The top mistake clients make when building their app

By | July 1, 2013

This is a excerpt from a presentation given at CommunicaAsia 2013 on Why Apps fail. The presentation covered more items than what I have blogged here and you can download the original slides here.

The topic was: Top 10 Mistakes Clients Make When Building Their App
– How did your app turn out to be uninspiring?
– Avoid making a self-destructive app
– Learning from stories of failures and plan your route to developing a successful app

We are gathered here today to give an eulogy to the masses of apps out there that failed and crashed. In specific, we are talking about apps spawned from companies with massive resources that indie developers could never muster yet fail to make an impact.

This is a subject that is close my heart as over the past 4 years that 2359 Media has been in business, we have seen over 50 apps born from ideation, design, development and finally to being available in the market. In the same 4 years, we have engaged with enterprise clients in countless meetings. In these meetings, we have seen how decisions are made in a group setting and a few months later seen the impact of these decisions on the end result. Some decisions set the app on a path of failure.

With these mistakes and observations, I hope to distill our learnings with you so that all of us can ensure that our time invested in building apps will be well worth the ride and the end result much better.

The Problem

The problem is well documented by multiple analytics companies like Localytics, Flurry and Distimo.
“80% of branded apps analysed by Deloitte had been downloaded less than 1,000 times. ”

The majority of the apps get less than a thousand downloads. For a professionally developed app that cost upwards of 5 figure sum, that is such an expensive way to reach your customers. To put it in perspective, cost per click on online advertising might only cost $2 vs the $10 that you have just spent to get someone to download your app.
However the larger problem is that apps rarely survive first contact with the users

“it found that 26% of the time, customers never launch a mobile application they’ve download more than once”

This means that 75% of users do not even come back after their first time. and since they have downloaded your app, the reason behind this abandonment must be your app. So lets find out why.

Lets take a look at the existing process in most companies that we have worked with.

Existing App Process

Somewhere in the company, someone has an idea and decides to be the champion for it. He believes that it will improve his business in some way. so he gets more colleagues involved to get support for his app because he knows that in the company, you need people to agree for things to move forward. He calls for a meeting to get his colleagues involved,  and they brainstorm for about the app. At the end of the brainstorming session, up comes a list of features which is turned into specifications for the development team.

He then presents the features to his boss because he needs the budget. The boss then proceeds to add his own idea of what the app should be by using his experience. The app is then developed and then launched to market.  We have seen this happening over and over again in companies that we work with.

So what is wrong with this process?

Well the problem is obvious to everyone right?  Up until the end, no one ask the customers or end user whether the app is useful for them.

But if you think that the solution is as simple as asking users right at the start, that is actually not the solution. Because if it was, we won’t have some many apps that fail. The problem is not re-arranging the steps but changing what happens in each step of the process.

And to do this, we have to start at the beginning, where the team gathers for their brainstorming session. Let’s say we were to bring the end user in at this stage. Would it solve the problem? The answer would be NO because you cannot bring in the user to ask if the app is useful.

That is because your team has not agreed on the the golden question which is “Who is the end user”.

Butterfly effects of not having a user persona

Let me play out the effects of not defining the end user because without the team agreeing on the end user, there is a huge butterfly effect on the next 3 items that will be decided.
and they are

2. Value Proposition: Benefit to end user
3. Differentiation to end user in their mind
4. How to reach these end users when the app launches

2. Benefit to end user

If you cannot clearly define the user, by extension, you cannot clearly define the benefit for that user. In cases where the end user is not clearly defined, here is how a typical brainstorming meeting will be conducted. When the team gathers, everyone will starting brainstorming and thinking of what is useful. There will be many “benefits” suggested. Team member A will raise a benefit that he thinks if useful and so will team member B C and D. All these features are useful and they provide a certain benefit.

However at the end of these meetings, what is on the feature list will be a long list of items because it needs to satisfy all the stakeholders involved. And when the app launches, it will fail at launch because the person who downloads the app simply does not understand it. Mobile apps need to be very focused because user attention spans are very short. For example if they are user type A and they cannot find feature A which was promised to them in the app description or marketing materials, they will leave your app confused and unhappy. There are many reasons why they cannot find their Feature A. It might not be the prioritized feature and therefore it is so deep in the application that they cannot find it. Or it might not be as fully featured as they expected it to be. And that is why 75% of apps do not even get a repeat use. The first experience did not match up to the user’s expectation.

So how do we change this? We introduce a specific user persona X who is imagined to be the person using the app. Having a specific user allows the team to ask a key question when they are in the middle of brainstorming.

“Is this feature important for user X”

This changes the team dynamic so that features are added to keep user X happy instead of stakeholders happy. It also removes the politics in the office where declining to a superior in power is now acceptable because we are looking out for what is important to the end user. It also allows prioritization of features by referring back to the end user. This allows the team to manage scope and expectations into Phase 1 priority features and phase 2 features (to be considered later) by justifying what is most important to the user persona.

