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Designing for the Small Silver Screen

Oghie Ojior
Consulting Partner, TCS

The relentless spread of mobile apps now offers companies an unimagined degree of access and connection to their customers. But the flood of companies looking to seize this opportunity has given rise to a new challenge: In this intensely competitive space, how can you ensure that potential and existing customers will download and use your company’s apps?

This is (among other things) a design challenge, with serious business consequences. As the power of mobile apps to create competitive differentiation and advantage grows across industries and geographies, fielding compelling apps is becoming ever more important. To win market share in the mobile world, companies must develop and deliver apps whose quality, usability, and functionality make them irresistible to demanding customers.

More is Riding on Useful Apps

“Mobile is the future,” predicted Google’s then-CEO Eric Schmidt in 2010. Schmidt’s prediction came true fast. In 2016, 77% of Americans owned a smartphone, more than double the percentage in 2011.1

The use of mobile apps followed in lockstep with the explosion in mobile device ownership. An estimated 150 billion mobile apps were downloaded in 2016.2 That same year, the average American spent nearly 49 hours a month using mobile apps, and one in seven of their app sessions lasted longer than 10 minutes.3

The rising use of apps means they increasingly define how consumers and businesses buy products and services, access information, troubleshoot their purchases, play games and consume entertainment, and interact with others. This has resulted in a windfall for companies that excel at app development.

Mobile is the future.”

Witness Starbucks. As of Q1 2016, customers had downloaded Starbucks’ mobile order-and-pay app 11 million times. In that quarter alone, orders placed through the app generated an estimated 21% of the coffee house chain’s U.S. store transactions. 4 No wonder then-CEO (now executive chairman) Howard Schultz proclaimed, “Technology innovation is further strengthening our brand, improving our efficiency and in-store execution, increasing our profitability, and most importantly, enabling us to deliver an elevated Starbucks experience to our customers.”

Unfortunately, when it comes to mobile apps, companies like Starbucks are an exception. Many companies are not getting full value from their apps. A recent study revealed that 75% of users fail to return to newly downloaded apps the next day, while average app retention rates fall to just 4% after 90 days.5

Howard Schultz proclaimed, “Technology innovation is further strengthening our brand, improving our efficiency and in-store execution, increasing our profitability, and most importantly, enabling us to deliver an elevated Starbucks experience to our customers.”

The deficiencies of many apps are also evident in sales conversion rates on e-commerce sites. In 2016, Adobe reported that only 16% of shopping carts on smartphone apps converted to orders compared with 26% for shopping carts on desktop computers. “Simply having an app doesn’t cut it,” concluded the report’s authors. “The app graveyard is getting larger due to abandonment and lack of mobile optimization.”6

There are three primary reasons why apps end up in the graveyard:

  1. A disappointing experience: Many apps simply do not provide a great (or even a good) customer experience. A 2015 ARC research study of U.S. travel apps found that four of the largest airlines were rated among the bottom eight apps in the industry because of quality shortcomings.7
  2. A flawed business case: Other apps are launched in the wrong place at the wrong time. London-based Hailo launched its yellow-cab ride hailing app in New York City just as Uber was achieving scale in that market. The Uber juggernaut sank the new service.8
  3.  An overly complex design: Still other apps are too ambitious, coming to market hobbled by a crippling load of complexity.

The mobile app challenge is further exacerbated because customer expectations are continually raising the design bar, particularly relating to the user experience. “These mobile moments are the next battleground where companies will win, serve, and retain their customers,” explains Forrester Research Vice President Judy Ask. “Tragically, few companies will make the leap. Those that do will reap the rewards.”9

Three Design Precepts for Upping Your App Game

Your company can reap the rewards of mobile apps if you keep three design precepts in mind:

  1.  Understand that companies like Starbucks, Uber, and Facebook are determining your customers’ expectations for the mobile app experience, even if you’re selling process control equipment to oil refineries.
  2.  While the technological capabilities that power your apps should become even more sophisticated, they must always deliver an even simpler, more seamless user experience.
  3.  Your apps must be able to learn your customers’ preferences and behaviors, and use that knowledge to personalize their experience via a continuous and virtuous feedback loop.


1. Customer expectations start with the best B2C apps

Users expect all apps to perform as well as those created by the leading consumer app developers. That means your app will not be measured against your direct competitors’ apps, but against the experience provided by companies like Snapchat, Instagram, and YouTube.

2. Use emerging technologies to simplify the customer experience, while increasing functionality

Companies can use a variety of new, emerging technologies to create apps that learn from their users and automatically adjust to their needs. For instance, when a customer only uses a banking app for transferring money between accounts, an app can streamline and simplify the user experience by taking the customer directly to that function while hiding or minimizing others.

