What it Takes to Make A Clever, Popular App


Over a decade ago, when the first third-party apps were starting to be created for the nascent iPhones and Blackberry devices, an astute commuter created an app for use on the London Underground. It involved painstaking analysis of the carriages and exits, with the goal of allowing passengers to know which carriage to get on for the swiftest exit from the station.

A handy tool to use in rush hour, you’ll probably agree. There was a lot of buzz around it at the time, but it’s not even clear if it exists today. So, why don’t all of the estimated 5 million daily users of the Tube use this app every day? After all, Londoners are famously always in a rush? It might be the fact that it’s a great idea, but perhaps just too difficult to execute. After all, how would it know when extra carriages are added to the trains? Will the driver stop in the same place each time?

Kids’ app blew up in popularity

The above seems like a bright idea, but it just didn’t work out. But there are countless other examples of run-of-the-mill stuff catching fire. For example, sitting among the likes of Twitter and Dropbox with over 3 billion downloads is My Talking Tom, a virtual pet app designed for kids, which has a popularity that defies belief. Just how many children have access to a smartphone or tablet?

While the London Underground app didn’t work out, the static surroundings and scale of places like a zoo or national park, are perfect for the kind of location-based apps that really help. Chester Zoo’s app won a prestigious award for its location-based features, allowing visitors to navigate and explore the facilities. Location based apps have certainly been among the world’s most successful, with ubiquitously downloaded examples like Uber and Foursquare.

Another example of a location-based app is Pokemon Go. This is one of the most popular apps in recent years, and while it’s being enjoyed by people from around the world, some of them can only access it with a VPN. The app isn’t available in places like Asia and the Middle East, for example, meaning that users in those areas need to download a VPN, hide their IP address, and virtually change their location if they want to join their friends in other parts of the globe.

Of course, sometimes changing your location and hiding it can also be useful, as is the case with functions like a location spoofer, designed to fake your whereabouts with a VPN, and thus allow you to access content, such as TV streaming services, regardless of where you are in the world. The use of VPNs has become highly popular, regardless if you are trying to hide your location, or use them for other reasons like Wi-Fi security and privacy.

Sometimes having a simple, targeted idea is best, like the “clap to find” app, which helps you find your phone by clapping a couple of times, or Thief Tracker, which takes a photo of anyone entering your pin incorrectly a few times, then emails that photo to you. A simple, targeted idea can also be incredibly ambitious, such as with Word Lens, which translates languages through your camera lens.  

Charity apps can benefit from media coverage

It’s normal that some apps can get a boost from media coverage. During the US Government shutdown of early 2019, DC tech company 3Advance got a leg up with the news reports tying into their “payitfurloughed” app, which was designed for locals to buy a beer for US Government employees who weren’t being paid during the shutdown. Simple ideas tend to work well for charity-based apps, such as ShareTheMeal, which encourages and enables a small donation to charity each time you sit down to a meal.

Obviously, making money can be an important selling point in an app. For businesses, apps that help with productivity are desirable, but the case has to be made for their usefulness (especially if they are paid apps). Trello is often cited as a smart catch-all business app that helps with productivity, but it will require a subscription. A free version of TeamViewer isn’t a bad alternative. One of the coolest business apps with an eye on productivity, was the award-winning Reason8 app, which uses A.I to record and then summarize conversations in meetings.

Pitfalls of weird apps  

Be careful if you go down the ‘quirky’ route. Having a weird app can be fun and generate buzz, but it shouldn’t veer into creepiness. In 2009, Pepsi, for some unknown reason, decided to create an app called “AMP Up before your score”, which intended to ‘help’ men sleep with women and brag about it. It was quickly removed by Pepsi after a furious backlash.  Cuddlr (AKA Spoonr) was also on the creepy side, with the app designed to connect you with people who wanted to hug. It got lots of mainstream exposure, but perhaps for the wrong reasons as it was cited as dangerous. Both Apple and Google removed from their app stores.

 As you can probably deduce from the wide range of different popular apps listed here, there is no one factor that makes a popular app, nor is there a barometer of what makes something clever. Flappy Bird was at one point the most downloaded free game on the Appstore, despite getting poor reviews and having accusations of plagiarism.

If you can’t catch the sort of lightning in a bottle needed to have inexplicable popularity, then you will need to come up with something useful. That could be something slicker and smarter than what’s out there, or something totally new. The latter is, of course, difficult to do, but consider that at one time there was no Uber or Google Maps – someone had to think them up.