And that is why 1 user is important when crafting the value proposition

3. Differentiation to end user

The next is differentiation. To put it simply, it is why would the user switch to your newly launched application. In current state  of the mature app stores, any app that you can think of has been built. Therefore coming out with a me-too app so late in the game will have little impact if your differentiation is not strong.

What happens in situations when there is no clear user agreed on is that in the meetings,  the team is going to look at competitive apps that they use or is related to the app idea that you have in mind. Then they are going to pick the best features that appeal to them and suggest it in the meeting. All these features then get put onto the white board during the brainstorming session and that becomes specs or requirements.

What this means in practice is that the team has agreed to build everything out of the 3 or 4 apps they have looked at and that is why the app is doomed to fail.

There is no way that a new app can re-build everything because the competitors started earlier and will not stay still while you re-build what they already have. And because it is likely that the competitive apps are already successful means that they will have more budget than the new unproven app you are launching.

In 2359 Media, when we receive CFP or specs list like with everything and kitchen sink, we nickname them transformers apps because they seem to be able to transform to anything you want. But usually transformer apps never get built or launched and stay in development forever unless the scope is reduced.

Again we can make the process better by bringing in a clear user persona to the decision making process. Firstly, instead of looking at competitive apps, it enables the team to think like the end user. and empathizing with the end user is the first step to mapping out a user’s mental model. In everyone’s mind, we have a mental model of existing competitive apps and why we use each of them. Once you can map out the mental model according to the user persona agreed on, you can then differentiate your app for that specific by persona by finding a specific benefit that is not provided by existing apps. Then you would have a good reason why someone would use your new app even if they already use existing competitive apps.

Let’s take a look at a case study of this in the mobile instant messaging market. The IM market has always been a competitive and saturated market because of the great returns of being the top app. In addition, IM apps have great network effects which means it is really hard to convince users to switch if they are already using a IM app.

Whatsapp which started with a first mover advantage has grown dominant as the mobile IM of choice. So how does a new IM app break into this market. Let’s take a look at LINE which is a IM app launched in Japan only recently in 2011 but yet has managed to get 150MM users so far. And one can see their USP in the TV ads that are running. LINE is clearly targeting couples who want to build a more emotional experience and they have done this by their introduction of stickers which Whatsapp does not have. LINE did not try to introduce group chat early on as it was not important to couples even though that was a popular feature that Whatsapp had. This this case, what you do not do is more important than what you do.

So having a clear user persona enables the team to think of a feature inferior app yet providing a superior use case for the specific user you are targeting.

4. How to reach these end users when the app launches

Promotion for apps is a huge topic which I will not cover here because so much has been written already. I would just like to re-iterate that the promotion must be done with the user persona in mind. The marketing and advertising folks have long practiced this but sometimes, our clients not from these background tend to forget this.

Without a clear persona, there is no way that you can do targeting which means that your marketing will likely be in- effective or targetting the masses or no one in particular.

It is also important that you have a plan and budget for promotion because given the crowdedness of apps these days, one must break above the noise to have any chance of succeeding.

App Positioning Statement

To help you put this into practice, we have a short statement that we first use to focus discussion and then after that, use as a reference during decision making to ensure that decisions are aligned with the user in mind. This basic positioning statement clearly lists who the user is and why they would want to download it. It also restricts the discussion back to the user persona.

For (user persona) who needs (articulate use case),
(App X) is the (market context) that
(benefit delivered)
unlike (closest competitor),
App X (why you are better)

When used on our previous example, LINE, it is very clear that Line is not in social discovery which apps like Tagged are. Neither is LINE focusing on Press-to-Talk voice communication like Talkbox/Voxer which means voice communication is not the first phase feature. With a clear positioning statement, LINE can then get early users, prove their value and then expand further to new sets of users.


For (guys) who (want to impress girls)
(Line) is a (IM App)
that (enables a more emotional IM experience)
unlike (Whatsapp)
Line has (many cute icons to help you bring the other person closer)


To summarize, if your team cannot define and agree on a single user profile, the app will be off to a bad start. This is the core foundation that decisions will be made upon and fixing this later will be costly.

It matters less that you have a imperfect user persona than no user persona. Having no user persona leads to decisions that are made with no reference in mind. Having a user persona, be it the right or wrong persona, is all aligns of all the decisions that are made later which allows for consistency of feedback that you get from the first iteration of your app. The consistency then allows you to tweak the persona/features later so that you get closer to the right solution.

Zhou Wenhan is the co-Founder of 2359 Media.

2359 Media is a mobile-first digital innovation studio. Founded in February 2009, our aim was to create impactful mobile solutions that shape the digital media landscape. This still holds true today. We adopt an integrated approach to digital solutions and collaborative processes of which the UX process highlighted above is combined with our strong engineering to deliver great products for our clients.