Last reviewed 17 July 2020

The app is still as popular as ever, or is it? Businesses can see the rise of m-commerce and the expansion of apps into every possible domain. But are apps still as popular with consumers? Should a small business in 2020 develop new apps, or refresh their existing ones? Dave Howell reports.

Mobile digital devices are more popular than ever. The Covid-19 crisis has pushed smartphone usage, for instance, to an all-time high. From social media usage to online shopping, using apps for work and play has never been more widespread. Indeed, according to Bloomreach.

Digital commerce is driving growth. Nearly half of decision-makers whose businesses sell online (46%) report growth as a result of Covid-19.

Customers will pay for a better digital experience. Nearly 40% of consumers and 56% of B2B customers say they would pay more for a better experience, and they will not buy from the same business again if they have a bad experience.

Businesses are looking to increase investments in core digital commerce technologies that impact great experiences - since the coronavirus outbreak; investment has shifted to online channels like web (64%), apps (58%), social (52%), and third-party marketplaces (46%).

Technology is the answer to the current situation. More than half of decision-makers report their companies plan to significantly or moderately increase investment in digital technology, with investments in E-commerce CX (Customer Experience) technology and E-commerce platforms (64%), AI capabilities (40%), advanced search capabilities (38%), and mobile app (38%).

The level of personalisation and direct contact with customers are the two powerful aspects of apps, particularly in a retail setting. Apps, though, are not just about shopping.

Businesses have been evolving their services to make them more appealing and efficient when used on mobile devices. With physical contact still difficult as the pandemic continues, developing app services is a cost-effective route to reinforcing existing customer and commercial partner relationships.

And as cash has fallen out of favour, card payments and payments via a range of apps, as well as growing in-app purchasing, has ensured mobile apps have seen a resurgence in their popularity. And as high streets reopen, payment apps will play a huge role right across the retail sector.

App fatigue?

The phrase ‘app fatigue’ has been used for the past few years to describe the lack of engagement users can have with the vast majority of the apps they download to their phones and tablets. With just a few days before they are deleted, the state of app design is vital for businesses to get right. Engagement with their apps must take place instantly to hold the users’ attention and, build a long-term relationship with them.

Ashley Friedlein, the founder of Econsultancy and Guild, said: "Mobile usage is only increasing, as is app usage. It will be hard to break the monopoly of the 'mega apps' that take up the most app usage time. However, the success of Snapchat and now TikTok show that it is still possible to create huge traction very quickly through apps. Alongside the mega apps that is always room for more focused apps that do a particular thing very well.”

Friedlein continued: "There is a broader trend in digital platforms and social media, acknowledged by Mark Zuckerberg among others, away from more public, noisy, experiences to more private, smaller and intimate ones. Apps are perfect for this as they are on your phone, can use notifications and other features to make the experience very personal and, using encryption, among other things, very private and secure. So, apps fit the trend towards more private, invite-only, safe digital spaces – both professionally and personally."

Croner-i Small Business Essentials spoke with Malcolm Carroll, Director, BlueFinity and began by asking are apps still relevant to consumers and businesses alike?

“Apps have never been more relevant for consumers and businesses,” Carroll responded. “The benefits of having an app have been heightened during this coronavirus crisis, as they have provided a vital way for businesses to interact with customers and continue trading, and for people to communicate with their colleagues, family and friends.

“The impact of lockdown measures and social distancing has also radically changed consumer shopping habits, shifting more sales online and through mobile phones. New data from App Annie, highlights that mobile app usage grew by 40% year-over-year in the second quarter of 2020, even hitting an all-time high of over 200 billion hours during April. Consumer spending in apps, meanwhile, hit a record high of $27 billion in the second quarter. And app downloads reached a high of nearly 35 billion.

“It is not just consumer apps that have proved popular. According to the research, the biggest growth in app usage was from businesses. This was just been accelerated by the popularity of companies using Zoom conferencing for meetings and to connect their employees working remotely.

“The growth in the use of business apps looks set to stay as many companies will continue to support remote working, with some stating they unlikely to bring back all their employees in the coming months, as they are unable to abide by the social distancing measures needed to keep people safe at work. This also highlights the importance of companies being able to create apps that work just as effectively on desktops and mobile devices from the same design.

