What Is the Secret of Mobile App Success?

When it comes to mobile applications, user experience is key to their success. As an investor, I get to see several new apps a week and I can’t tell you how many of their UIs are cluttered and fail to make clear the crux of their value fast enough.
Meanwhile, as an end user, I’ve started spending more time on my mobile device than on my laptop. Whether it’s for checking email, doing a web search, getting directions, reading blogs, looking at photos, listening to music or something else, my mobile device has become my preferred computing device. The reason? The mobile apps I use take me to their most valuable features faster than their respective desktop applications do. And to get there, I don’t even need two fingers — just my thumb. Some examples include:

  • Flixster: The first menu item is “Movies I Want to See.” Instant gratification.
  • Google Reader: Takes me to a directory where I can see all my unread posts or view them by category. Great.
  • Pandora: Resumes the channel that I was playing when I exited the app the last time. Perfect.
  • INRIX Traffic! (full disclosure: Venrock is an investor) Zooms in to where I am and displays traffic flow and information about any surrounding incidents. Excellent.
  • Gowalla: Locates places nearby and lets me check in to the one at which I’ve just arrived. Done.
  • Echofon: Shows the latest stream of tweets in reverse chronological order and sets my screen at the oldest unread one. Perfect.

Conversely, while I like these mobile apps, I wish they did a better job:

  • LinkedIn: While the latest release of the LinkedIn iPhone app is a huge step up from its previous version, what you get now is a laundry list of functionality to pick from, including “Status,” “Connections,” “Favorites,” “Invitations,” “Themes” and more. Why not pick one of these items as the first screen to drop users into?
  • Tripit: I love this app, but why not drop me into my current trip immediately instead of showing me a menu listing all of them?

I think that in a way, the wired web has spoiled developers: It’s given them too much real estate to play with and, as a result, they’ve crammed too much into it. An example is Flixster — unlike the mobile app, which immediately takes me to “Movies I Want to See” I have to list all the movies I’ve rated and then sort them by category, which takes too long and is very frustrating. Since for me that list is Flixster’s primary value, on the desktop the service effectively puts a giant barrier between my in-the-moment need and its gratification.
From an investor perspective, I believe you should clearly integrate your mobile app’s business model with your key service or feature. An example would be for Gowalla to have local deals at the point of check-in, perhaps as part of the initial search experience itself. For Pandora, its ads are baked into its key use case — music channels — either as overlay display ads or as audio ads. None of this disrupts the core user experience and in many cases, even enhances the experience.
The moral of the story: If you’re building a mobile app, make sure its users are taken to its most compelling feature at launch. Don’t make them search for it — or else they may simply search for a different app.
Dev Khare is a VP at Venrock, a venture capital firm.
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