The key to Appiness

Recently, my agency pitched for a dream digital project with a national charity. The brief involved smartphones, apps and social media – exciting stuff for a creative agency.

We got busy, researching the world of charity apps, ready to be wowed by what was out there. We were looking for the cutting edge of charity communications: inventive, effective and cool. But while we were digging for gold, all we found was a hole.

Certainly there are charity apps in the market. A very few are quite neat; iHobo, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and Movember are often quoted examples of charities getting it right. But they’re often quoted for a reason: it’s a desert out there. Yes, there are hundreds of charity apps, but, dare I say it, they’re just not very good. What’s going wrong?

The problems fall into one of four categories, all of which starts when someone with limited knowledge of apps says, “We need an app.” There’s the This’ll Do app that squeezes a bunch of press releases, event information and a ‘donate’ button into an app-like shape; the Pointless app that does something time-wasting and irrelevant; the This Doesn’t Work app that starts with big ambitions but doesn’t really deliver; and lastly, the Potluck App that chucks any or all of the above into one 8 megabyte package of disappointment.

Now I’m not suggesting charities have a monopoly on bad apps. Apple alone has over 425,000 apps in their store and amongst them there’s some real stinkers. Programming that limps, grinds and crashes away. Inelegant, ugly design. And apps of such inanity and uselessness they beggar belief. (If you’ve got literally nothing better to do, investigate SimStapler or eShaver to witness pure, jaw-dropping pointlessness.)

Nor am I naïve about the challenges of producing a smoothly oiled, beautifully designed, compellingly useful app. It’s not easy and charities have a duty to be cautious of frittering away valuable resources on shiny new technology. Given Apple doesn’t yet allow direct donations via their apps, the dearth of charity players may reflect a common feeling that it’s best to hold fire.

I understand these issues and am not arguing charities throw themselves into the gold rush of app development without understanding what they’re doing, why and how. But still, amongst the UK’s 160,000 registered charities, the sector’s showing is disappointing. The problem is that either organisation’s don’t recognise the potential of apps or, when they do, they get it frustratingly wrong.

For me, apps are tools of boundless potential, whatever your sector. They are an oyster of opportunity where the only limits are those of your imagination. Commercially, apps have delivered the goods as profitable products, mechanisms of service delivery and instruments of marketing, promotion and education. Above all, they have opened up a space of incredible creativity and innovation where technology is fantastically employed to solve problems and make life easier, better and more fun.

For charities in particular, apps present new ways of engaging and inspiring audiences. One elegantly executed Big Idea can pack a punch well above the resources that have gone into it; educating, motivating, publicising and fundraising… take your pick. Think of the three eternal challenges faced by charity fundraisers: how to connect with new audiences; how to build richer relationships with the audiences you have; and how to turn these relationships into money and action. The application of ‘app-ology’ (a term I briefly thought I’d invented!) isn’t, as some think, a frivolous gimmick but a rather clever way of addressing these three challenges.

So my first message is this: Think about apps. They aren’t for everyone, and many charities, as with many businesses, won’t have the wherewithal to get it right. (Remember, producing no app at all is infinitely better than making a lousy one). But if you represent an organisation that has ambition and imagination, and if you have access to technical know-how and resources, then an app could be a smart investment of time and money.

But more importantly than just thinking about apps is understanding them. Successful apps are built consistently on the same foundations: clarity of purpose; desirability; simplicity; usefulness; design and user experience; technical execution. It isn’t rocket surgery, but when apps go awry it’s invariably because these foundations are neglected. Two charities that stand out for their quality of their apps, the Alzheimer’s Society Brain Map LiveStrong’s MyQuitCoach, tick all these boxes and are inventive to boot. More of this please.

Yes, apps can be daunting and tantalising, a huge opportunity or a giant red herring, but get it right and the prize is great. The potential to unlock an entirely new tool in the fundraiser’s kit is there, but the sector has some way to go in understanding and realising this. Of this I’m sure: there’s gold in them there apps, but charities need to dig for it.

Joshua Blackburn, published October 2011, The Fundraiser

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