Your App is But a Bead in an Etch A Sketch

When you were a kid did you ever break apart an Etch A Sketch to see what was inside? I did. What I found was thousands, maybe millions of silver bead-like balls and a whole lot of dust.

Today when I was searching for a new iPad case I came across this case:

Looking at the case I thought about those all those tiny aluminum beads from my childhood and as I glanced at the apps on the screen I couldn’t help but draw a correlation between those beads and how they represented the apps on your iPad, or even more accurately the number of apps in the app store. Currently there are over 425,000 iPhone apps available for the iPhone, 90,000 available for the iPad, and 250,000 in Android Market. That is a whole lot of apps to get lost in for both the app developer and the end user.

I am fortunate as I have great exposure to people in the industry so before I even have to search for an app in the app store, I hear about the latest and greatest from someone on twitter. In fact word of mouth is where I get most of my suggestions for app downloads. I find that if I spend too much time looking in the app store I get lost, board or distracted and end up not downloading anything at all. I often turn to app review sites for suggestions, but even those, as of late, have become cumbersome to weed through.

For now my house is a single mobile OS house, but I know several families that use multiple devices that run different operating systems which makes it even more daunting to find apps. So what makes an app sticky? What is it about that particular grain of aluminum that gets sucked to the surface and carves it’s place in the app store and ultimately your device’s screen? I think what attracts people to an app is going to be different for everyone, but mainly will be influenced by good marketing hype and word of mouth. Beyond the cleverly sound-tracked commercials and the good word of my colleagues, my top 10 criteria when choosing an app are:

1. Have a great avatar. I come from an background of working with incredible designers so I have little patience for a poorly designed app avatar. I especially hate the ones that have illegible fonts, bad color palettes, pixel-ated images or are completely irrelevant to your app. I skim right over those. The way I see it, if you don’t take the time to make your cover look good the rest of your app probably looks like crap too.

2. Show more than one preview screen. When I am downloading an app, especially an educational app for my kids, I want to see at least a handful of screens to make sure it is age appropriate for them and that there is enough variety to keep their interest. One single image cannot show that. Also I feel like if a developer is afraid to show more than one screen, what are they hiding? A bad app…probably.

3. Price. If an app is overpriced I also skim right by it. For instance, unless it is a book, I rarely spend more than $1.99 on an app. If there is higher priced app that looks interesting and is not a necessity, I often wait as I have seen several apps go down in price over time. It is the same cardinal rule I use when shopping at Anthropologie, no matter how much you love it, WAIT! It will likely go on sale. In fact I just picked up a lovely must have pair of $250 jeans for $69.95 because I waited. Now not all apps will come down in price, so the one you have your eye on doesn’t within a reasonable amount of time, and you still love it, then pull the trigger. I have been known to break my own rule if I have gotten a great word of mouth review of an app or those jeans made my ass look fabulous.

4. Free Lite Versions- Although it can be a pain to download a free version with ads only to download the full version later, sometimes it is a great way to test drive an app. I can’t tell you how many times I bought an app only to be disappointed. If only they had displayed more screen captures, dammit! One thing I really love about books in iBooks is that offer previews. The other day I downloaded the 100 first pages of a book that I was able to start reading before deciding to buy the whole thing. I am glad I did, because I hated the book.

5. Have a website to support your app with instructions, features, update information and access to other apps if you have them. If you don’t take the time to put together a basic website to support your users they will not become repeat customers. Also, it gives you a great opportunity to showcase other apps. I have been known to buy multiple apps from a developer because I saw other apps on their site. A great example is Duck Duck Moose.

6. Don’t charge me for updates. If you have satisfied users they are going to tell more people about your app and give you better reviews which will lead to more revenue over time. If there is one thing I have learned in my career it is DO NOT NICKLE and DIME! One great app that I have for my kids, is Pre-School Adventure Island. Sure the music and voice overs are annoying, but they have done significant updating to the content, free of charge, keeping my 3 year old very happy which makes me happy. Angry Birds is also a great example of this.

7. Use my familiarity with your app to your advantage. Not to highlight Duck Duck Moose again, but this is probably the greatest example of re-using content well. Their apps often share characters, graphics, fonts and even voice overs. They do it in such a way that you don’t feel cheated by the re-use of imagery because the layouts, music, and flow are all unique to each app experience. The ex-project manager in me can’t help but think of how much time/money they are saving on efficiency by re-using materials! I also like that my son recognizes and knows how to use each new app that comes out without me having to show him.

9. I like when apps connect to an out-of-app experience. For instance there are several color and draw apps that allow import and export of images from your photo library. My son loves that he can save the pictures he makes to my photo library and then show them to my husband later. He especially likes to do this in the app the Faces I Make. It is sort of like the new refrigerator art and his little proud badge of honor.

9. I like apps that have push notifications. I have said it before, I am a fan. I know some people don’t like them, but I use them as my personal secretary and they make me a more efficient mobile user. Sometimes they help me to remember that an an app exists, alert me to new content or notify me when someone else is interacting with me through an app. Ip think it is a must for apps moving forward. People can always turn them off if they don’t like them, but I think they especially help an app stand out amongst all the other millions of little aluminum beads behind that screen.

10. If you are going to sell me something let me buy it in the app without opening up Safari or the app store. Recently I was really excited about the Google Catalog App as one review touted in-app purchase capabilities. It was damn lie. There was a “Buy on Website” button which launched Safari. I had to wait for the site to load, then I could choose my size, quantity eg… once it all over and time to pay my impulse to buy was over. I understand intimately how e-commerce works as I managed the execution of many a shopping site in my day and it is never easy to implement one. Beyond needing a great design and user experience, there are complexities of integrating inventory management systems, merchant accounts and shipping and tax laws to consider. However, I tell ya, someone would be wise to figure out fully integrated one-click mobile shopping mall experience soon because it is only a matter of time before our mobile devices replace our wallets. When that happens people are not going to want to wait for a site to load to buy a dress. I am personally holding out hope for the time in human advancement when you simply wish for something and it appears. I just hope we don’t all get fat like all the characters in Wall-E.

So that is how I do my app shopping. How about you? What makes an app worth purchasing to you?

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