Application usability and affordability: How to deliver great web and mobile app experiences cost-effectively

Frank Zinghini

Founder & CEO
application usability and affordability

Business managers and developers often view application usability as a needless, time-consuming process that costs too much money. Experience has taught us that the marketplace reality is quite the opposite. In fact, usability is the big differentiator between successful, revenue-generating applications and money-draining failures.

Making application usability a high-level requirement does not equate with out-of-control expenses that hurt your bottom line. Here are our thoughts about what usability really means, why it is so important, and how you can give it proper attention cost-effectively.

What does “usable” really mean?

The Agile development process supports the creation of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). An MVP is the most basic form of your application that functions and performs. It is “usable”—as in “functional”—but likely isn’t particularly attractive, and probably lacks a wide range of additional elements and features.

In our experience, a traditional MVP is not going to be enough when your product gets out into the market and is subjected to the “1-minute user test,” where a prospective customer comes to your site, tries the app, decides it’s not good enough, and returns to Google to continue searching for a solution.

Which is why, here at Applied Visions, we use Agile methods to create applications that will pass a user’s quick testing. We don’t think of these successful applications as “Minimum Viable Products.” We think of them as Minimum Valuable Products.

A Minimum Valuable Product (MVP) has the following characteristics:

  • It functions properly.
  • Your users truly like it.
  • Your users truly like it.
  • Your users repeatedly use it and recommend it to others.
  • It generates revenue for your business.

In other words, it is valuable to your customers because it provides a return on their investment (either money or time),  and it is valuable to your company because it generates positive revenue.

Creating a Minimum Valuable Product requires more than just writing code. A number of business-related questions must be asked and answered, and the process must involve everything from market strategy, user input, design, quality control, and security.

This new MVP requires more time and investment up front, but it is a stronger product that will gain more traction with users from day one. Your initial launch should be a usable app that is valuable to the user and your company, not one that simply works.

Why creating usable apps should be a top priority

Creating a Minimum Valuable Product starts with business managers asking and answering questions.

  • Who is your customer? What are their main concerns?
  • What do they want from your application? What is the most important function? (Thousands of user interviews have convinced us that it is seldom, if ever, what you think it is.)
  • What is the must-have function, that, if they find it missing, will cause them to quickly reject your application?
  • What other options are open to them (includingdoing nothing or using something that is good enough)?
  • What are the market trends that you need to either overcome or incorporate into your application, such as popular platforms?
  • What are your most successful competitors doing?
  • What are some of the frustrations experienced by your potential customers when trying to use competitors’ products?
  • Are you creating a new application and/or moving into new markets, or upgrading an existing application?
  • How much are you going to charge? Is your pricing in line with competitive products?
  • What platforms will this need to run on?

Users will decide within a few seconds if your application is valuable. If users do not find the application useful, they will stop using it, and your application will fail in the marketplace. Any investment you made in it will be lost. Changing your application after it has launched is expensive and embarrassing—and mostly ineffective without serious brand recognition to rely upon.

You can avoid costly changes and embarrassment by testing your application with usability in mind. Experienced and effective testers think like users, and the application is tested within the expected conditions of use in the real world. An application that is designed for multiple users must be tested appropriately to ensure the software can handle the load and that users will not interfere with each other, for example. For more information on the testing process, click here.  

Here are some tips on how to create usable apps:

  • Appoint a team member to be in charge of application usability.
  • Include a usability expert on your development team.
  • Follow a proper User Experience (UX) and User Interface (UI) design process.
  • UX and UI design must be user-centric.
    • The application should be designed with the end user in mind instead of just making something that works.
    • Steps include user research, competitive analysis, wireframing, prototyping, and app usability testing.

See our recent blog for more information on these steps and how to improve the UX and UI of your applications.

For an even deeper dive into this subject, download our guide entitled, “You Need to Build a Software Application. Now What?

How to balance application usability and cost

Now that you know why usability is so important and what you need to do to achieve it, the big question is: “How much will it cost?”

