How to Make a Successful Mobile App: Top 10 Ways to Prepare for a Development Project
This comprehensive guide covers cross-platform app development, progressive web apps, and why enterprise companies chose to build their apps on the Ionic App Platform.
You’ve been assigned to lead the company’s new mobile app development project, which aims to reach more customers. Excitement quickly turns to concern as you think back on previous mobile projects that haven’t been successful: rocky launches, endless delays, and upset customers. Or, perhaps this is your company’s first foray into mobile - until now, your dev teams have only built desktop websites.
Challenges extend beyond mobile app development, making it especially difficult for companies. Other concerns include hiring mobile developers (they're much more challenging to find than web developers) and budgeting for long term maintenance and support.
Working with hundreds of enterprise teams over the years, Ionic has found that even well run mobile development projects need 7-12 months to go from concept to execution.
Ultimately, successful mobile app development projects require a significant amount of time and resources because customers expect you to build great experiences that run across multiple platforms and devices. Follow these ten tips on how to create a successful app to ensure a smooth project and product launch.
1. Do you really need a mobile app?
Before diving headfirst into a new mobile app project, take a step back. Do you really need a mobile app? What are your customer goals, business goals, and how are you going to reach your target audience?
In recent years, the common advice has been that “everyone needs a mobile app” but that’s not actually true. You may end up putting a ton of resources towards a solution that isn’t used by many people depending on the nature of your product.
That does not mean you should just give up on mobile users but you might benefit from alternate solutions to a full-fledged app.
The first option involves improving what you already have: your desktop website. You can extend it with mobile capabilities like push notifications, location specific features, and more. Making it responsive (automatically adapting the design to fit different devices and screen sizes) is a great alternative to building a mobile app. Improve its search engine optimization (SEO) so that you reach more customers organically. All of these items in combination might be enough to give your business the boost it needs.
Another option is to transform your website into a Progressive Web App. Think of Progressive Web Apps as “mobile-ready websites that have taken the right vitamins.” A progressive web app is optimized for mobile platforms and grants access to native mobile device features like Bluetooth, geolocation, the camera, and more. Users can even save a progressive web app to the home screen, which makes it function like a native mobile app—users won’t know the difference as your site will feel like a native mobile app! You get nearly the same benefits and functionality of a mobile app while using your existing code.
2. Choose target platforms
Once you have made the decision to build an app it is time to decide on the platforms you will target. The gold standard, pioneered by companies such as Netflix and Disney, is building omnichannel user experiences. These experiences transcend any particular device. Customers beginning their daily commute day might access your service on a train using their mobile device, then once at work, use the desktop website. In the evening, they might access your service on a smart TV or casually browse on their tablet device.
Most companies would agree that cross-platform omnichannel experiences are ideal. Developing for iOS, Android, and a mobile-web audience gives you the greatest reach and ensures you can “meet them where they’re at.” However, there are costs to consider.
If you’re building natively for each platform (more on that below), make sure you account for:
- Potentially higher costs for your project.
- A need for a bigger team with different skills.
- Cross-team coordination to make sure your app looks and performs well on every platform.
- Finally, be prepared for a lengthier time-to-market period.
Solution providers such as Ionic have built-in features for both Android and iOS, and the web, making it easier for you to ensure your app is successfully deployed in a cross platform fashion.
3. Design the UI for mobile
Now it’s time to really consider what it takes to make a mobile experience successful. This means researching and designing your user interface for mobile. If your team has previously only built desktop websites, there’s a lot to learn. Take, for example, a calendar component. The desktop view has more space and thus, the ability to have a detailed view. On mobile, there’s limited screen real estate so the experience is required to be more compact.
Additionally, there are mobile design paradigms to plan for and implement, such as how the user interacts with the app: with a touch screen on mobile instead of a computer mouse. With thousands of mobile device types and form factors, responsive content is a must. Fortunately, it's not as scary as it sounds because there's just a dozen or so different form factors to look out for.
