How to make a difference: develop for social impact on Google Play

Get inspired by the opportunity to drive social impact with your app or game

Social impact describes the ability of products, companies, and organizations to have a positive effect and change the communities in which they serve and operate in. As mobile platforms with global scale and billions of users, Google Play and Android facilitate innumerable connections between people, developers, and nonprofits that create social impact around the world.

Here, I will share the stories of four incredible apps that create social impact around the world. I will also share insights into the social impact needs and interests of smartphone users to help developers better understand this opportunity on the platform. Lastly, I outline best practices aimed at helping developers build better social impact apps.

Apps that make a difference

As a developer partner manager at Google Play, I am fortunate to hear so many inspiring stories from developers who are making a difference with their apps and games. Take for example the app My Earthquake Alerts, which sends free, real time push notifications to alert users of severe earthquakes close to their location. This warning system can mean the difference between lives saved and lives lost when disaster strikes.

In situations where access to high-quality education is limited or costly, an app can help ease the strain. One example is Prepup, an effective mobile tool for students to prepare for common exams written in Nigeria and other African countries.

Positive impact surrounding Android apps is often created both on- and off- mobile. The founders of Forest: Stay focused are building an effective tool to help people disconnect from their smartphones for short periods of time and are also contributing to real world reforestation efforts by allowing in-app actions to become real trees being planted where they are needed most.

Some apps can also help improve the financial outcomes for their users. For example, Fresh EBT enables US users to easily view their food stamps balance, track their spending habits, and find nearby shops that accept EBT. The app can also help people save money with coupons. We believe that financial health represents a sizable social impact opportunity for fintech entrepreneurs on Google Play and Android.

Learn more about these four awesome social impact apps and their founders by watching our latest developer story:

The opportunity to drive positive social impact with Android

The global scale of Android and the diversity of its users creates a unique opportunity for developers to drive social impact. These four app examples reflect a wider trend among Android developers. Recent research by Google Play tells us that almost ¾ of Play developers are very interested in using their apps and games to create a positive impact on society. This sentiment is particularly strong for developers based in emerging economies, where ⅘ are showing strong interest in using their apps and games for social impact purposes.

Apps and games can deliver solutions to many social impact problems, requiring nothing more than the Android phones they are installed on. Areas of particular developer interest include healthcare, education, economic opportunity, financial health & inclusion, as well as personal security and safety.

Increasingly, nonprofits, NGOs and developers are also recognizing the opportunity provided by Google Play to generate awareness for local as well as global issues, to foster advocacy, and to raise donations. For example, ShareTheMeal developed by the World Food Programme, has raised over $13 million from more than one million users since it’s launch in 2015. In addition, indie game Thunderbird Strike by Elizabeth LaPensée explores the impact of pipeline construction on Indigenous land in the US, while sharing stories from her culture.

We work with over 160 strategic Android apps and games from around the world that focus primarily on social impact creation rather than commercial objectives. During the first half of this year, these titles accelerated new user install growth to 80% year on year, far outpacing the 20% YoY growth reported by App Annie in Q2 2018 for all apps & games on Play.

Users’ social impact needs and interests are ultimately responsible for driving this steep growth trajectory and the high diversity of social impact apps and games on the platform. Aiming to better understand these needs, this summer we conducted the first Google Play research into smartphone user sentiment on social impact. We analysed over eight thousand responses from people in eight different countries; including the US, Japan, Mexico, and Brazil.

The findings suggest that two in three smartphone users have experienced at least one social impact need (as defined by Google Play), and that half of those relied on a mobile app or resource to obtain help. When asked to specify their top three social impact needs users most often cited situations where they had to cover unexpected costs, faced personal safety issues, and lacked access to health resources.

The data on social impact user needs shows strong country by country diversity. For example, Mexico and Brazil strongly over index on personal safety issues, and Japanese users — while overall the least likely to report a social impact need — over index on having experienced an emergency or natural disaster situation.

An infographic with key findings from our research on smartphone user social impact needs, including a country by country breakdown, can be accessed at the end of this article. I hope that these insights will help developers improve their understanding of social impact needs and inspire you to develop novel mobile solutions to address them.

Bring your social impact idea to Android and help achieve sustainable growth

Drawing on examples from the developer ecosystem, I discuss five best practices to help you achieve sustainable growth for your social impact app or game on Android and Google Play.

1) Formulate app strategy to drive and measure impact

Whether you are starting a new project or optimising an existing social impact app or game, there are two critical questions to ask. The answers will help you determine many of your strategic decisions and ultimately the success of your social impact solution.

A) How is impact created and who are your target users?

To start, clearly define the mechanism by which impact is created for your target users and thoroughly understand the social, technological and economic context of your intended audience.

