REQUIRED READING: Your company has its own Facebook page, LinkedIn page and Twitter feed. There is a good chance that it has its own YouTube page and, perhaps, a page on Foursquare. But does it have its own app?
In the world of technology, it often seems that you have to run faster in order to not be left behind. But if your company does not have its own app – or, even worse, has not even considered the subject – there is an excellent chance that you'll have a new view of your competition. And you will not be able to miss them, because they are the ones kicking up dust far ahead of you.
For those who are new to the subject, here's a quick rundown of what this is all about. Technically, the term ‘app’ is just short for ‘application software,’ which is a generic term for any kind of software program you might run. This can range from Microsoft Word or Excel on the desktop, to a game on an iPhone or Facebook. Traditionally, with PCs, we called them programs or just software – ‘app’ is just a newer term for the same sort of programs on mobile platforms.
With apps, as with clothing, there is no ‘one size fits all.’ Different platforms – Mac, PC, Web, mobile phones – require various different languages, tools and technologies be used to create their apps. Thus, the software development tools used to create a Facebook app are entirely different from those used to create an iPhone app or a Windows app. Even within the mobile apps category, there are major differences in the tools and languages used to create iPhone apps versus Android apps.
Let's understand the basic differences. Facebook apps are essentially very specialized websites or Web-based apps that are built with standard Web technologies, such as a combination of HTML, CSS, PHP, C# .NET, and so forth. Facebook apps only run within the framework of Facebook, which is inside a Web browser.Â
Mobile apps, on the other hand, are ‘native’ software programs – compiled, executable software programs that run on the device just like a Windows or Mac desktop software program. They are typically written in languages such as C and its variants and derivatives such as Java and C#. Generally speaking, native apps are more robust than Web apps because they execute immediately on the device and are usually much faster and more responsive. They can process more data, faster, and process more robust graphics and animation.
Of course, the proliferation of different mobile devices has brought about a proliferation of apps. The various mobile devices now on the market each require their apps to be built with their own unique set of tools and languages.
Android primarily uses Java, while Windows Phone 7 apps are written in C# with Visual Studio, and iPhone apps are written in Objective C with XTools. The actual compiled software program (i.e., the ‘executable’) is entirely different from one platform to the other.
And you thought that the basic lack of compatibility between PCs and Macs was a headache?Â
So where do the financial services companies fit in? Well, there are many reasons for companies in this industry to develop an app, ranging from the desire to provide a better customer experience interacting with their firm, to expanding and extending the relationship with new interactive abilities and capabilities.Â
As a consumer, I use my online banking app daily to check balances, transfer funds between accounts, make payments and more. I absolutely would not do my banking with a group that does not have a mobile app. And, in fact, my current bank has a competitor with a more robust app – and that is enticing me to switch in order to make my business life more convenient on a daily basis.Â
This is not a trivial matter. When looking at starting a relationship with a financial services company, consumers are considering whether they can get a native iPad or iPhone app to interact with the company. The better and more robust the app, the more enticing that company becomes for the consumer. Native app support for mobile devices is becoming a requirement for businesses today, just as online banking is now an expected part of doing business.
As someone who is potentially seeking a mortgage, I am much more likely to work with a firm that has solid Web and mobile app support for any major business transactions. When looking for new housing, I will gravitate toward the Realtors who have the most complete and robust listings online on their websites, and mortgage brokers who have helpful loan calculators online and/or in mobile apps for playing the ‘what if’ scenarios on down payments, interest rates and other variables that affect the final purchase price and monthly costs. Although I will pick up the phone and call an agent or broker when I'm seriously ready to sit and start the process, I want to do my ‘tire kicking’ and investigative work on my own time, without pressure, via Web and mobile apps.Â
For the service provider, it is also much more efficient to let prospects churn through this tire-kicking stage on their own, without getting pulled into time-wasting efforts. The agent is pulled in when it is time to get serious and start processing paperwork or providing more accurate/specific quotes, and so forth.