The internet is a vast place, filled with people that speak different languages, have unique cultures, and a variety of abilities. As such, it’s important to make your app accessible. Be sure to choose a solution that supports assistive technologies such as VoiceOver, NVDA, and TalkBack.
New to mobile app development? Your team should spend some time researching mobile app design. Start with reviewing your favorite mobile apps. Take a fresh look at them with a critical eye on the UI and user experience. Document what you like and dislike as a team.
Next, review the official Google and Apple App Guidelines. The good news is that there are many resources available to help you get up to speed. Lots of documentation is available that is very approachable for everyone, regardless of technical background.
Once you get into the development of the app, we recommend using a mobile-ready UI component library. Not only do they act as a jumpstart into development but provide all the animations and gestures that make mobile apps shine. Creating apps that are responsive and optimized for mobile devices out of the box results in substantial time savings and allows your development teams to focus on what matters most: your unique business features.
New to mobile app development? Spend some time researching mobile app design, starting with reviewing your favorite mobile apps. What you like and dislike from a UI and user experience perspective?
4. Pick your Approach: Native or Cross-Platform
Once you have chosen your target platforms, it’s time to pick your development approach: either native or cross-platform.
Native development involves the hardware, tools, and the programming languages created by Apple and Google. On mobile, that means iOS and Android. Since these are dedicated to those platforms, you get really great performance out of the box. It requires a specialized skill set - knowledge of Objective C and Swift for iOS development and Kotlin and Java for Android development.
Unfortunately, there’s no code sharing between these approaches since they are dedicated to the particular platform, but that's the trade-off to achieve a dedicated experience. It can be hard to justify the costs that arise from pure native development.
Ionic also does the work of making sure that your code runs on mobile and web. It provides you with a "write-once, run-anywhere" solution so you do not have to worry about configuring your app for different platforms.
That means you can target both native mobile and the wider web and bring in your existing web development team, taking advantage of in-house talent and expertise. You already have a web development team who work on your website and internal web apps, so why not extend their talents further?
5. Connect data and integrations
Once you have your team in place and app development approach selected, data access and integrations are next. First, you will need to determine what data you and your users need to make your app functional. The answer varies, based on the app’s goals and the features you plan on offering.
Next, consider where the data lives and how it will be accessed. Will you use a software development kit (SDK) or an API to access data or do you need to build a data access layer around an existing private database? You’ll need to work cross functionally to determine the best path forward.
Where will the data be hosted? If it’s on-premise, aka within your private network, you’ll need to work with your IT and security teams to gain access. This is a great option if your company has highly sensitive data security requirements and wants to manage the data themselves. Hosting your data in the cloud, managed by a provider like AWS, Azure, or Google, is another option. There are potentially significant cost savings involved with this approach, since you only pay for the storage and services accessed and billing is down to the penny. Not to mention the headaches avoided with automatic scaling if your service suddenly becomes popular and needs more computational resources to serve app users.
Next, consider how data will be integrated into your app. There are three integration options: content management systems (CMS), legacy formats, and cloud providers. CMSs are great for storing and managing content such as documentation, blogs, articles, videos, and more. They tend to require less tech savviness to use, making them friendly to all teams across your organization. Many options including Prismic and Wordpress have APIs, which means data can be stored in their systems but displayed on your websites in customizable formats. This makes it easy for marketers (for example) to make changes without requiring the web team to deploy a new version of the company website. Prismic powers the Ionic Resource Center, allowing us to deploy edits or new content in minutes.
Another integration option is the “legacy” formats, such as spreadsheet tools like Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets, or business databases like Microsoft Access. Data is managed from the familiar format business analysts are used to and developers pull the data into mobile apps using APIs or custom solutions.