Also, consider whether the native app itself delivers the solution or whether it acts as a gateway to a service or product, and take into account expected frequency of use and average lifetime of a user. A native app, accessible from the home screen, is well positioned for high frequency use and easy access by its users.

Users will search for your service through the web as well as through app stores and when prompted to install a native app may not have space on their device, not have the bandwidth needed to download it or not trust the store or your brand enough to install it.

Ask yourself what approaches other organisations in the space are choosing and consider whether you can leverage any pre-existing behaviour patterns or user preferences.

Based on your analysis, you need to decide if a native app generates sufficient added value to justify the increased investment and maintenance costs relative to a web-only or non-mobile solution.

For example, Peek Acuity allows anyone with a smartphone to measure visual acuity, which is one of the components of vision. Test administrators install the app on their smartphones and perform dozens of tests per day. The user experience is significantly improved by access to the camera as well as offline capabilities, strengthening the case for a native app.

Conversely, the portal refugee.info primarily acts as a gateway to third party information repositories occasionally used by refugees in Europe and so a lightweight web implementation is preferrable.

B) How are you measuring impact?

Thinking through how to measure the impact created by your app for users and their communities is an important exercise for developers with a social impact focus. You may need to combine traditional indicators of app usage and engagement such as active users and sessions per user with highly problem specific indicators such as literacy scores, health test results, or savings rates.

It may be possible to use your app to collect some of the impact data but statistical best practices could necessitate partnerships with community organisations, academic research institutions, and government bodies to conduct and validate your research.

Your ability to clearly track social impact in the medium and long run will not only improve your ability to secure future funding and support but will also provide valuable input for your product roadmap.

2) Mix impact and mobile skills to build a winning team

Delivering social impact solutions via an app or game at scale requires a mix of skills that may not be instantly familiar to founders with humanitarian or development backgrounds.

Of course, deep subject matter expertise in the space that you are developing for is critical. You will be required to translate proven mechanism, past experiences, and key insights from the field to a mobile setting, while balancing the context and social impact needs of the intended target audience.

If you or your team is new to Android development, a great starting point is the newly launched Play Academy. It is a free training portal for Android developers that teaches you how to succeed on Google Play. The best practices section on the Android developer portal contains further insights on topics ranging from Android Studio to runtime permissions and Firebase Analytics.

If you don’t have any mobile development experience, Flutter is an easy and fast way to build beautiful mobile apps. It has the tools and libraries to help you bring your ideas to life on Android and across platforms. Developing a social impact app in house may not always be feasible, so that it becomes necessary to work with an agency or dev shop to create it for you. The decision to outsource development work is complex and I would recommend you carefully weigh up the long term advantages and drawbacks. An excellent starting point is Rupert Whitehead’s three part series on the topic.

User research, interaction design and product strategy represent further key skill sets that define successful social impact teams on Android. For example, when PEAT GmbH, the Berlin based developer behind Plantix, an app that helps smallholder farmers diagnose and treat crop diseases, noticed that their fastest growing user region was India, they decided to establish a permanent user research and product design presence in Pune. This investment has played a critical role in building a product that meets the needs of local farmers and maximises impact.

Depending on your app’s intended use cases and target audience, online marketing and user acquisition may be critical skill sets to invest in. Learn with Google is an online education program that teaches how to use App campaigns in Google Ads to grow installs and reach the right users.

3) Fund continuous development as well as go-to-market strategy

Many social impact apps and games, much like most other social impact projects, rely on grants from foundations, governments and companies for funding for everything from research to development and operations. Unlike many other projects, social impact apps and games very often require significant funding to support long term go-to-market strategies. In other words, they require marketing budgets to reach their target audience.

The reason is that app distribution is a highly competitive field and many social impact apps compete for user attention with an almost infinite supply of commercial apps and games that have developed sophisticated marketing strategies as a result of high competitive pressures. It is therefore critical to socialise the idea of setting aside funds for distribution and marketing with the organisations and individuals that provide funding.

A second insight, essential to successful mobile development, with implications for social impact funding is the iterative nature of app and game development. No first time app launch results in a perfect product that does not require subsequent updates. Instead, successful apps are the result of a steady stream of incremental improvements that are tested and analysed over the course of months and years.

Consequently, it is advisable that funding for social impact app and game projects be structured to allow for iterative product development that enables teams to launch a minimum viable product and then improve it over time to optimise for social impact.

4) Focus on app excellence for all users

Your app or game will compete for customer mindshare with some of the best commercial products in the market. Quality issues such as low app stability, high battery usage, and cutting corners on user experience and design will significantly reduce your app’s ability to create impact because target users will be more likely to churn and find alternate solutions. Three areas to pay particular attention to are:

Improve app quality and performance

  • Android vitals is an initiative by Google to improve the stability and performance of Android devices. When an opted-in user runs your app, their Android device logs various metrics, including data about app stability, app startup time, battery usage, render time, and permission denials.
  • The Google Play Console aggregates this data and displays it in the Android vitals dashboard. The dashboard highlights crash rate, ANR rate, excessive wakeups, and stuck wake locks: these are the core vitals for developers to pay attention to.
  • Exhibiting bad behavior in vitals will negatively affect the user experience in your app and is likely to result in bad ratings and poor discoverability on the Play Store.
  • A great starting point is a two part deep dive on “How to fix app quality issues with Android vitals” (parts one and two) published by my colleague Wojtek Kaliciński here on Medium.

