Blog Post

What Is the Secret of Mobile App Success?

When it comes to mobile applications, user experience is key to their success. As an investor, I get to see several new apps a week and I can’t tell you how many of their UIs are cluttered and fail to make clear the crux of their value fast enough.

Meanwhile, as an end user, I’ve started spending more time on my mobile device than on my laptop. Whether it’s for checking email, doing a web search, getting directions, reading blogs, looking at photos, listening to music or something else, my mobile device has become my preferred computing device. The reason? The mobile apps I use take me to their most valuable features faster than their respective desktop applications do. And to get there, I don’t even need two fingers — just my thumb. Some examples include:

  • Flixster: The first menu item is “Movies I Want to See.” Instant gratification.
  • Google Reader: Takes me to a directory where I can see all my unread posts or view them by category. Great.
  • Pandora: Resumes the channel that I was playing when I exited the app the last time. Perfect.
  • INRIX Traffic! (full disclosure: Venrock is an investor) Zooms in to where I am and displays traffic flow and information about any surrounding incidents. Excellent.
  • Gowalla: Locates places nearby and lets me check in to the one at which I’ve just arrived. Done.
  • Echofon: Shows the latest stream of tweets in reverse chronological order and sets my screen at the oldest unread one. Perfect.

Conversely, while I like these mobile apps, I wish they did a better job:

  • LinkedIn: While the latest release of the LinkedIn iPhone app is a huge step up from its previous version, what you get now is a laundry list of functionality to pick from, including “Status,” “Connections,” “Favorites,” “Invitations,” “Themes” and more. Why not pick one of these items as the first screen to drop users into?
  • Tripit: I love this app, but why not drop me into my current trip immediately instead of showing me a menu listing all of them?

I think that in a way, the wired web has spoiled developers: It’s given them too much real estate to play with and, as a result, they’ve crammed too much into it. An example is Flixster — unlike the mobile app, which immediately takes me to “Movies I Want to See” I have to list all the movies I’ve rated and then sort them by category, which takes too long and is very frustrating. Since for me that list is Flixster’s primary value, on the desktop the service effectively puts a giant barrier between my in-the-moment need and its gratification.

From an investor perspective, I believe you should clearly integrate your mobile app’s business model with your key service or feature. An example would be for Gowalla to have local deals at the point of check-in, perhaps as part of the initial search experience itself. For Pandora, its ads are baked into its key use case — music channels — either as overlay display ads or as audio ads. None of this disrupts the core user experience and in many cases, even enhances the experience.

The moral of the story: If you’re building a mobile app, make sure its users are taken to its most compelling feature at launch. Don’t make them search for it — or else they may simply search for a different app.

Dev Khare is a VP at Venrock, a venture capital firm.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

The App Developer’s Guide to Choosing a Mobile Platform

18 Responses to “What Is the Secret of Mobile App Success?”

  1. Dev Khare

    Thanks for all the great comments. I also think a next step in mobile UI/workflow optimization is in super-focusing the initial screen to take into account 1) prior user behavior (eg where in the app users have spent the most time) ; 2) user location; 3) user activity in third-party apps (integration through APIs) etc. What examples have you seen of smart uses of UI optimization along these lines?

  2. I agree, mobile apps need to be fast , efficient and user needs to get to the key feature in an instant or else interest on the app will be lost. Key features from the website should be the ones which are on the app and not everything should be crammed onto the mobiel app.
    We are almost ready to launch our Virtual LockBox app where we have tred to maintain key features up front to enhance user experience.

  3. Olivier

    Agree with “App Locator” comments. UI is important but overall marketing $$ is the main driver for application adoption.
    The first issue developers are facing is visibility in an application store.
    It would be great to know among the 150K+ apps in iTunes, how many are really surviving, meaning having an organic growth…
    Maybe the way to do it would be for GigaOM to survey various types of developers (the big ones you are mainly referring to and the small ones like 90% of the current app store content.

  4. App Locator

    domain name, word of mouth marketing, branding are just as important as the app itself. Inricks, Gowally, EckoPhone are shooting themselves in the foot. 180,000 strong – no mobile app can afford to get lost in the shuffle although 99%probably are.

    • Bastian Nutzinger

      If all the resources currently put into making the hardware faster were put into making software more elegant and resource friendly we would probably see a far greater increase in net. productivity.
      Simplified you could say: Why bother to decrease the time it takes to click 5 buttons if you can decrease the number of buttons you have to click in the first place.

      This by the way is one of the reasons I like my Mac so much. Generally i find the Mac Apps more refined and elegant then their Windows counterparts (there are exceptions to this rule of course).

  5. While making the right features visible and available is important, it is equally or more so relevant to first gauge the purpose of the mobile application. The app cannot replicate the breadth of a website or product, but it can provide depth to those critical elements that need to be mobilized. Determining these key elements while automatically determine what needs to go on an app, and make it more efficient as described in the article. LinkedIn could have benefited from such an exercise prior to building the app.

  6. Liked this article and the reviews.
    As I say, the smartphone is the computer.
    Funny you mentioned LinkedIn. A while back I deleted the app from my iPhone as it seemed needlessly cumbersome. Then I noticed, I almost never again went back to the LinkedIn website.
    Apps are becoming critical!

    PS: I like this article’s graphic. Kudos to whoever made it.

  7. Really, nothing has changed in decades; the application has to have an ideal UI for the person who is using it, (and not for the developer who wrote the app.) This was true back in the day of the mainframes, and remains true today with mobile apps. Now, the user has changed significantly since then, and the input and output devices have changed significantly. But the rule of thumb — make the app do what the end user wants it to do, in the way they intuitively expect — has remained the same.

  8. I agree with Dev. Mobile Apps must be focussed mainly on it’s best features. People really don’t like to search for the features. The apps must be designed such that some of it’s best features are always at your fingertips. This is one of the most important thing. Moreover, mobile apps do not respond as fast as computer apps. Hence, searching for the feature will really bug the user.