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Learning from application success stories

By Christoffer Andersson

Being part of the preparations for the 2003 Mobile Application Awards I have seen lots of discussions emerge around what it is that really defines a successful application. This is of course very interesting, but even more important is how we all can learn from the most successful applications and related companies. In this article we will look at some examples of this - trying to spread this important knowledge.

First of all it should of course be noted that one cannot get close to showing all the aspects of application development and marketing in one article, but my hope is that these aspects will both inspire and also trigger you to share your experiences with others. Drop me a line and tell me what you think! A small comment on terminology: in this text I try to be consistent and use the word application when describing the things that developers produce for their customers. It can be a downloadable travel guide written in Java or the MobileHits site with music content and services.

Let’s start with the planning phase of building an application. Very often this phase is cut short and everyone is eager to get down to business and start programming/designing. I have seen some really bad examples of how lack of planning can hurt an otherwise successful idea. Take the aspect of handsets. What handsets will the application run on and what is the penetration of those handsets? If you are targeting a market segment of 15-25 year olds it is worthwhile checking what handsets they have. The first impulse might then be to ask the operators about this but too often they do not know. You are probably better off checking some reports from analysts, like Gartner.

Another part of the planning phase is to plan for how the application should be tested and by whom. Ericsson, Nokia and Motorola have an interest in securing that things work when released to the market and can help you with test tools and processes. Check out their developer programs to get help and inspiration. Start the testing earlier than you think! With the testing you will verify things like how the application looks on different devices, how it performs in different radio conditions and last but not least its usability. For the usability testing I have seen very good examples of working with user groups. It could be just some 20 people that fit the description of you target group that you interview after they have tried using your applications. This is an extremely useful (and very entertaining) way of getting instant feedback. You will quickly realize the gap between the perception of your own crew and the general consumer out there. Expect the unexpected. In one group that I listened in on where they discussed the service package from an Operator the following comment was stated: ‘Why I bought the phone with this package? I wanted to show that I am a cool chick’. Inviting these kind of audiences to test your products will also give a very strong usability focus in the development, which is crucial. The relation between technical aspects, like response times, and user experience will be obvious. Too many development teams spend days optimizing some algorithm or adding content just to ignore the fact that it would take 10 minutes to fix the top two usability flaws that lowers user satisfaction.

Having done the planning and getting things together that start to look like an appealing offering, an important question arises around how this application should be brought to the attention of the eager masses. Beyond the basics of being visible on your webpage you are likely to want to get the attention of a few good operators to get you out there. Being in iMode or Vodafone Live certainly gives you good visibility and attention from your potential customers, but are there in addition other ways to go? First of all this of course depends on the kind of application you are offering. If it is downloadable software, like a Java game or similar, you can aim for being part of device manufacturers offerings. Getting into a handset is hard work, however, and means long cycles. It should be noted, however, that it is not as tough to become a second tier provider for a handset and get included on the CD that goes with it. In addition, you will find good friends in the ones who have developed the operating system that you are addressing, like Symbian. What other ways are there to reach consumers? Other media channels, like TV and newspapers are commonly used to market ring-tones, logos and games. Especially the collaboration with TV has shown to have large impact on the penetration. An example is Globalmouth, which provides a service where sports stars and others call their fans (say Tiger Woods would call his fans and giving his inside comments after winning the US Open). Globalmouth uses premium SMS billing and markets the service via TV: ‘Vote for the man of the match and he will call you afterwards as a bonus’. This is a win-win situation also for the TV companies, who really understands this kind of business. Here the developer is not at all dependent on the operator for marketing of the service.

Ki-Bi is another creative example on new ways to reach the audience. Basically it builds on people’s need to touch and feel the things that they desire. As an example, it is easier to feel desire for a nice DVD box on the shelf than a movie on demand. The Ki-Bi concept is based on the scenario that users can buy the applications in any store, just like kids buy collectors cards today. The difference with the Ki-Bi cards is that they can be connected to your mobile phone and give you downloadable games, ring tones and other applications. This means that grandma can buy the David Beckham card to her grandson without having a clue about how the technology works.

Having achieved your first milestones and the application is out there with people starting to see the value of it (and hopefully paying for it), what is next? Of course, for many there is a need to look for the next application and then the next one, but here I want to emphasize the importance of also maintaining the applications you have out there. If you are in the content business then it is obvious that you have to ensure you are adding new things and making it feel alive, constantly reinforcing the value. If you, on the other hand, have developed a Java application or something else that feels like a finished product, it might feel like the job is done when it hits the consumers and starts generating revenue. This might not be the case. First of all I would like to use my favorite Japanese expression and stress the importance of Kaizen. Kaizen means continuous, small improvements and is one of the foundations in the offerings from Japanese developers and operators. As an example, a fishing application started out very simple with just the top places to go and text directions. Then images were added and later color and more interactivity and downloadable fishing games. When asked what their 3G applications would be their answer was ‘the same, but with bigger images and some video’. People will not wake up one morning and suddenly feel a need for something far away from what they desired yesterday. All built around doing something pretty ok, then improving it, getting feedback, improving it again. While this might sound like the most obvious thing it is amazing to see how much we lack this approach in Europe and the US. It is too easy to get focused on the next big thing, trying to make a big bang out of it.

A related concept that I strongly recommend is to think about is the Application Heartbeat, a concept that for example Vodafone Live uses. That means keeping the users interested in your offerings long after they first got acquainted to it. Again, this is more natural for a web/wap based service than a downloadable application but even for the latter it is crucial. Say that you are in the mobile games business. Then you can view this in two ways: Either you consider your whole suite of games the means for keeping the users interested or else you can in addition keep them addicted to each game as well. In the first case they play the Ninjafighter game for a week and then they finish it and move on to the Karatefigher or SuperSnowboard games and so on. In this case the Application heartbeat is achieved by introducing new games to keep users hooked, pumping energy into the usage like a heartbeat. The second way means that when the user has finished all 7 levels of Ninjafighter they get a secret code so they can download Ninjafighter+ which contains an additional 3 levels. Optionally you can just release new add-on packs every week/month or so. On the Internet gaming scene there are some nice examples of how this Heartbeat is facilitated by the developers but then maintained by the enthusiastic players. Take Counterstrike as an example, which people are playing for hours every day several years after its release. With the multiplayer opportunities and the online resources available there is never an end to the addiction.

I wish you the same success in creating the mobile applications that will form the success stories of the future!

About the author: Christoffer Andersson is Director of EMEA Business Development at Ericsson. In this position he drives sales and delivery of products and services in the area of applications and its underlying infrastructure. Christoffer is also the author of the Amazon.com bestselling book 'GPRS and 3G Wireless Applications - The Professional Developer’s Guide', published by John Wiley & Sons. Christoffer can be reached at christoffer@wirelessdevnet.com.

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