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How to Build the Next Instagram

To make sure your mobile app is a hit, you must focus on these three aspects of user experience.
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By the end of this year, the number of mobile devices will have exceeded the world's population. There are four times more mobile devices in the world as there are TVs, and six times more mobile devices than PCs. Instagram, which Facebook just bought for $1 billion in cash and stock, has more than 30 million registered users. If you don't already have a mobile strategy, you should—very soon.

Based on thousands of mobile studies conducted by my digital consultancy, AnswerLab, here are three quick things you must do to make sure your mobile app succeeds, like Instagram: 

1. Consider the entire user experience.

Often companies are in such a hurry to launch a new mobile app that they forget to consider the entire user experience flow, starting with discovery in the app store. How you market the app will have a major impact on users' expectations for what the app can do, and subsequently impact satisfaction. If the app doesn't deliver on those expectations, consumers will rate the app poorly. And it's very difficult to recover from poor ratings, especially if you have limited budget to iterate in the short-term.

The new "Paper" drawing app for the iPad has angered many purchasers with its less obvious free-to-paid model. In fact, 22% of the raters have given the app a one out of five rating because of frequent charges for using additional basic tools like the ability to sketch and write. One reviewer wrote in the Apple App Store sarcastically, "Oh, and why not $1.99 for the air I'm breathing while I use the app?" Many users expected to do dramatically more with the app and to be presented with a much simpler pricing model.

In the app store, remember to:

  • Make sure your app's value proposition is short and to-the-point
  • Be honest, not evasive, in descriptions
  • Earn trust by featuring compatibility constraints front and center
  • Use bulleted lists rather than paragraphs to ensure users read app information
  • Include screenshots that succinctly convey the unique features

By contrast, Instagram's value proposition is clear from the first brief paragraph of its description in the Apple App Store:

some_text

2. Make your app's value proposition and benefits obvious on its home page.

Designers and product managers live and breath the products they build to such a degree that they often forget that their customers have limited experience with their big new idea. Recently, while testing a new-to-market app for a social media client, I was surprised to find a first-time user experience led with login, and absolutely no explanation or context about what the app might do for users. Even after login, the main content area of the site did not readily display the app's key features. Users had to spend 15 to 20 minutes trying tasks prompted by the researcher before fully understanding the benefits of the app. In real life, consumers won't give you the benefit of the doubt for as long as they do in a lab setting. Make it crystal clear from the get-go what your app can do.

Instagram, for example, includes a brief pop-up screen that explains exactly what signing up will allow you to do:

some_text  

3.     Don't ignore what you already know about your users.  

Building a mobile app doesn't require you to throw-out everything you already know about how users use the web. They will have some similar mindsets and use cases as they shift from the web to mobile channels. For example, if your customers have difficulty differentiating the names of your products and services on your website, they'll have the same challenge on your mobile app. So, you should avoid using unclear product names as navigational elements, which can be a temptation because there is so little real estate on mobile devices. 

Users also transfer a great deal of expectations based on navigating websites to navigating mobile apps. One app for a major consumer-packaged-goods company that we studied included a link for "more" information in the upper left-hand corner of the phone screen. Users mistakenly clicked it when attempting to go "back" and were baffled when they got to the next screen. But, more importantly, when they wanted additional information, they looked to the lower-right of the screen, where a typical "continue" button would be, and found nothing. This design broke two major conventions for navigating a phone web and failed to promote content consumption.

Just like on websites, users expect the following in apps: 

  • The brand logo in the upper left-hand corner will take them to the app's home screen.
  • Return-to or back links will be in the upper-left hand side of the app.
  • Links to continue will be in the lower right-hand side of the app.

You can build a wildly successful new-to-market mobile app. Just be sure to follow well-known digital interaction conventions and make it blindingly clear what your app will do for customers. Testing the experience with users from in-store marketing to app download to in-app usage will also help identify missed expectations and usability issues that you can eliminate before launch. 

IMAGE: Instagram
Last updated: Apr 10, 2012

AMY BUCKNER CHOWDHRY | Columnist

Amy is CEO of AnswerLab, a digital experience consultancy based in San Francisco and New York.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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