Apps for Good

Advice for the next generation of entrepreneurs…

What do you say to the finalist teams in this year’s Apps for Good Awards? Not much really. They have all crafted an idea for an app that showcases their abilities to use technology to solve real life problems.  And in doing so they’ve gone on an amazing journey that has seen them demonstrate their understanding of the target audience and mobile technology, through to communicating their value proposition and how to monetize their app. All pretty impressive stuff. Even more impressive given the brains behind these innovations are from primary and secondary schools. So all that was left for me to discuss with 5 of the finalists last week, was how to pack the most punch in to their elevator pitch by guiding them on how to tell a compelling story in just 60 seconds.   Hopefully they took away some useful pointers.

What follows are some of the tips I shared with them… (the examples below all reference the team’s ideas and apps that have been shortlisted for the finals).

Help your audience to visualise the story you are telling

You have literally seconds to paint a picture. Yes, a picture says a thousand words, but some carefully chosen words can paint a pretty powerful picture. You’re not painting a Monet, but just enough for the audience to quickly visualise the opening scene of the story you are telling. So as you introduce the main character (persona) and set the scene, try to imagine the picture you are painting for your audience. Consider how changing something as simple as “Laura is learning to play an instrument” to “Laura is learning to play the piano” helps the listener to visualise it.

Create the drama

You’ve set the scene. Now you need to get your hooks in and create a bit of drama. This is where you communicate the problem you are solving.  Imagine you are delivering an Eastenders style cliffhanger – it needs that level of impact.  For example, “Our app will help make a huge impact on Sandra’s children’s lifelong relationship with food by encouraging healthy eating habits.” You can almost hear the drum roll…

Drop some big numbers

You have set the scene and delivered the drama. At this point the audience is most probably nodding their heads, “yes, seems like a good idea.”  Now you need to land a jaw-dropper. Go for the kill by dropping a large number that puts in to perspective the potential your idea has to really make a difference.   For example, “Ten percent (10%) of the British population are dyslexic.” Boom! Of course, make sure the numbers are accurate!

How will your idea solve the issue

A good story has a resolution.  You have a character, a setting and plot, have built some tension (with your big numbers) … now you need the resolution. This is a one-liner of epic proportions.  This is not what your idea will do, but how your idea will do it.  The difference is in the detail.   For example, go from “our app will help children with dyslexia to plan their day…” to “the app will provide tools, that puts the user in control, allowing them to plan and manage all aspects of their daily routine.”

There will most likely already be apps competing in your space.  With so many apps being created daily, it’s difficult to find a problem that someone isn’t already trying to tackle, regardless of whether they’re doing it well or not.  But it’s not always about being the first.  It’s about having that x-factor, a certain something that gives you the nod over the others.  A good way to set out what sets your app apart from the others is to complete this sentence, “our app beats the socks off the rest by ….”

How are you going to drive app engagement?

About 22-25% of apps are downloaded and used only once. What is it that will make your app get a return visit? Make sure you communicate why your users will keep coming back to use your app.

For example, “Our users don’t want to miss out on the latest hair style trends. They’ll come back to stay on top of the latest trends, comment on latest styles, and get advice from their friends before their next visit to the hairdressers…”  This helps to communicate how your app has a real sense of stickiness.

Make your app easy to use

There is a growing culture of impatience.  The ‘Impatient Nation’ demand instant gratification.  Apps therefore need a high convenience quotient.  What does all this mean? Well, if your mobile app doesn’t allow your user to quickly and easily achieve their goal then you risk losing them.   But saying your app is simple and easy to use isn’t quite enough!  This goes back to the first point about helping the listener to visualise your idea.

For example, “All Daniel needs to do his select guitar, and pluck the bottom-E string. Within seconds Daniel receives advice to turn the tuning key for the bottom-E string…”   This is a powerful way to help your audience to understand not only how your app works, but how easy it is to use.

Talk the talk

You’ve designed a mobile app, so make sure you use language that helps the audience to further visualise your app being used. Drop in references to mobile gestures such as pinch, zoom and swipe or discuss what happens when you rotate your phone. And highlight any features of the smartphone that your app uses such as the camera or GPS. As well as helping the audience to be further immersed, this also demonstrates your understanding of the mobile environment.

Make your app enjoyable to use

An app that is useful isn’t enough. It also needs to be usable. And still that’s not enough. We’re emotional people that like to be engaged.  Apps need to be delightful to use too, so help the audience to understand how your app delivers an emotional punch.  You can achieve this by providing engaging content and functionality, focusing on aesthetics, or incorporating elements of game design. So don’t focus purely on your apps functionality, but just as importantly communicate how users will be ‘engaged’ by your app.

Games are inherently more engaging, and reward mechanisms are a powerful gaming mechanism. If you are using such reward mechanisms to encourage users to eat their greens, or provide badges or other indictor of progress for say tuning your guitar in your fastest time, then get these powerful mechanics across when you present your idea.

Make sure your story flows

Everything you have covered until now needs to flow.  Good flow is one of the most important elements of good storytelling. Good flow minimises the cognitive effort to breakdown the information, by just adding layer upon layer to the original picture you helped to visualise.  If the flow stalls or stutters then the visual image starts to fade. You need to keep the flow and keep the listener engaged throughout…

There’s my pennies worth.  Now that’s all left for me to do is congratulate the finalists and wish them all the best for next week’s judging session.…

Design Considerations for Building Mobile Apps

Today I participated in my first Apps for Good session with a class from Holly Hall Academy in Dudley. If you’re not familiar with Apps for Good then go read about this fantastic programme that encourages school children to use technology to tackle problems for social good.