Finally, cloud providers like AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud have thousands of data integrations available. Chances are these days, if you have a data access need, the providers have a solution. Each provider also offers the ability to easily integrate mobile-specific functionality via mobile backend-as-a-service (MBaaS) offerings: AWS’ Amplify, Google’s Firebase, and Microsoft’s Azure mobile services. These tools help developers configure backend services and connect them to an app frontend quickly. Features include authentication, APIs, data storage, pub/sub, analytics, and AI/ML predictions.
Ionic makes it easy to plan for your integration needs across many platforms. Check out the services offered by Ionic, covering everything from authentication to payments to social media to voice enabled features.
Will you use a software development kit (SDK) or an API to access data or do you need to build a data access layer around an existing private database? You’ll need to work cross functionally to determine the best path forward.
6. Safeguard users and protect data
Securing mobile apps these days is a must. After all, no company can risk the consequences: data loss, unauthorized account access, angry customers, brand damage, and more. With data breaches constantly in the news, consumers increasingly understand the importance of security and expect businesses to follow the proper protocols to keep their data secure. Additionally, many businesses have regulatory commitments to adhere to, such as HIPAA.
In order to ensure nothing on the security front is missed, incorporate it early in the app development process. There are several layers to think through, beginning with encryption, the act of encoding sensitive information such that only authorized parties can access it. Data should be encrypted in transit (over HTTPS when it’s retrieved from a cloud service or API) then stored at-rest (not in memory, on the device or hard drive). Many solutions offer a way to store data at-rest on mobile devices, including Ionic’s Secure Storage offering.
In a similar vein as encryption is biometric authentication, the physical human characteristics used to digitally identify a person. This includes fingerprints, facial identification, or voice recognition and is an excellent way to add another layer of security to your mobile app. Adding biometric authentication to your app is a must if you’re building a banking app or if the app works with extremely sensitive personal data.
How users sign into your app is another important consideration. Typically, a single sign-on experience is implemented, which is a standardized way of logging into various services using your corporate credentials. Since one employee account is used to access all sorts of company resources, it makes it easy to gain access to new services or remove the employee’s access entirely upon leaving the company.
Finally, you might want to distribute your app privately using Apple and Google’s enterprise app distribution methods. Through an app store-like experience, only your company’s employees can download the apps. Additionally, using mobile device management (MDM) software, you can secure the apps deployed on your employee's device. This opens up many options to control the content on the device, including the ability to remotely wipe the device in the event it is stolen, a data breach occurs, or the employee leaves the company.
7. Test your app
Of course, it goes without saying that you’ll want to test the app extensively before launching it. Testing mobile apps is more involved than testing desktop websites.
First, there are code tests, the ones your developers write to ensure high quality upfront and find bugs ahead of time. This includes unit tests (small pieces of functionality), integration tests (testing multiple components together), and UI tests (automated tests that interact with the screen to validate that the app works correctly). Ionic apps are automatically configured for unit and end-to-end tests, and there is extensive documentation on how to test an Ionic app successfully using their recommended tools and best practices.
Most developers will be familiar with code-related tests, but building mobile apps means you need to go one step further with physical device testing. Regardless of the size of your team and target markets, you’ll need several devices for manual testing. In order to test different configurations including screen sizes and hardware features (like biometrics), buy a variety of iOS and Android phones and tablets. Your developers can use their own devices, but we recommend maintaining a company stock that can be audited and shared across the team. This ensures consistency in testing results.
Buying company test devices is one way to test your mobile app, but this proves costly and challenging to manage at scale. If you have a large team of developers, or concerned with ensuring a near-perfect experience for a global customer base, then purchasing hundreds or even thousands of devices is a non-starter. In this case, you can turn to cloud-based services like AWS Device Farm. The device farm lets you execute tests concurrently across a variety of devices and platforms. During each test, videos, logs, and performance data are collected to help you quickly identify app issues. Tests run on physical device hardware, acting like a “private device lab” in the cloud.
