In the 1990s, it was a website. In the late 2000s, it was a Facebook page. These days, businesses both large and small are convinced that having a smartphone application is the next key to their prosperity.

To be fair, of course, these notions aren’t unfounded. Research by mobile analytics company Flurry has shown that on average, U.S. consumers use their mobile phones for more than two hours a day, with 86 percent of that time spent using apps.

This all means that your company’s app could be a brilliant way to engage with your customers — or a massively unproductive time sink. Here’s what you need to know in order to make your next app launch a successful one.

Mobile App Development Is Changing

In May 2010, Apple had 200,000 iOS apps available in its App Store. Fast forward to the present, however, and the situation looks very different. The two-millionth iOS app officially became available in the App Store in June 2016, showing a blistering tenfold increase in app creation in just six years.

These days, it’s a lot harder to distinguish yourself just by releasing a mobile app, and many consumers are showing signs of app fatigue. According to media analytics firm comScore, in a given month half of smartphone users don’t download a single app.

The world of software development is always changing, and nowhere is this clearer than with mobile apps: new tools, frameworks, and languages are constantly being released. What’s more, to be most effective, apps need to support a variety of devices of many different shapes and sizes — from tiny Android smartphones to bulky iPad Pros — and perhaps anticipate future devices such as smartwatches and virtual reality goggles. There are several trends in mobile app development to keep an eye on this year — we outlined them in an in-depth piece here.

Coding from Scratch Is Difficult

Unlike learning HTML and CSS for web development, which is fairly straightforward even for less technical folks, developing a mobile app from scratch is a Herculean endeavor. Learning Objective-C or Swift to a level where you can develop iOS apps, or Java for Android apps, will require a minimum of several months of committed study.

With the high barrier of entry for mobile apps, you might think that hiring a developer or outsourcing the work would be a smarter choice — but it’s going to cost you. Estimates for the price of developing an app vary widely, particularly depending on the features you need, but a smaller app development shop could reasonably charge $50,000 to $100,000 for a polished product. This kind of price tag may be well out of reach for cash-strapped startups who are just trying to get off the ground.

Does Your Business Need an App?

Despite these challenges, more and more businesses are releasing apps, as the growth in the App Store’s offerings clearly shows. Increasingly, companies and startups are turning to automated mobile app builder platforms that do much of the heavy lifting for them, and are significantly cheaper than hiring an entire team, or outsourcing to a third-party developer.

There are still very good reasons to have a mobile app in this day and age, especially a truly native app. Better performance is the number one reason for building truly native, but it’s also worth considering the increased functionality gains you get for going with native (for more on native apps vs hybrid, see our full post here).

To figure out if building a mobile app is right in your case, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Will the app be different from your website? If you imagine your app duplicating the exact content and functionality of your already mobile-friendly website, then you probably don’t need a mobile app. Apps that simply mimic websites are frequently forgotten about or uninstalled, or worse, receive negative reviews.
  2. Will your app use advanced mobile features? Native smartphone apps have exclusive functionalities that websites can’t offer your users, such as push notifications, geolocation, and access to the phone’s camera and address book. If you plan on making use of these functionalities, then you definitely need your own app and a native one at that.
  3. Do you need to improve your mobile-friendliness? If you’re seeing a lot of traffic on mobile but your users are complaining about the mobile experience, then it may be wise to develop an app in order to better serve them. At the very minimum, however, you need to improve your mobile web offerings to be more responsive. Further research into what your mobile users want and need may be the best suggestion here, and if they are looking for advanced native features mentioned in question #2, start thinking about building your native app.

If you answered yes to all three of these questions, building an app for your business is a great idea. So, now what?

Having the Right Mobile Strategy

To stand out from the crowd and build an effective and memorable app for your customers, remember that app users are usually trying to accomplish a specific goal or task, instead of consuming content as they would when browsing the web. Developing a solid mobile app strategy will help you achieve the goal of making your app a direct channel between your business and your customers, offering information and visibility in a way that websites can’t. Too many companies simply repackage their website as a mobile app and believe that this is enough to draw in consumers.

When done right, your app should build your brand, improve engagement, and above all provide value to its users.

So, to help you get you started on your journey, here are some links that outline best practices to follow when doing early user research, designing your app, and a link to a tutorial on how to quickly build a data-driven native mobile app using Dropsource.