Do you *really* need to make an app for that?

A few thoughts to consider before creating your first (or next) app

Joshua Lavra
Hopelab

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Thirteen years after Apple trademarked ‘There’s an app for that,’ more than 21 million ‘apps’ exist for ‘thats’.

In fact, according to Computer Weekly:

Developers released two million new apps and games in 2021, bringing the total number of apps and games ever released on iOS and Google Play to over 21 million. Across both iOS and Google Play, games represented 15% of all new releases in 2021.

Since 2009, what makes an app an app has evolved quite a bit, towards things like progressive web apps or no code apps. Yet many people and organizations are still defaulting to creating native iOS or Android apps to solve their challenges or share their ideas.

I want to offer a few thoughts to consider, before jumping into this app trap, in the hopes that what you create will be useful for your users, and not just app #21,000,001.

Over the last decade, working in corporate settings, at design consultancies, and now consulting at a non-profit, I’ve helped design, develop, launch, and sometimes sunset, apps. In many cases an initial assumption (‘we need an app’) was the main reason why an app was created in the first place.

The story usually goes like this: tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on something designed for a specific and evolving platform (iOS or Android, usually), only to have users download it, use it sparingly, and delete it.

As the ways we use our devices, seek information, and even consider ‘logging off’ evolve, it’s important to step out of 2009 and reconsider if building an app for your ideas, product, solution, or tool is worth it.

Here are a few thoughts to consider, along with some examples and inspiration:

Do you have the resources (budget, time, people) to design, launch, and maintain an app?

In 2022, the median cost to develop an app ranged from around $50,000 to $75,000. The cost to develop an app with a complex set of features can reach up to $300,000+ (source). Much of this cost goes towards development and testing, before someone would even benefit from or use the app. You’ll also need developers who are familiar with iOS or Android (or both) if you don’t use a ‘no code’ app builder, and several weeks or months of time.

This, of course, doesn’t take into account the ongoing costs to remain in app stores and stay up-to-date with device hardware and operating system changes. If you want to make sure your app is secure and works seamlessly with changes in operating systems and devices, you’re going to need ongoing maintenance and support.

All this to say, building an app can be an expensive venture, especially when calculated per user if you’re not expecting hundreds of thousands or millions of users.

Do your users really want or need another app?

Of course you can ask your users this question (cue Henry Ford quote about cars: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”) but might find clearer answers in two ways: mapping your user journey and getting clear about the value you provide.

There’s a lot of things that users will think, say, feel, and do — sometimes in conflicting ways. By understanding the journey someone might take to get to your ‘app’ and what exactly the need you’re solving for is, you might be surprised to find out that an app might not actually help you achieve the things you want to achieve.

In most cases, if your app creates more friction than it relieves, users will quickly abandon your app and find other ways to meet their needs. Or, someone else will design an app (or non-app) that eliminates some of the same friction.

There are certainly cases where an app makes sense, but why not arrive at that conclusion with your potential users agreeing?

Have you considered other ways for getting your idea out there?

I get it — building an app means you have control over every detail and part of the experience (and you get to say you have an app). But for a moment, let go of your needs, and consider what would be most helpful for your user.

Maybe an app isn’t the answer?

Is your main goal to help someone learn something new (like, meditation or self-care techniques)? Maybe creating content for platforms like TikTok or Instagram can reach more users who are already on those platforms.

Do you want to curate unique resources and information for users? Perhaps a well-designed website could do the same.

Taking a moment to wonder ‘what if this wasn’t an app?’ can spark some interesting ideas, alternatives, or even features if you end up creating your own app. In any case, it’s better to ask the question, than to assume.

If the questions above made you rethink the development of your app, here are a few alternatives to consider:

Build a webapp (or website).

Websites have come a long way since the early days of the internet. Now, some websites fully function as ‘apps’ (we call these webapps) that don’t require a specific operating system or device. Tools like Squarespace and Readymag make building interactive, immersive, and engaging sites super easy (and for less cost and maintenance than native apps).

This is the approach we took with imi (a free mental health tool for LGBTQ+ teens). By creating a webapp that’s accessible from any device with an internet connection and web browser, imi is easy to use and share. Also, making updates to imi (as the language and needs of queer teens’ evolves) is as simple as editing a Google Doc. Using a website builder like Squarespace and adding in some custom code (simple HTML, CSS, and embed code) enabled us to create a responsive website that acts like an app, while redirecting a bunch of money which would have been spent on development into the hands of LGBTQ+ teens who helped to create imi.

Create content for existing platforms.

With billions of eyes on platforms like TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Discord, Twitter…simply creating engaging content or spaces on these platforms can help you reach users where they already are.

While monetization on some of these platforms can be complicated, paywalls or platforms like Patreon and Substack offer ways to do this. In any case, starting with a prototype on an existing platform can help build connections with your users, and potentially test some app-like interactions.

In the case of Quit The Hit, a vaping cessation program Hopelab developed with the Rescue Agency, the entire experience was built within Instagram and DMs. This reduced some of the friction users might experience with finding and downloading an app to help them cut back on vaping. Being on Instagram allowed the team to meet teens where they are, and do so in a more private way.

Go old school.

Maybe your idea would be more helpful as a physical thing out in the world? Perhaps a series of events if you’re hoping to connect people? Or a zine or journal if you wanted someone to focus on their self-care routines?

Some of the best products are also the simplest.

In early 2020, Hopelab published HopeIRL — a free, youth generated zine, collecting stories, photography, and other forms of art from teens. We sent this to LGBT Centers around the country in the hopes of connecting and supporting teens with their identity exploration and sense of community.

Send a text.

Messaging is one of the most common ways we’re engaging with our devices, and other people. Tools like Community have made it possible to connect with users, fans, and other people through texts, and platforms like Twilio have been making it fairly easy to do the same for years.

Using SMS or messaging based tools often means a user doesn’t have to download anything, and you’re showing up where they already are.

Vivibot, a positive psychology chatbot for young people who had gone through cancer treatment, started as an offering in Messenger. By creating this first version in this chat platform, we were able to reach teens where they were, and quickly make changes based on feedback. Now, what we learned from that version allowed for the transfer of Vivibot to a more permanent platform.

If any of these ideas, prompts, or products sparked some ideas for you or your team that you want to explore, reach out to us!

And finally, some inspiration from a few of my favorite non-apps:

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Joshua Lavra
Hopelab

focused on human ways to support the health and happiness of young queer people @Hopelab. formerly @IDEO @EY_Doberman @AirLiquideGroup