Everybody has an app these days – even the Census Bureau went live earlier this year with a mobile app that provides real-time data on the U.S. economy. Within the U.S., the average smart phone user has 22 apps and it’s predicted that, by 2014, global downloads of all apps will reach 76.9 billion. Entertainment and social networking apps are among the top downloads. But productivity apps, – applications that enable their users to get things done faster and more efficiently – are a powerful resource for small business owners.
There are a number of productivity apps that small business owners can use for project management, task management, financial management and even relationship management. On the downside, the barrier for entry into the marketplace is very low; many are available but few actually get the job done. Apps range in price from free to hundreds of dollars. And the price of an app doesn’t always mean better quality or fewer glitches. So how do you know if an app is a good fit for your business? Before you invest time, money and energy in introducing an app into your business, use these following tips to help you make the best choice:
- Make sure you have a real need for the app. It’s the latest, hippest gadget that everybody is talking about, but do you really need it? Consider the cost of not only purchasing the app, but the cost to integrate it and, if you have a staff, training others on how to use it as well.
- Be prepared to do your research. The website for the app is going to paint the most positive picture about its features and benefits. Do your homework and look for feedback from multiple sources to conduct a thorough evaluation before you make a purchase or subscribe to an app. You can use sites like cNet.com or SimilarSites.com or MobileAppsShowdown.com to search for unbiased reviews. And remember to look at customer reviews too.
- Look at your budget for the next six months. Many mobile apps start with a “freemium” model. But to get all of the best features there is usually a cost to upgrade. If you plan on expanding your business, there may be additional costs to add more users, access more storage space, etc. You may be able to afford it today…but will you be able to afford it six months from now?
- Don’t make the decision alone. Check in with colleagues and other small business owners in your network who may have already evaluated the mobile app you are considering or one that is similar. If you manage a staff or team of people in your organization, also have them evaluate it before making any final decisions, especially if they will be end users.
When it comes to each application that you are going to review, here are the 12 things to look for in a mobile business app:
- Ease of Use: Does it take you three steps or thirty? Does it drain your battery every time you use it? Is the process intuitive or will you need to read instructions the first 10 times you use it? Are the screens easy to navigate or will the excessive scrolling become frustrating?
- Trial period: Will it cost you to try it out? And if you decide not to use it, do they offer you a refund? Some apps may offer a trial period but you may not have access to all of the features, so make sure the trial is a full trial if there is something you really need.
- Security: Make sure the app is in compliance with the latest security requirements. This is critical if it’s an app that handles sensitive information like invoicing or payment processing. Search Google to see if the app has any history of being hacked.
- Pricing Model: You’ll undoubtedly want something that’s flexible and scales in a way that won’t break your budget. For one user it might be $25 a month which works, but if you add three more users, will you now be paying $100 a month or do they offer a tiered payment model. That could make a big difference on your budget.
- Customer Support: Take a close look at when and how customer service is available. Do they only provide an email address? And if they do provide a phone number, what are their available hours? There can be a three-hour gap if you are on the east coast but the company only keeps part-time west coast hours. Also check out their average response time to inquiries – is it two hours, two days or two weeks?
- User Forum: Are there lots of complaints or questions? And if there are numerous questions, do they get answered by the developer or other members of the forum? If you see the same issue over and over again, that may be a red flag that the developer is slow in addressing known issues.
- Good Documentation: A good FAQ document can be worth its weight in gold. If you are unable to find basic instructions or answers to fundamental questions about the app, think carefully before making a purchase. You don’t want to be tied up for hours searching online for an answer or waiting two days to hear back from support when you need a simple answer.
- Stability: We know technology changes, but too much change can be a bad thing. Updates for security and integration are good. Frequent updates to handle glitches and bugs are not good. The app should show their revision or upgrade history where you can take a look at how things have developed over the last month.
- Compatibility: If you will be using the app across multiple platforms (tablet, desktop, and mobile) ensure that it functions on all devices. You’ll also want to make sure it integrates with your existing web tools. Many apps have a page that lists their integration partners.
- Customization: Depending on the tool, options for customization can include anything from personalized branding to having an open API so that you can create custom integrations with your existing tools. If that’s a direction you think you may go in the future, check now to see if that option even exists.
- Future Features: You may not need certain capabilities now, but in six months when you do need them, you need to ask whether the app will be able to support your needs. Knowing that a future enhancement is coming can be helpful when comparing apps, but make sure it’s not one that’s been talked about for months with no real sign that it will ever actually be rolled out.
- Upgrades: When an app does add new features or upgrades will they increase the charges to your current subscription or will the new features be rolled into your existing plan? Will you always be forced to upgrade or will you have the option to switch to the newest version when it makes the most sense for your business?
How important are apps to your business operations?
Melinda F. Emerson, known to many as SmallBizLady, is America’s #1 small business expert. As CEO of Quintessence Multimedia, Melinda educates entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 companies on subjects including small business start-up, business development and social media marketing to fulfill her mission to end small business failure. She writes a weekly column on social media for The New York Times. Forbes Magazine named her #1 woman for entrepreneurs to follow on Twitter. She hosts #SmallBizChat Wednesdays on Twitter 8-9pm ET for emerging entrepreneurs. She also publishes a resource blog and is the best-selling author of Become Your Own Boss in 12 months: A Month-by-Month Guide to a Business That Works.