July 24, 2020 By Alex

What Makes a Great App?


You’ve seen the lists of “best new apps” and “top apps of the year.” What makes these apps any better than the thousands of others in app stores? What makes an app great? A catchy name and fancy animations help, but real quality comes from how well the app addresses these elements: purpose, audience, stability, and polish.

We polled our team of award-winning product managers, designers and developers and came up with these four criteria for creating a great app.

It Does One Thing Well

A common mistake is to cram too many features into an app. Apps need to do one thing well. Those that focus on a simple concept have more of a chance to succeed.

Take Uber for example. If you remove their focus on black service cars in the early days, Uber was primarily about getting your ride faster. Without that focus, Uber wouldn’t have been nearly as successful as it’s grown. Once Uber nailed that one thing, they earned the right to add on extra features, like fare splitting, to make it the service we recognize today.

Takeaway: Start with your core focus, execute it well, and earn the right to focus on additional features

It Knows its Audience

A great app not only understands the one thing that it does well, it understands its audience and is designed for them. For example, musx is focused on those who want to share and discover new music. While the app may appeal to more casual music listeners, features like tagging a song or mentioning a friend are really geared towards those who believe music is social.

The essence of the idea needs to be unique to its audience. It talks to the specific needs of its users and either offers them something new that they didn’t know they missed or solves a problem that users struggle with on a regular basis. For example, the Destiny app appeals to the obsessive nature of some gamers, allowing them to keep track of their stats and gear on the console game, Destiny. The app serves as a lifeline to players who can’t play the game in that moment. It doesn’t try to overextend by offering any additional access to the game beyond the basics. The app allows players to dote on their characters and check their stats and kill counts during their non-gaming time. It psyches them up to get home and log into Destiny.

Takeaway: Research your audience and focus on meeting their specific needs

It’s Stable and Fast

Think about the main apps that you use every single day. They don’t crash, aren’t slow, and do what you expect them to do. These apps offer experiences like those of default apps put out by Apple and Google — they just work. We take that for granted, but it’s hard to get to that point.

Great apps are also snappy and offer fast response times. Their users can get in and out of the app and do what they mean to do in just a couple of taps or seconds. We’re fans of Marisa Mayer’s rule of thumb to make sure your users can get to anything they want to do in the app with only two taps.

Similarly, Homesnap, shows the value of a house by taking a picture of it. Within seconds, tons of data is crunched, and the expected price is returned. The wow moment of the app only really happens when that occurs quickly.

Takeaway: Speed is a feature. Keep your scope tight to ensure your app is both stable and fast

It’s Polished

Polish really helps separate an app. Focusing on the small details can help separate it from other apps and inspire both users and other app creators alike.

One way to add polish is to include tasteful interactions and subtle transitions. In CatoAudio, an app we recently completed for The Cato Institute, we spent significant extra time with these kinds of delightful touches. This focus helped take a simple podcasting app and make it fun to use.

Polish can also be done with sound effects, like the classic token-collecting chime in Quest or the pop-like noises that occur when events are created or deleted in our Agenda app.

Takeaway: The details matter. Animations, sound effects, interactions, and other little flourishes bring the app to life and make it impressive

Concluding Note

A great app is focused, intuitive, fast, and a pleasure to use. You should regularly explore apps featured on the app stores and those that receive awards from Apple and Google. By focusing on fulfilling the four criteria above, you'll have a greater chance at making it on those “top app” lists.

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