When NOT to build an app

By Harry Smith

21st December 2020

So, this may seem counterintuitive for an app development agency to write about the reasons for NOT creating an app, but hear us out, because there are a lot of poor ideas and apps out there. 

It’s no secret that a few years ago everybody wanted an app, whether it was a large corporation or your mate Dave (who had the next Facebook). But with a huge wave of supply, the application market was massively out of equilibrium (supply massively outweighed demand). I mean, we had apps for things such as hand warmers, which essentially burnt out your battery & the “I am Rich” app which cost $999 and did absolutely nothing, expect show that your were both rich and stupid enough to buy it, if you’re reading this and you bought it, we’ve got an investment idea for you...

There are of course also apps that are just plain badly made, from poor UX decisions to features that are useless or annoying. Putting your users first and challenging the core ideas around an app are pivotal to building something that people LOVE. Users are used to seeing gimmicks and the novelty of apps for the sake of apps is long gone. So unless they provide the best experience possible, they aren't adding much value to a user’s device, which makes them pretty worthless.

However, we do want to give a shout out to an OG app, the 12 days of Christmas app that gave away free stuff (that you usually had to pay for) for 12 days leading up to Christmas… man, those ipod touches really were the good old days.

Let's get into it. What are the reasons for not developing an app, well, this is going to be a long one, so get comfortable!

great app ideas

1. Idea

This is probably the biggest catch22. Quite simply, you need to answer the following questions:

  • Is there a demand for this product? If no one uses it, it’ll be a failure and you’ve effectively burnt all of that cash you put into building it, I hope you like bonfires...
  • If there isn’t much competition for the problem your app is trying to solve, that is usually a sign that your app is too niche and wouldn't gain much traction. Competition is a good thing, as it drives an already existing user base to your app (if it is the best that is!)
  • An App should look to solve a problem that users are encountering on a regular basis, if it’s not, there’s simply no reason for a user to download and repeatedly have to use your app
  • Is the idea actually good enough (e.g. if it’s a similar idea to an existing app, is it good enough/differentiated enough for users to switch to your app, which takes time and effort)
  • Can you monetise it? Things cost money, apps cost a lot of money.

So let's expand on the above points. 

Firstly, there must be sufficient demand for your product. We’re not talking about a couple of lads from your local Sunday league football team or a couple of the mums from your kids primary school. There should be a good demand for this product, we’re talking thousands of people want this product, ideally millions (the more people that want this product, the better). 

And if there are only thousands of people who want your product, you’ll probably have to charge more for it. So you have to weigh up whether those people are willing to pay that much (pull out the old diminishing rate of returns graph and start plotting cost to value). 

So why do you need demand? Simply put, you need users to use your app to generate any sort of revenue (there are some examples to this, obviously). Therefore, you need to consider monetising your app, now, there are a few different options when it comes to monetising, some of which you may not have considered:

  • Subscription based - pay a monthly subscription
  • Paid app - where you pay to download the app 
  • Donations - users use your app and you hope they donate (Movember app)
  • Advertising - users use your app and in return you use their data to show them ads you feel are relevant (Think Facebook or Instagram)
  • In app purchases - things such as games where you can pay real money for extra lives etc

Something worth noting is that most subscription apps start off free, to build their user base and get people hooked, before they then charge them. And most in-app purchase apps are free to download, too.

So now we come onto the question of what is the problem solving? This can be a number of things, a few examples are:

  • Games solve boredom
  • Banking apps save the hassle of having to visit a bank to make a transfer
  • Calendar apps save the issue of forgetting your schedule/appointments
  • Satnav apps make travelling 10x easier by not having to read maps

Hopefully after reading the above you can now confidently say what problem your app is solving.

Next, we move onto the question of existing competition. Let’s use a real example here, within the app industry, every agency has at one point in time had a lead approach them and say they have the next Facebook or Instagram, it’s pretty much a guarantee. You then dive a bit deeper into their idea and it turns out it’s pretty much the exact same platform, but with ever so slight changes, or perhaps an added feature. Now, this might improve the app, but is it a big enough change to persuade Facebook and Instagram’s billion plus users to jump ship? Probably not. You also have to consider that the existing competition, with their existing user base, can pivot a lot faster (we have an entire blog on this!) than you can create, build and market. Therefore, if you put out an app with some slight changes, chances are, they can do something similar and get it out to their existing users so they don’t even have to jump ship.

how much does an app cost to build

2. Cost

It’s not unusual that someone will approach us with an idea for an app, we’ll discuss the idea in more detail and then it’ll come to the budget side of things. This is where most people simply do not realise how expensive apps are to build, especially for an agency that keeps all development in-house like we do, subtly flex…

Without getting too crude in terms of numbers, it is not uncommon for apps to be in the hundreds of thousands, with even the most basic apps starting around the £50,000 mark, stay tuned on this as we’ll be releasing a blog outlining app costs in the near future. These numbers are just the development costs, you then have the regular updates to ensure you’re meeting the App store and Play store requirements, hosting costs, continuous improvement costs (once you build an app you have to keep improving it, otherwise it’ll slowly die). These costs can easily mount up into the tens of thousands per year.