“Another major driver in the growth in business apps is that since the pandemic companies worldwide have seen a significant change in their operating conditions, often resulting in a reduction in revenue and activity, which has forced to them reassess their current business models.

“Some are creating business apps to stay ahead of the curve and to support their future growth, so we have seen increased demand from businesses looking to build apps. We have also seen progressive organisations using this quieter business period to engage existing staff, who are working from home to focus on app development. Using low code development tools and their home computers, they have been able to build sophisticated, full function, business apps for their company.”

Is ‘app fatigue’ still a major challenge for all businesses using the app channel?

“App fatigue can be a challenge for business using the app channel, as increasingly, consumers feel inundated by different companies asking them to download their apps or they are fed up of receiving constant updates, notifications and messages from the apps they have downloaded and simply delete them.

“However, despite this, app usage is increasing at a phenomenal rate. Consumers today expect to interact with companies using an app and if businesses do not offer one it can put them at a disadvantage, and they risk losing business to a competitor. Having an app with the company’s logo available immediately on a customer’s mobile device can make it the ‘go to’ place to do business, rather than giving customers the option of using another web site. Apps can also be configured to provide a more personalised service for different types of customers. Another benefit is that an app can be set up to still work when there is poor or no internet connection, which provides better customer service. An app provides capabilities far beyond that of a website and offer customers a better level of service.

“But it is so important for companies to create apps that are truly useful to avoid app fatigue. Good apps will enable people and incorporate features such as Chat Bots to improve the customer experience. We offer our customers extended support throughout the development process, from the initial app design, right through to the deployment of the app. An important part of this is the app review which not only ensures the design works, but that the app is optimised for different devices and screen types and tested to ensure they are and easy to use and engaging. If this isn’t the case, then customers are likely to switch off.

Where do we currently stand with the native or web app debate?

“Native apps and web apps are useful tools for users and both types of can work well for companies depending on what they need from their app and how sophisticated their app development capabilities are. Many companies developing apps for the first time will be unsure that what they need is going to work for them in the future and this is why selecting the right low code platform that is completely flexible is so important.

“For example, many companies start with a simple web app and then later, develop a hybrid or fully native app. One of the advantage of using a low code app development tool like Evoke is the fact it is completely flexible and allows companies to easily create web, hybrid and native apps or even start with a web app and then later convert this into a hybrid or native app, simply be regenerating the app from exactly the same design base.”

What does the future of the app look like?

The future for apps looks very bright. Analysts are predicting a huge growth in app usage, and with key technologies such as AI (Artificial Intelligence) and AV (Audio Visual) being integrated into apps will become smarter, more personalised and tailored to individual needs, increasing their value and use. The growth of the Internet of Things will not only drive the growth in smart home development apps, but it is clear that many industries from healthcare to manufacturing are increasingly developing apps.

“We are seeing an increase in businesses creating apps to streamline and improve their internal processes, to automate different functions and improve how they trade and interact with their customers. As companies start to recover from this pandemic, they will be looking for new ways to reduce costs and improve efficiencies and many will turn to low code app development tools to create apps more easily and cost effectively.

Building your app future

The business of apps has continued to evolve over the past decade. Apps have become a ubiquitous component of the commercial landscape. All enterprises – no matter their size – have to navigate the app environment. Seen through the lens of Covid-19, apps have become an even more essential component of a business's communications and, how every company now sells its goods or services.

Says Sudarshan Dharmapuri, SVP Products, at IMImobile: "Although apps still have an important role to play, businesses are also now exploring using new communication channels to engage with their customers such as WhatsApp, RCS and Facebook Messenger. Customer convenience is key, and activities such as rescheduling parcel deliveries and booking engineer appointments can be carried out without leaving the messaging application. Ultimately, it's all about understanding the customer context; brands just need to ensure they are communicating via the right channel, at the right time, to the right person.”

All businesses should have a clearly defined app development roadmap. As commerce has changed thanks to the pandemic, reaching customers and commercial clients via mobile channels, is today, more critical than it has ever been.