Code tests and manual/automated device tests are great options for internal company testing, but what about customers? Ultimately, how they feel about your app is what matters. Provide customer insiders early access using Apple and Google’s beta testing programs (TestFlight and Google Play open testing, respectively). It’s easy to invite them to try the app over email or by sharing a public install link. Once installed, testers can try the complete app then provide private feedback sent directly to your development team. By opening up testing to customers, beta testers, etc. you’re more likely to find and fix major issues before the app launches.
Provide customer insiders early access using Apple and Google’s beta testing programs. Once installed, testers can try the complete app then provide private feedback sent directly to your development team. By opening up testing to customers, beta testers, etc. you’re more likely to find and fix major issues before the app launches.
8. Monitoring and Analytics
Testing your app in-house and with beta users is key to catching major issues before an app launches. However, users are unpredictable, so no matter how much testing you do upfront, bugs will slip through eventually. Therefore, you should set up monitoring and analytics services in the app to identify and fix real world issues as they arise. By tracing user behavior in the wild, you can respond to issues that were missed, optimize paths and user flows you did not anticipate, and identify areas of improvement. Ultimately, the faster you respond to customer needs the happier they will be, and these tools are the secret weapon you need.
Typically, you’ll receive customer feedback from support tickets, social media requests, or app reviews. However, these aren’t the best avenues for actionable feedback. Support tickets involve a lot of back and forth conversation, often resulting in a large time investment to figure out what’s wrong. With short messages and lots of noise to filter, social media isn’t great for support either. Finally, while you can respond to app reviews on both the App Store and Google Play, they are mostly one-sided conversations. Even if the app user responds and has their issue resolved, they may not update their original review and star rating, leaving negative feedback in place for others to see.
Fortunately, Sentry, LogRocket, and Bugsnag are three popular services aimed at helping you monitor and record how your app is performing. They allow your developers to recreate the exact steps a user took when the app crashed or a bug was encountered, increase product adoption, and optimize conversions, trials and new user onboarding.
In addition to using monitoring services to solve app issues, consider integrating an analytics platform into your app. Service providers like Google Analytics, Firebase, and Flurry offer the ability to capture and report on user behavior, app performance, and advertising campaigns. By gathering insights such as how users are acquired, how they use the app, and the most popular features they access, you can improve your app across any facet you choose. Every business has different success metrics, so you can even define custom events that measure data unique to your business.
Ultimately, the faster you respond to customer needs the happier they will be. Monitoring and analytics tools are the secret weapon you need.
9. Launch and Distribute the App
You’ve designed, developed, and tested a great new mobile app. Now you are ready to launch it to the world! To be successful, this requires cross-team collaboration between development, marketing, sales, and customer success. There are two stages to prepping a successful launch: getting the app listed on the iOS and Android app stores and coordinating the app launch.
To get the app listed on the app stores, you must submit it for approval. Once the team is confident they have an app binary build that is ready for submission, upload it to the App Store and Google Play. Next, you need to prepare the app store listing. This includes written copy for the app’s metadata, including the name, description, keywords, release notes, and more. Other marketing content you’ll need is an overview video and screenshots of the app, all used to help potential new users understand what your app is all about and entice them to download it.
Once the app store listing is complete, you submit the app to Google and Apple for review. They run automated tests on the app, checking for obvious crashes or other issues, then have manual testers try it on a variety of devices. Note that app submission is a separate step from actually releasing the app to the public - you decide when to release it.
Getting an app approved by Google is relatively easy. Their process mostly consists of automated checks for spam and app crashes and very little manual testing. Apple, on the other hand, is notorious for rejecting apps. Their guidelines change often and they enforce them seriously (paying extra attention to brand new apps). When an app is rejected, your development team must either fix the issue in code or make adjustments to the app store listing. You can also appeal the rejection, but that can take days or even weeks to resolve.