Today was an opportunity for the young’uns (13 yo’s) to pitch some of their great ideas (via Skype) to Sophie Freiermuth and myself. We were impressed with their ideas, ranging from an app that provides advice on sexual health issues to one for finding out more on bullying and harassment. There were even ideas to find your perfect hairstyle and one that teaches you the Japanese craft of origami. We then shared insight and tips to help these young entrepreneurs to further develop their ideas.

I’ve summarised some of the key design considerations we discussed with the children below, with a few extra points (not covered) thrown in.

Think about the place of use
Mobile provides exciting opportunities because it allows users to interact in more places and in a more engaging way, and at different times of the day.   It’s important to understand the environment in which your customer may interact with the application. 

For example, consider what it means to your application if your target user will typically use your app in a public space to discuss confidential topics such as sexual heath or bullying. A voice-only mode may not be discreet enough, so considering the context will recognise the need for alternative ways to interact.

Provide functionality to help your target audience achieve their goal
Don’t make the mistake of discussing what functionality to offer before you have clearly defined what the goals are for the target audience. This avoids common failings such as feature bloat, where features are placed ahead of better experiences.  It is easy to create a rich feature list but the challenge is to understand the customer and pare down this feature list so that it does fewer things, better and in a simpler way, and all with the purpose of helping the users to achieve their goal. A good motto to keep in mind, “do a few things, and do them damn well.”

Storytelling is a powerful way to communicate design ideas. The narrative will validate the importance and effectiveness of your app in solving a real need.  One group told a compelling story of the build-up to a new haircut, of their fears and reassurances, which helped to ground their app in a real context and ultimately resulted in them only suggesting content and functionality that mattered.

Observe and learn from what engages you
Mario Kart is a masterpiece in game design. One tactic that Mario Kart uses to create stickiness is to reward you for winning a cup by unlocking new levels, characters or vehicles.  It helps to understand the small individual mechanics like this that make the game so much fun.

The children should learn from the things they find fun and engaging, and see how those design principles can then be applied to their ideas.

Are you giving your audience something of value? 
A successful app addresses real customers.  For every application that is the result of a rigorous user centric design approach there will be one that fails to consider who the users are, their behaviours, and how they will interact with the application. Keep asking yourself, who is your target audience and are you giving your target audience something of value.

The children should take every opportunity to talk to their target audience, be it other school children, teachers or parents. Research is a wonderful thing. They need to go get Guerilla.

Understand user behaviour
Apps tend to be more transient experience than traditional online experiences.  Customers use them briefly and move on.  These considerations are vital when designing apps. Long complex tasks are unlikely to be completed as users are distracted or disengaged. This is why mobile apps are seldom built to rely on long attention spans.

Observe, observe, observe.  Watch people’s behaviour and talk to them as they go about their business. Ethnographic research is important to help you understand how people interact with mobile apps.

Make the app easy to use
Even when these applications do address customers’ needs, many applications fail because of a poor design execution. Key characteristics that are fundamental to a mobile app include simplicity, ease-of-use and responsiveness.

The screen size provides obvious design implications. A usable application is one where the user can focus on the essentials.  It’s about stripping out the unnecessary to create a simplified user interface, which is easy to read.  The design objective is to keep the user experience focused on the task.  Screen clutter distracts and hinders the user from performing the intended action.  This is less about minimalist design but more about focused design.

Is your app finger friendly?
The mobile browsing experience is a different beast to the online browsing experience. With such a gestural interface, precision mouse control & clicks are replaced by the finger.  This enables users to interact in a far more natural and intuitive manner, responding to gestures such as tap, flick & pinch.  Successful implementation requires supporting standard gestures such as tap, flick and pinch appropriately and providing immediate feedback.  Gesture support manifests itself in the interface, as the layout is optimized for fingers, providing a finger tappable area for all tappable elements.  Fingers don¹t have the same level of precision as a mouse, so make sure all interactive elements are sized and spaced to optimise gestural interactions.

Provide an experience that is enjoyable and delightful to use
Users have high expectations for mobile apps and expect them to be enjoyable to use  - so whilst they are purposeful they need to delight. A delightful experience creates an emotional connection and a customer who is emotionally engaged will interact longer.

Make sure you app is intuitive
From the moment the launch screen appears it must be immediately apparent to the user what the application does and instantly understandable as to how to interact with it.  Users are impatient and if it takes too much time figuring out what to do then the user will tune out.

Know your phone
Most smartphones have a camera and GPS, and some have a voice assistant such as Siri.  Whilst you shouldn’t use features just because you can, do get to know your phone to make sure you fully understand what it can offer you.

The group with the idea for a sexual health app, made great use of an intelligent personal assistant to provide an easy and intuitive way to ask questions.

A phone has its limitations
Users have high expectations of performance.  Therefore design your application with bandwidth in mind. Desktop Internet experiences provide a visually engaging experience without the same bandwidth constraints, therefore images and rich media are heavily used. However, when it comes to mobile design, these rich elements can do more harm than good if they provide a sub-optimal experience.

Hopefully the school children found the session useful.  I found it fun and inspiring, and I look forward to the next session.  Thanks to Andy Steadman (from Holly Hall Academy) and Myrian Schwitzner (from Apps for Good) for organising.

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