to take basic location information from a user’s device, being able to really take advantage of location is something that is still better achieved through an app. The (maybe mythical) example of notifying a customer when they walk past a particular location (say, offering a discount voucher when you walk past a store) is something that could only really be achieved with an app running on a device.

GPS is a predominant technology for location sensing today, and has some inherent problems – mostly related to roofs. In shopping centres and the like it’s very difficult today to get precise information about where a device actually is. However, technologies like NFC can turn that around by allowing customers to interact with their surroundings (and I’ve noticed quite a few NFC-enabled advertising hoardings springing up around London in recent months). All of this is the sort of thing that you’d need to build an app to achieve.

Because it’s expected
Undoubtedly there are sectors already where customer expect an app as part of a service offering. Airlines and banks spring to mind – and I know people who make choices about such suppliers on the basis of the apps on offer.

The first wave of web in the late 1990s, though, showed what can happen when people develop technology “because everyone else is”. If the only reason why you’re developing an app is because all of your competitors are then hopefully the rest of this framework can help shape something of value on both sides.

The final set of features that can set an app apart from the web are those that create stronger bonds – mostly psychological factors.

Engage in subtle conversation
Much marketing communication is the equivalent of a drunk standing in a noisy bar, shouting at whoever will listen (and mostly at those who won’t). Those models sadly have migrated from the worlds of old media to new in many ways (pop-ups, banners and the like). Email spam is the archetype of when shouty marketing goes really bad.

Websites are something that a customer has to choose to go to; apps offer the opportunity for a more subtle, yet opted-in, form of communication through notification mechanisms that apps can access. This might be in the form of a little icon appearing at the top of a screen, or in Windows’ case the Live Tiles technologies. Think of it as a whisper in the ear of the customer.

Receiving of gifts
Take a look at my blog about Innovation in Retail for more on the psychology behind this, but apps give the brand or publisher the opportunity to give a gift, either in the form of the app itself, or through the activities and features within the app, in a way that is much more tangible and valuable to a customer. Gifts lead to the beginning of reciprocative relationships, and ultimately to greater sales.

Enhancing services
As I’ve explored before when talking about the Client Experience model , the way in which customers and clients perceive the products and services they receive is shaped dramatically by the things that are in the periphery.

I saw a fascinating presentation earlier this week about behavioural economics and how it can impact on brands. One example that the presenter Peter Harrison talked about was the impact that perfume in a retail environment can have on perceptions of the quality of products on sale, and also the quality of customer service offered. Simply – piping perfume into a lingerie shop resulted in a dramatic improvement on both perceptions.

Whilst a website can definitely improve the perception of a brand’s services, apps have the opportunity to take it to the next level through the enhancements of function that can be delivered. Obviously, conversely, a badly implemented or designed app can have a destructive impact too.

To give undivided attention
The final element, an app gives the opportunity to gain the complete attention of the customer by pushing everything else on a device into the background, unlike a website where it can be one of many things running concurrently. Brands needs to think how they can give that undivided attention back – there is a risk that bad app design can lead to a feeling equivalent to the endless hold music of some service desks, or the disinterest customer service rep sitting at a desk.

Underpinning all of this then will be the business objectives that the app is trying to achieve – is it there to enhance an existing service, act as marketing activity, allow for transactions into established “real world” processes, or even to become a stand alone business in its own right? It could be trying to do some or all of those things, and that in turn will then define some choices of technology as a result.

There are a stack of things I haven’t talked about – technicalities in depth, issues around graphic and user interface design, process integration and more. But this is still a very dynamic world and hopefully this framework gives some food for thought when trying to work out when apps are an appropriate way forward, and how to make them great in the eyes of customers too.

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