The trends and themes behind successful apps

We know there’s big money in apps — Apple paid out over $10 billion to developers last year — but we also know trying to turn a profit is far from easy. Much of that $10 billion is taken by the biggest and the most popular apps, with the majority left to scavenge for scraps on the app store floor.

Taking a look at the apps that have managed to find the magic formula for popularity (and profitability) is an interesting exercise: there are some noticeable trends and some common themes to note. That said, the ‘magic formula’ keeps changing — what works with one app isn’t guaranteed to work with another, and some of the biggest apps have come from nowhere to ride high in the Android and iOS charts.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, games usually dominate the lists of the most-downloaded and best-selling apps. The last time that Apple shared data on the best-selling paid-for apps in history — the top five places were taken by Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja, Doodle Jump, Cut The Rope and Angry Birds Seasons. All of these titles take a simple but addictive gameplay experience, based around physics you can control with your finger, and wrap it in a bright, colorful, cartoon-style package. 

Games also feature strongly in the list of free apps, but the top spots are taken by Facebook, Pandora Radio, Instagram, YouTube and Skype. It’s here that apps for social networking, sharing with others, and watching content online come into their own — while game developers have grown accustomed to charging money (either upfront or in the app) it’s a much harder sell in the other categories.

If you want to strike it rich with an app, games are the way to go. More data from May 2014 had Clash Of Clans as the highest-grossing app of all time, raking in $654,000 (£435,000) every day at its peak thanks to a variety of in-game purchases. If you look at data for 2014 on its own, then Heads Up! and Facebook Messenger topped the paid-for and free charts — again, gaming and social media prove to be the biggest draw for users.

Whether looking at app charts on iOS or Android, it’s the major players that dominate the lists, with indie developers unable to get much of a look-in outside of gaming. Gmail, Facebook, Skype, Twitter, Chrome, Netflix and Google Maps all feature strongly, and would probably appear in most lists if you asked users to guess what the biggest apps were.

When a new (non-gaming) app breaks through from nowhere — like Snapchat, Instagram or WhatsApp — it’s usually related to photography or messaging (or both). These are the two pillars of the mobile experience for most smartphone owners, and historically various other camera and photo apps have ridden high in the charts too.

Instagram and WhatsApp are now, of course, owned by Facebook. The company’s eagerness to release standalone apps — Groups, Rooms, Home, Messenger — as well as acquire other popular releases points towards an interesting trend towards fragmentation. Perhaps the app landscape of the future, at least in social media, is a lot of smaller apps with smaller audiences doing specific tasks.

Native apps

It’s worth considering the functionality that iOS and Android provide out of the box: a lot of a user’s messaging and calling features are already catered for. iTunes and Google Play are available for movies and music, so it’s perhaps no surprise that it’s only the very major players in entertainment (Netflix, Pandora, YouTube – itself owned by Google, of course) who are able to get a foothold.

But what you don’t get when you unwrap your shiny new smartphone are any games of note. Not only that, but mobile games are perfect for wasting 10 minutes waiting for the bus, or five minutes at lunchtime, or 15 minutes before bed — note how a lot of the greatest gaming hits on mobile make use of small, bite-sized chunks of gameplay that you can dip into at any time.

The top console games are the ones that take advantage of those big screens and advanced controllers: the FIFA series, Grand Theft Auto, Halo. On mobile, the emphasis is on quick bursts of gameplay that are polished but uncomplicated. The best exception to the rule is Minecraft, enjoying a huge amount of success on screens of all sizes — perhaps its blocky graphics and straightforward tools mean it can make the transition to mobile better than most.

As iOS and Android already come with so much integrated functionality, the only utility app to really make a dent in the charts is Dropbox, providing the ability to sync files across devices and back up photos with the minimum of fuss.

But productivity might soon have its day in the sun: Microsoft’s launch of Office for iOS and Android was one of the biggest mobile app stories of 2014, and with phones and tablets getting larger screens, the it seems likely that we’ll all be doing more work on the go in future. Now that tablets and smartphones are powerful enough to handle basic productivity apps, even a Macbook Air seems bulky.

Recent trends

Flurry reports that while all app categories saw growth in 2014, the category with the biggest increase in engagement was shopping. “We are witnessing a shift where the growth in mobile has moved from apps for entertainment to apps that help us accomplish our daily tasks,” says Flurry’s President and CEO Simon Khalaf.

Also on the rise, though not yet breaking through to the top of the charts: health and fitness apps. Interest in this category is outpacing average levels of growth across the board, no doubt partially helped by cheaper and more affordable wearables. However, with Apple’s HealthKit and Google Fit now up and running, you don’t necessarily need an accessory to track your daily jogs or monitor your calorie intake — your smartphone can do it on its own.

App developers looking to make money need a simple but compelling idea; not necessarily a new one, but one that’s executed better than ever before. After that, their best bet is a disruptive messaging app, and after that — if they want to catch the next wave — shopping and health might be worth a look.

App Annie is perhaps the best place to look at the app store charts for the current week, broken down by country and platform. Again, games, messaging and entertainment tend to rule the roost, with plenty of downloads for official tools from Google and Apple in the mix. As Flurry suggests, there are signs that health and fitness apps are on the rise, but overall, cracking the code for app store success remains a difficult challenge.