“Value-Added Apps” brought Gus Balbontin, Global Innovation Manager of Lonely Planet; Michel Kripalani, President of app publisher Oceanhouse Media; and Pete Myers, co-creator of the BirdsEye iPhone app, ogether with moderator Neal Hoskins, founder of digital publisher WingedChariot, to discuss the current challenges and opportunities of app development. (One challenge: Toddlers! We’ll get to that later.)
“Users want more functionality, they want it now, they want it cheaper, they want it on all platforms,” said Myers, whose BirdsEye app is aimed at birders who want to “grow their birding life list.” Those are a lot of “wants” to address. And, while Kripilani said he doesn’t believe that the amount of money spent on a project “equates to the amount of quality you get on the backend,” Myers said that coming up with enough marketing dollars to make an app stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace is a challenge. “If we were starting over,” he said, “we’d look much more closely at ensuring we had a serious promotion budget.” Balbontin agreed that app discoverability is critical, but agreed with Kripilani that “at the end of the day, a lot of it is word of mouth.” (Hey publishers, does this sound familiar?)
The app developers are grappling with multiple platforms, polishing apps in updates and preventing them from crashing. Developing for Android has been “a nightmare,” Kripilani said. Myers is in active discussions with Android developers and may roll out a largely web-based version of BirdsEye: The app currently pulls data from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Myers wants to be able to send data to the lab as well, “coming full circle. We’re probably initially going to be doing that through a web-based interface.
When there are glitches, “customers are very forgiving at the moment, again because we’re growing together,” Balbontin said, pointing out that problems in apps can often be fixed on the fly. When Hoskin’s WingedChariot accidentally slipped German into a Dutch iPhone book app, the company didn’t notice until references to “the German page” began appearing on iTunes. “We almost wilted like [book] publishers,” he said. “Then we realized we were in a different world, we updated quickly and wrote a note to Dutch users, and sales didn’t drop. That was a whole new process and a new way of thinking.
As for polishing apps, Kripilani said Oceanhouse’s children book apps have undergone eight major updates, with changes made based on user feedback. For instance, the company developed its AutoPlay feature after consumers kept complaining that when they read the book apps with toddlers, the kids kept touching the screen and accidentally hitting the “Return” button, which would start the book all over again. AutoPlay, said Kripilan, makes apps “indestructible. It doesn’t matter what you touch on the screen. Unless you hit the home button, it’s going to read the book for twenty minutes.”
And, Myers said, his company decided early on to make the BirdsEye app “so simple, so elegant it doesn’t need a user manual.” As a result, the company rarely receives support requests indicating that users don’t know how to work the app. “We do get other support requests,” he said. “Parents and grandparents give it to their toddlers to hear the [bird calls] and the toddlers hit the empty support request. We follow up, and often learn, ‘Oh, sorry, that was my grandson.'”