How to proceed
Okay, what about the points raised earlier about different apps for different platforms? Do financial services companies need to have more than one app?
The answer: Not necessarily. There is no correlation between quantity and quality. An analogy is medication from your doctor: If a particular pill is good for you, it does not mean two are better. In fact, overdosing on or combining various medications can be bad for your health – it is about the correct and appropriate dosage and appropriate mix of medications.Â Â
The same applies to apps. If all features can be designed into one app and make sense – and if it is appropriate – then one app suffices.
However, it's a matter of app content, purpose and focus. It absolutely would make sense to break out features and functions targeted to different audiences. A financial services firm may have one app that is entirely focused on stocks and trading, and may decide to launch an entirely separate app focused around mortgages, with loan calculators, amortization schedules, tutorials, etc. Stocks and mortgages are two different subjects with different target audiences, and each can have its own deep, feature-rich app.Â
However, in some instances, a ‘Swiss Army Knife’ approach of including multiple functions in one app makes sense. A good app development shop will have not only just techie programmers and/or visual graphic designers, but also smart software architects who can consult on appropriate informational design and content issues.
Also, it is important to remember that apps will probably need to be updated. The key word is ‘probably’ – this depends upon whether the ‘content’ in the app is dynamic or static.
For example, a basic stock ticker app probably never needs to be updated – the data is pulled in real time over the Internet, so the content is constantly changing, but the basic app itself that drives it probably does not need to be touched, except for a minor tweak to support new operating system releases.
Others apps, especially if they have their content built in or are utilities such as mortgage calculators that tie into ever-changing laws and regulations, might require updates to keep pace with changes within the core business.
Most business and financial apps are updated every month or two for minor bug fixes, to add new features and to keep pace with changing business environments. Like a website, they are best to be considered living, breathing things that should constantly be kept updated and fresh, with new features and updates.Â
With Android and iPhone operating system updates coming out every six to 12 months, updating the app to take advantage of the latest operating system updates is all positive. Updates several times a year seem to be common, but there is no hard and fast rule. Unless there is a bug that needs to be fixed, some apps may not be updated for a year or more.
Of course, this leads to the question of who is going to create and update the app. Designing an app is analogous to building a house: There are many skill sets that must all come together to create the final product (e.g., plumbers, framers, roofers).
Similarly, with anything but the most trivial of apps, you cannot take one person, such as a software engineer, and expect him or her to build a complex app. An appropriate app includes fairly technical software engineering expertise, along with good graphic design, and a systems-analyst approach to ‘informational architecture.’Â
This last piece is critical. Think about it as the difference between iPhone and Windows Mobile. Both Microsoft and Apple have competent software engineers and graphic designers. Why is one product infinitely more popular than the other? It is all about usability: The iPhone isn't just programming code and pretty graphics. The whole flow of the product was designed from a user-interface standpoint to be easier to use and more intuitive, and the result is sales success.Â
Working in-house can be preferable if the organization is large enough to be able to afford having all of these resources in-house. Turnaround time can be faster on incremental updates – and since you ‘own’ the team, your priorities get attention.
On the other hand, hiring a professional development firm can be preferable if the company does not have the talent in-house already (and learning curves can take years!). A development team will be more efficient and timely because it can do this stuff all day long, versus a company thinking ‘we can learn this and figure it out as we go,’ which is usually a recipe for massive cost and time overruns.Â
But once the app is created, how do you get your app to stand out from the zillions of apps on the market? Well, there is no easy answer to this. Really, how do you get your core products to stand out from other financial products from competing financial institutions?Â
The answer: Sales and marketing. It is important to acknowledge that the saying ‘If you build it, they will come,’ does not apply. Like anything else, it takes time, effort and money to promote the app.
Eric Robichaud is CEO of 401 Consulting, based in Woonsocket, R.I. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.