The good news is that you do not need to drain your budget. Let’s look at the big picture first.

Making mobile and web app usability a priority up front saves you money in four ways:

  1. Proper UX and UI design identifies problems in the user experience before development so you don’t have to rewrite code. Problems can often be found from simple paper sketching—a much cheaper option than fixing code for a functionality issue.
  2. Fixing issues after launch when a substantial investment has been made in marketing is a drain on your revenue stream as you try to recoup additional development and marketing costs.
  3. You lose credibility with your customer when you have to redesign your app after deployment. Customers who may have been willing to wait for the right product the first time around may not be so patient waiting for your second launch.
  4. Usable apps generate more revenue. Customers are willing to pay more for them and more users will download them. This increased revenue more than offsets the upfront cost of usability design.

There are also many frameworks developers can use to save time and money while developing usable apps. These frameworks automate some of the development process.

Some of the most common frameworks are:

  • React JS—This one is a JavaScript library for building user interfaces that is growing in popularity. It enhances the performance of your application, and React components can be recycled among applications, saving you more time and money.
  • Angular JS—This is a toolset for building the framework that is most appropriate for your application. Code can be produced quickly and pieces of your application can be tested easily.
  • Express JS—This open-source platform, developed in Node.js, simplifies design and customization. It easily connects with databases and allows you to quickly add functionality to your web application through modules. It can also be used to develop mobile applications.
  • Ruby on Rails—This framework uses the Ruby programming language. Reusability of the code makes web application development faster and simpler. It tightly focuses on testing, making it an excellent testing framework.
  • Meteor JS—This is a JavaScript web framework written in Node.js. It helps with faster page loads, which is useful when building real-time web applications.
  • Xamarin—This simplifies the creation process for cross-platform applications for Windows, Mac, and Linux. Xamarin.Forms lets you share user interface code and logic across platforms. It also provides support for Universal Windows Platform (UWP).
  • Electron—This is a framework that allows developers to use familiar web technologies to build cross-platform applications. Electron supports building native applications using web technologies such as JavaScript and CSS. It is an open-source project compatible with Mac, Windows, and Linux.

You can also use the cloud to cut costs while staying focused on usability. Developing your application in the cloud lets you add more features and functionality at little to no cost.

Additionally, you can quickly and easily scale up or down depending on your needs. You can add server capacity, such as memory, processors, or whole systems. This means you can be responsive to user needs quickly and at a lower cost.

Progressive Web Applications

Progressive Web Applications (PWAs) are a more recent approach to creating usable apps at a reduced cost, and are growing in popularity. Progressive Web Apps are websites that look and behave like mobile apps.

PWAs run on the web, but you can use native mobile device features. They merge the benefits of the web with those of mobile apps, allowing you to develop usable apps quickly and at a low cost.

Benefits of PWAs include:

  • They work for every user, regardless of browser, device, or location.
  • PWAs do not need to be installed from an app store, and they can be easily shared through a URL.
  • They are easily accessible through an icon on the home screen and can send push notifications.
  • They load quickly, even on unstable networks, and offer offline support, overcoming the biggest disadvantage of mobile applications—loss of internet connectivity. This is accomplished through service worker APIs, which cache data as the user browses.

One drawback to PWAs (and it’s a pretty big one) is that Apple does not currently support them. Luckily, this is likely to change in the near future. For more information on Progressive Web App development, check out this resource from Google.

What this all boils down to is you cannot afford to ignore usability or wait until deployment to give it your attention. Shift away from creating a Minimum Viable Product, and focus on making a Minimum Valuable Product. The extra time and money it takes to get there will be recouped quickly as users actually use your app—a lot.

Creating a Minimum Valuable Product will require some investment, but it does not have to eat your entire budget. Use existing frameworks and the cloud to automate portions of development and to add features at a low cost.

When in doubt, solicit outside expertise. Make sure you work with a team that understands the value of mobile and web app usability. The right team can guide you through the process in the most cost-effective way so your app is usable, successful, and generates revenue for your business.