Nowadays, users expect a cross-platform launch strategy, so aim to launch the iOS and Android apps at the same time. Thus, given the unpredictability of app store review times and managing rejections, it’s important to give your team a time buffer of several weeks to ensure you have enough time to hit your launch date.
While the app is in the app store approval process, you’ll want to coordinate launch day activities. This involves working with the marketing team, who will create resources such as a product website, live events, blog announcements, and press briefings. Additionally, ensure that you’ve prepared the customer success and sales teams for the launch, so they can handle any inbound support requests and pricing inquiries.
Once you’ve successfully launched the app, there’s one last step to follow to ensure the project remains successful moving forward.
Apple is notorious for rejecting apps. So, it’s important to give your team several weeks to ensure you have enough time to hit your launch date.
10. Ensure Successful Project Updates and Maintenance
Once you have developed, tested, launched your app then take a moment to celebrate, as the app development process is quite rigorous. However, you can’t rest for too long, as maintaining mobile apps is a never-ending process. In addition to typical software development work like bug fixes and new features, there are new mobile operating system updates, security updates to patch, and new native functionality to incorporate. It’s a lot to keep up with, so we recommend setting up a continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD) system which allows your software teams to ship new updates much faster to meet the demands of the market.
The best software companies in the world use CI/CD systems to not just ship new features monthly or quarterly, but daily. This is made possible by the automation magic that these systems provide: immediately after a developer makes a change, it works it’s way through an automated deployment process, ultimately landing in your customers’ hands. When implemented successfully, customers don’t even notice - bug fixes and new features appear seamlessly.
Many great CI/CD solutions exist, but Ionic’s Appflow is a specialized service focused on the unique challenges of mobile app development. It starts with native Android and iOS cloud builds, with full control of the hardware and software used to perform builds. There’s also support for automatic App Store and Google Play submission. This means that your app can be updated in one swoop: a developer pushes a code commit, Appflow builds the native apps, then submits them to the app stores.
Beyond native app builds and submissions, Appflow supports remote app updates. Update your app, run A/B tests, deploy new features, and fix breaking issues in realtime - all while skipping the traditional app store review process (it can take days or weeks for updates to be approved). Finally, as your app is developed and built, Appflow can build and deploy special web previews of each commit, providing the ability to rapidly share and preview new features with team members during each step of the app development process.
Unfortunately, you can’t automate all of your project maintenance work. You also need to ensure that your teams are set up to respond quickly to customer feedback and complaints as well as provide technical support. As mentioned previously, ensure that your customer success team is ready to support the new mobile app. Have the team set up a dedicated support email for the app (firstname.lastname@example.org) and mention it within the app itself as well as on the app store listings. That way, when customers write in, you’ll know exactly which product they need help with.
Additionally, monitor and respond to app store reviews as soon as possible. This is absolutely critical and the team should aim to respond within 24 hours after a review has been posted (positive or negative). The faster you respond and resolve any issues, the higher likelihood of them changing their star rating and review to be more positive. Furthermore, it shows potential new users that your company is actively engaged with their customers and cares about their feedback.
The last step of your project remains successful over the long haul is to run ongoing marketing campaigns. With thousands of new apps launched every year, standing out is harder than ever. To avoid getting lost in the sea of options, work with the marketing team to promote the app through a variety of distribution channels.
Launch Successful Mobile App Development Projects with the Ionic App Platform
While it may seem overwhelming at first to launch a successful mobile project, by following these ten steps you’ll create a great mobile experience that delights existing customers and wins new ones.
Curious to see the art of the possible? Check out Ionifits, an example implementation of a Human Resources app (a play on Zenefits). It provides an experience that utilizes the complete Ionic enterprise stack, powered by Ionic Framework and Capacitor, mobile CI/CD with Appflow, authentication powered by Auth Connect and Identity Vault, and encrypted data storage powered by Secure Storage.
If you're ready to launch your mobile projects with Ionic, connect with an Ionic App Strategist!
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