Use Material Design

  • Material is an adaptable system of guidelines, components, and tools that support best practices of user interface design on Android and the web.
  • It is widely used by Android developers and it shapes user expectations about the look and feel of apps on the platform, which is why we highly recommend you to pay close attention to Material guidelines to delight your users.
  • Faster design and development times can also be achieved with Material. New tools, such as Theme Editor, Icon Library and Color Tools, make it easy to customize your design and share work across teams.

Prioritise accessibility

  • We are committed to providing developers with tools, guidance, and support to promote inclusive app and game experiences for as many people as possible and in particular for users with disabilities.
  • To help you get started, we created a guide to accessibility for Android developers, where you’ll find an easy to follow introduction to the topic, alongside links to using material design to support accessibility needs, and best practices for developing more accessible apps.
  • Testing your app for accessibility is a key component of your development process. We have published a getting started guide that highlights the importance of combining manual, user, and automated testing to find usability issues that you might otherwise miss.

5) Master distribution challenges

Effective distribution ensures that your app or game ends up in the hands of the intended users. It is a key success factor on mobile and lack of awareness or planning will significantly reduce the likelihood of achieving your impact goals. Below I give introductions to four topics for all impact developers to master:

Launch well

  • Launching well is a critical skill that will enable you to minimize any risks associated with bringing to market entirely new apps as well as introducing new features and improvements.
  • We have compiled a detailed yet easy to follow launch checklist that will help you avoid common pitfalls and take full advantage of the awesome support features built right into Google Play.
  • I’d like to call out the importance of beta testing your app with real users to gather invaluable early feedback before you publish major updates or changes. Doing so consistently will significantly reduce the chance of disappointed users leaving public negative ratings and reviews on your Play detail page. You don’t need huge numbers of beta testers for this to be effective, a handful of dedicated users that love giving feedback will suffice.
  • Another effective way to decrease the risk of new launches is to take full advantage of the automated Google Play pre-launch reports. These will automatically identify crashes, performance issues, accessibility issues and security vulnerabilities before any real users interact with a new APK.

Make your store listing compelling

  • If your app relies on store distribution to get into the hands of users, then spend time creating a compelling store listing that clearly communicates the value and social impact it creates. Don’t assume that potential users who hear about your app through word of mouth or other channels do not also value a listing that conveys thoughtfulness and trustworthiness when they decide to install.
  • Our introductory guide discusses best practices for app icons, screenshots, descriptions and reviews (yes, user reviews are also part of your store listing). By following this guide you ensure that your app makes the best possible first impression.
  • Even a great listing can be improved further. Store listing experiments let you A/B test changes to your store listing on subsets of your users so that you can choose improvements, which bring you the most installs, backed by data.

Build for billions

  • Distribution on Google Play enables you to reach the largest mobile audience in the world and deliver social impact solutions to incredibly diverse groups of app users. Serving their needs and aspirations well, will require you to make novel technical and design decisions.
  • Our guide helps you build apps that are delightful and functional anywhere in the world. It provides advice on handling mixed connectivity environments, building for device range, providing users with data controls and using battery efficiently.
  • We have also created resources to help you get started with localising your app for new markets by researching target languages and locales as well as translating your app, store listing, and other assets.

Distribute off-store

  • Finally, remember that you may have to look beyond the store to reach key user groups for your social impact app. Our research shows that recommendations are the most important discovery channel for four out of the six social impact app categories that we surveyed.
  • Many developers of social impact apps have already built global distribution strategies that leverage these user preferences. For example, the team behind Safe Delivery, an app designed to help health care workers in Africa and Southeast Asia improve their response to crisis situations during childbirth, have partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, UNFPA, Save The Children, as well as several regional and local healthcare authorities and government agencies to distribute their solution.

I have shared some inspiring stories from developers and also insights from our latest user research, in the hope that this captures the unique opportunity for app and game developers to deliver social impact solutions to communities around the world. At the same time, launching and growing a social impact app or game means mastering an often novel set of challenges. The best practices discussed here are intended as a starting point for nonprofits and developers, and I am looking forward to continuing the conversation with you.


What do you think?

Do you have thoughts on generating social impact through apps or games? Let us know in the comments below or tweet using #AskPlayDev and we’ll reply from @GooglePlayDev, where we regularly share news and tips on how to be successful on Google Play.