Voice technology is rapidly rising on the list of customer app expectations because of offerings like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Echo, and Google Voice. Voice integration and recognition is beginning to simplify the ordering process, thereby removing the friction that causes consumers to abandon shopping carts at checkout.

Bots driven by AI promise to become central to app-mediated customer engagements. As bots become more sophisticated, they will be able to answer customer questions, resolve their problems, and complete their orders more efficiently and cost-effectively than many customer service employees.

Computer vision—which can process, analyze, and understand digital images, producing algorithms to drive decision-making—is also adding new dimensions to the app experience in a wide variety of applications. For example, Microsoft is collaborating with appliance company Liebherr to develop a refrigerator that recognizes the food on its shelves, communicates with the owner’s smartphone, and creates a shopping list in the app based on what the refrigerator sees.10

Predictive analytics enables apps to anticipate user behaviors and act accordingly, in many cases, utilizing wireless sensors, big data, and analytics technologies. Nest thermostat apps, for example, sense when you arrive home and change the temperature based on your preferences, and then change it again after you leave.

All these technologies will further elevate the role of smartphones in your customers’ lives. And as your customers do more and more business within the mobile universe, your company’s apps will need to be as smart as their phones, which leads to our final design precept.

3. Design apps that learn users’ preferences and behaviors, and continually personalize the experience.

In 2007, Apple rejected a Blackberry-like keyboard with physical buttons in favor of a software-based keyboard. As a result, Apple has been able to improve its keyboard’s functionality iteratively, continually delivering new functionalities remotely to its customers. The lesson for app designers: Don’t hard-code the user experience into your app.

Companies encounter this lesson in one of the first decisions they face when designing an app: Should it be native to a single operating system (OS) or a hybrid that works across systems and devices?

App designers quickly learned that each mobile operating system comes with its own capabilities and limitations, and responded with a hybrid approach that enabled the development of apps for many devices and operating systems. This ability led some companies to make the native-or-hybrid decision too quickly, and with too little thought. Often, these companies simply followed the lead of other companies that had developed similar apps. But the correct answer for your company depends on the specific requirements of your app.

Going the native route can add significant cost and time to app development. It also increases the total cost of ownership, as maintaining several native apps for different operating systems is more expensive than maintaining a single hybrid app. However, for complex apps that require tapping the unique capabilities of a specific OS, a native app may be the right approach.

Hybrid apps can be developed faster than native apps, and thus at lower cost. But different operating systems have inherently different styles for swiping, scrolling, etc. As a result, an app designed to work on all of them inevitably will not perform as well as one designed to work with one. These variances in performance frustrate users. Moreover, hybrid apps typically cannot take full advantage of each OS’s unique capabilities.

Apps Are Where It’s At

With more business transacted via smartphones in both the B2C and B2B arenas, all companies need to think about how they can use mobile apps to serve their customers better, as well as enhance their apps’ performance and results. It takes time and investment to acquire the capabilities they will need to design apps that offer compelling experiences.

However, as mobile apps become an increasingly important competitive and brand differentiator, companies that rise to the challenge of designing them to ‘stick’ with consumers will reap the rewards.

1 Pew Research Center, Record Shares of Americans Now Own Smartphones, January 12, 2017, accessed May 2, 2017,

2 Statista, Number of mobile app downloads worldwide in 2016, 2017 and 2021 (in billions), accessed May 2, 2017,

3 Forrester, Mobile Moments Transform Commerce and Service Experience, March 29, 2016, accessed May 2, 2017,

4 The Motley Fool, Just How Big Is Starbucks Mobile Order & Pay, January 26, 2016, accessed May 2, 2017,

5 Fierce Wireless, More than 75 percent of new app users fail to return the day after first use, study shows, May 27, 2016, accessed May 2, 2017,

6 Adobe, Adobe 2016 Mobile Retail Report, October 25, 2016, accessed May 2, 2017,

7 ARC Research, The Best and Worst Rated Travel Apps, July 22, 2015, accessed May 2, 2017,

8 PlaceIt, 3 Apps That Failed (And What They Teach Us About App Marketing), January 26, 2015, accessed May 2, 2017,

9 Forrester Research, 2016 Predictions: Key Trends Will Transform Mobile Engagement, November 10, 2015, accessed May 2, 2017,

10 Windows Central, Microsoft’s computer vision technology may be in your next ‘smart’ refrigerator, September 4, 2016, accessed May 15, 2017,

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