Flipping the Switch

Great Mobile Apps All About User Experience

By Dan Ward, Detroit Labs

Face it: We’re living in a mobile world. Smartphone and tablet apps have given people the power to control practically every aspect of their personal and professional lives with the simple click of a button.

From tracking steps and catching Pokàƒ©mon to balancing budgets and coordinating schedules, apps have altered the way we function on a foundational level. The ability apps have to streamline tasks, simplify our lives and increase our efficiency is changing our lives.

It’s no surprise then that companies are beginning to see the value in mobile apps for the same reasons. While the goals of apps depend largely on what an organization is looking to accomplish, the best apps leave companies (and their customers) wondering how they ever survived without their app in the first place.

The problem is that most companies don’t know where to begin. How do you create an app that people not only need to use, but want to use?

For utility companies, mobile apps represent a lower-cost, self-service channel opportunity that can displace call centers while improving customer satisfaction. Granted, a mobile utility app isn’t an obvious candidate to be an app that people crave and can’t help but open every time they look at their phone. You’re not building the next Facebook or Snapchat. But, keeping that in mind, how do you ensure that your efforts-and, more importantly, your investment-will be successful?

More Than a Feeling

The answers to these questions all roll up to one all-encompassing aspect of creating a mobile app: User experience (UX).

UX is more than how an app performs or the features it has. It’s about how an app feels, how it engages the user and creates a connection with them. The best apps do these things.

Users form relationships with more than just their apps-they also make deep connections with the companies that those apps represent. And, like any other relationship, you intuitively know when something doesn’t feel right. Even if you can’t pinpoint what’s wrong, things just feel “off.”

It’s the same thing with UX on a mobile app. Maybe it’s the loading time, or it takes too long to find what you’re looking for. Maybe there are too many steps to accomplish a certain task. All of these factors contribute to a lackluster UX.

Try looking at it this way: an app’s design is the icing on the cake, and UX is the cake itself. No matter how many hours you put into creating a slick design, or how many cool features your app has, these elements can easily become overshadowed if people have a hard time using your app.

That leads to the next question: How do you create an app with a fantastic UX?

Know Your User

If you want your app to be used by more than one person (and you certainly do) then you must understand that there is no single user profile. It is imperative to take this into account when building your app. Apps have different audiences and multiple, diverse user populations. An app made for internal employees on your sales team should look and perform much differently than an external app made for customers. Why? Because the needs and goals of these user groups are totally different.

Start by asking: “Who is this app for?”

Mobile apps are targeted tools. Making an app that tries to be everything to everyone will result in disaster. Instead, focus on identifying the most important audience for your app and making the app as useful as it can be for that particular group.

Next, ask yourself: “How do we currently interact with them?”

Utility companies have long followed a trend of fewer human and more self-service interactions. There are many quick, easy wins to be had in these interactions, and they lend themselves to making up the core of a solid mobile app that solves customer problems.

But when dealing with customers, electric and gas utility companies start off at a disadvantage. Why? Utility consumers’ interactions with a power company are negative by nature. They are either paying a bill or reporting an outage. An energy company must acknowledge and respect that. Pretending otherwise can quickly derail your app even though you have the best intentions. Don’t try to be something you’re not.

As an energy company, the most important thing you can do to improve customer interactions is to look at these touch points and ask: “What can we do to enhance the experience at these touch points?”

Don’t try to create an elaborate solution to an impossible problem. Apps perform best when providing simple, streamlined answers to customer challenges. This can go a long way toward improving customer sentiment.

Putting Yourself in Their Shoes

It also is important to ask: “What is the most painful thing my user encounters when dealing with my brand?” Creating an app that helps them address an obstacle or roadblock they regularly experience is a surefire way to deliver a better consumer interaction-and an app that people will actually use.

DTE Energy, a provider of electricity and gas to more than 2.2 million customers in southeast Michigan, took this approach. The company recognized that nothing is more frustrating for customers than a power outage. DTE Energy worked with Detroit Labs to put itself in the shoes of stressed-out customers to guide the design of the app. The resulting mobile app lets customers view energy outages, report their own outages and track service repairs in real-time. It also shows customers nearby grocery stores, coffee shops and hotels with power. In addition, customers can view usage reports, pay their bills and easily report emergencies like gas leaks and down power lines.

The app has been an overwhelming success with more than 200,000 downloads, 350,000 outages tracked annually and a 25 percent improvement in customer satisfaction.

In many instances, users don’t even know they needed an app until they have it. As Henry Ford famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted they would have said faster horses.” Putting yourself in the shoes of your audience is critically important and will strategically guide the functionality of your app.

Look at Other Successful Consumer Apps

No matter what business they’re in, brands need to pay attention to successful consumer apps. Their employees and customers are both consumers, after all, and they spend massive amounts of free time using apps like Instagram and Snapchat. They must be doing something right. Look at these types of apps and learn from them. Dissect the experience and interaction you have with them.

So what exactly are they doing right? For starters, they are incredibly easy to use. Again, this goes back to UX being more about how an app feels to use, and these apps feel responsive and intuitive. They make your phone an extension of you.

Download these apps yourself (if you don’t already have them) and play around with them. Also, think about the apps you use every day, like Mail or Messages. What do you like about them? What don’t you like? How do they make the experience of using them seamless? Adoption of your app will be easier if you give users an app that feels like something with which they are already familiar.

Review and Refine

Launching your app is only the beginning. The best apps continue to evolve over time to meet the ever-changing needs of users and to adopt new technologies; yours should, too.

How do you get honest feedback about your app from users after it launches and keep a finger on the pulse of your App Store reviews? Users will literally tell you what they like, what they don’t like, and what functionality they wish the app had that they would like to see in future updates.

Take this feedback seriously. Not only will this feedback help you improve your app, but it will also create a stronger brand association because users will know that their feedback matters to you. And that matters to them.

Analytics will also help tell your app’s story. Look for problem areas by highlighting heat maps, or navigational patterns that illustrate where users are dropping off. These types of analytics illustrate user behavior, and can help identify problem points within your app’s navigation that need to be rectified in future updates.

Dive In

App development isn’t something that should be taken lightly; it’s a long-term investment, both in terms of time and resources. When you’re ready to start, dive right in and fully immerse yourself in the process. Users can tell when you don’t put the proper amount of effort into your app-and they will not hesitate to tell you.

When done correctly, a mobile app can improve customer engagement and customer satisfaction. Your users will wonder how they ever lived without your app, and that’s exactly the type of user experience you want to create.


Dan Ward serves as co-founder of Detroit Labs, a Detroit-based mobile development company and maker of iPhone, iPad, Android and vehicle apps. The firm has partnered with national brands like Domino’s Pizza, General Motors, DTE Energy and Hyundai to dream up, design and build beautiful, intuitive apps. For more information, visit www.detroitlabs.com.

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