From gaming and social video to personal money and time management, there is indeed a mobile app for everything…or so it may seem. Today’s mobile applications are cheaper and easier to build than ever before. This growth has primarily been fueled by the rapid innovation in mobile technology, which is predicted to soon replace Web 2.0 altogether. With that said, what elements will comprise the successfully viral mobile apps of tomorrow, and who will create them? In varying degrees, future viral apps will embody the five integral elements listed below.
(1) Solve real problems
The viral mobile applications of tomorrow must aim beyond solving small problems. Historically, web applications (including mobile) spread quickly because they addressed our basic individual needs, such as human connection (Facebook, and LinkedIn), knowledge of our immediate surroundings (Foursquare), and discovery of our personal interests (Pinterest, Spotify, StumbleUpon).
It should come to no surprise, however, that there are huge problems affecting billions of people daily—problems much bigger than being the next “Instagram for video.” Although these issues may be quite complex, it is possible that the capabilities afforded by emerging mobile technologies and social media actually could make the mobile apps of the future the missing pieces to the puzzle.
(2) Deep Design
It is becoming increasingly common for mobile and web app founders to consult with UI/UX designers before partnering with actual developers. User experience is everything, and its nuances can make or break the success of an app. Pinterest, for example, utilizes technology that isn’t that much different from Tumblr’s—both are microblogging platforms. Pinterest’s pin board design, however, is a simpler, more intuitive way to display what can seem like an overwhelming amount of information.
Mobile apps, in particular, are operated on devices designed for touch. This requires developers to think ergonomically in designing apps for fingers and thumbs. Whether on the run, in the kitchen, or waiting in the airport, understanding how, where, and when your target audience uses your app is needed for proper design.
Flipboard is an example of a mobile iPhone and iPad app that has brought a familiar element of touch back to the publications we consume. Users “flip” through pages of a digital magazine by swiping their finger over the screen in way that resembles flipping through its paper counterpart.
No longer is design an afterthought to a product’s development. Design has the capability to completely alter the definition and use of a product and set the tone for its relationship with the user. Those who build tomorrow’s viral apps will be visual decoders of sorts—gathering and visually organizing information in a way that is appealing, simplified, and engaging while fully recognizing the relationship between the user and mobile device.
Upon establishing the purpose of the app and approaching the design of the user experience, the following elements are also key:
(3) Instant utility via simplicity
How long does it take the user to realize the core benefit of the app? Are there tasks or processes that could be simplified? Apps will differ in complexity based on their purpose and target audience, but simplicity should be achieved in the app wherever possible, whether it’s reducing steps to complete a task or finding a way to accomplish a specific thing that was once quite complex. Much of what makes Instagram engaging is the app’s ability to apply a number of beautiful visual effects to a photo without the need of a comprehensive photo-editor.
How often would anyone want to use an app again, and who would do so? Successfully viral apps typically give users a strong reason to come back by fulfilling an important or unique task, and/or by finding a way to engage with users like no other app does. Angry Birds is amongst thousands of other games in our mobile marketplaces, but its simplicity, comedic storyline, and variety of harder levels encourages users to come back for more.
Is this an app that users would likely share with others? The app can be interesting enough for users to share it on their Facebook Walls, or the app can have extended social functionality. Draw Something is an example of a sharable app by its ability to bring two people together (either friends or strangers) for a friendly drawing competition. Via a simple and engaging utility, Draw Something built a social gaming experience around something that many people already love to do—draw and doodle. Ultimately, developers must understand the extent and the means by which users will engage others with the app.
Although there isn’t a clear-cut formula as to what embodies a viral mobile app, the ones that are viral have varying degrees of the above elements. Entrepreneurs, developers, and brands should find innovative ways and approaches for their apps to encompass these elements. In the words of Forbes technology contributor, Eric Jackson, “Fortunes will be made by those who adapt to and invest in this new greenfield [mobile applications]. Those who own the future are going to be the ones who create it. It’s all up for grabs.”
— Thomas Varner