So let’s break down these costs then as you’re probably thinking “why the bloody hell is it so expensive? It’s only an app”. Well yes, it may only be an app. But an app is a lot more complex than you’d imagine. Think of it like an iceberg, you only see the tip, but under the water there’s a gigantic bit of ice. It’s the same with an app, you only see the finished screens with (hopefully) a nice design. However, under the hood there could be the upper end of tens of thousands of lines of code, which have been written by developers. So there's the time spent coding, but before that you have to wireframe what you want to build, this is another hugely time intensive task, getting the UX (User Experience) correct. But before you even attempt to start wireframing, you have to naildown on the app's core feature set, what it’s trying to achieve, what it’s key user journeys are etc, which is another hugely time intensive task. Then, once you’ve tested the UX with real users, you move onto the design (UI).

We’ve listed UX, UI, development/code, but you also have to factor in other costs, such as design sprints, user testing and your long term digital strategy. Design sprints are essentially a BIG 3 day creative thinking session, where we drill down to exactly what the idea is and how we perfect it. Design sprints are usually a real eye-opener for an app’s ideas and design. This is where we challenge the idea and get the best out of it. Then comes the user testing. This is where we put the initial UX/UI to the test and get real world user feedback from the sorts of people who would actually use your app. This allows us to see how users understand and interact with the app and make any adjustments way before we go live.

long term digital strategy

3. Commitment

So now you have built your app, you have paid a sizable investment and you go live. Exciting stuff! Now comes the next stage, making the commitment to the app's longevity. This means building an app that provides the best solution to a user for both the present and the future of the app. Implementing a strong digital strategy is a solid way to support your app for the long-run.

Digital strategy essentially means launching your product with a plan and knowing where it's going in the future. We have all seen them, apps that launch for one specific function or service and quickly become redundant, leaving them cluttering the app stores without much purpose. Building any successful app isn't about solving a here and now problem, it's about solving problems that users have in the present AND in the future. If your app can serve users well now and has a long-term strategy, it's going to perform better than a solution that is built around current needs and has no real longevity to it.

There are a whole range of questions to ask yourself when you have released an app. These all require thinking about and can be useful to help identify areas of your strategy that need work.

  • Have you planned a long term release structure for future features and updates?
  • How will your app stay the best solution? Are you committed to being the best product out there?
  • How will you stay ahead of competitors?
  • How will future technology shape your app and how can you best plan ahead?
  • Will you take the app in-house and build a team around it?
  • How will you scale with your app? Both as a business and the product itself?
  • Will your monetisation strategy change?

Let’s unpack some of that… Firstly, having a release structure figured out allows you to plan how to best utilise existing tech. Maintaining an app is key, but requires finances and a solid team. This can be a team that you have brought in house, or an ongoing relationship with an agency. This is of course a difficult decision to make and can influence how you scale your app and your business.

Hopefully, you can confidently say that your app is the best solution out there for what you are doing, because if it's not, why would a user want to use your app? Being the best product out there instantly means that your app is useful, but maintaining that can be tricky and expensive. Competitors WILL see holes in your ideas and come after you with a better solution, just look at Snapchat. When Instagram copied the popular stories function in 2016, they took a large chunk of users away from Snapchat.

Getting the best out of your app could mean looking at emerging technologies. Augmented reality for example is quickly being adopted by e-commerce apps to deliver truly custom browsing experiences and reduce returns in the process. Features have to be genuinely useful though and deliver easy to understand additions that don’t have long learning curves.

should I build a mobile application

So, I shouldn’t build an app?

Well, it’s not quite that simple. Essentially, building an app is a lot more complex, costly and involved than a lot of people think. Without a solid plan, an original or better idea than your competition, investment and the right team, it probably won’t be a success. You may even decide that an app isn't the correct product and that a website would be far more suited to what you are doing. If you are going to build an app, make sure your idea is solid and the best solution out there. Ensure that you have plenty of funding and a healthy budget to work with. Plus, you need to make sure that you are committed to making it work long-term. Once you have these in place, you can think about getting the right team behind you to build an app that users love!