Sunshine Coast Council AppOnce upon a time, a mobile phone was a communications device and not much else: You could call people, people could call you, and you could check your voice mail. For an extra fee to the mobile service provider, you could send and receive text messages as well.

There were also devices called “personal digital assistants,” or PDAs. With these devices, one could keep a calendar, take notes, operate a calculator, and perform other fun tasks—but it wasn’t a communications device.

Eventually someone had the bright idea of combining the two into one device: the smartphone. As the popularity and capabilities of these newfangled devices soared, new challenges, opportunities, and methodologies for developing the apps that power them evolved as well.

In the last few years, the smartphone has gone from a status symbol that consumers camp out at the Apple store to get, to an indispensable tool for business. This evolution has driven some changes in the philosophy underpinning app development: It’s not enough to have something cool and flashy anymore. Now, it’s about productivity, efficiency, and return on investment.

Some of the latest thinking on mobile app development is built on the idea of classifying business-related apps into two categories: Hero apps and soldier apps.

What Is a Hero App?

Hero apps tend to be large, high-profile projects. The outfit that’s funding the work—be it a business, non-for-profit hospital, or a government agency—is depending on it to drive visibility and adoption among their customers and prospects. Most hero apps have some or all of the following characteristics:

  • Large budget
  • Long project cycle
  • Wide scope of functionality
  • Heavy input from the Marketing team
  • Available to the public on the app stores
  • Each new version has to be approved by Apple / Google 

Often, customer focus groups are involved to provide feedback while the project is in progress. There is also typically an advertising and social media push to get the word out and drive installations.

With a hero app, the overarching goal is to make a big splash and increase new, sustained business.

What Is a Soldier App?

Soldier apps, by contrast, tend to be focused on a single business problem. Characteristics of soldier apps include:

  • Internal-facing
  • Narrow scope
  • Smaller budget
  • Shorter development cycle
  • Can be designed for one platform only e.g. Apple
  • Version updates can be deployed using MDM (mobile device management)
  • Enterprise security can be deployed (certificate based auth, Single Sign-On etc)

The goal of a soldier app is to increase efficiency and reduce the costs of doing business. To use an example from our recent past, we developed an app for a retail bank. Our app made it easier for mortgage brokers to submit mortgage applications on behalf of new clients. Nothing flashy, just a solid, reliable, secure, functional app that met the well-defined requirements of its narrow, fixed scope. From concept to release, the project was completed in just 12 weeks.

Well-done soldier apps often have an out-sized impact on the business. In this bank example, the app eliminated all paper from the application process and more than doubled the lending revenue for this team of mortgage broker channel. 

Soldiers vs. Heroes?

Of the two types of apps, is one better than the other? They both have advantages and disadvantages:

  • Hero apps are high-risk, but also potentially high-reward. A well-executed hero app can build visibility, brand development, publicity, and momentum, all of which are critical for a business to get right.
  • Soldier apps can get the job done for internal business processes, but they do little for brand development. Their inherently low profiles and narrow scopes don’t lend themselves well to the goals of hero apps.

It’s crucial for a business to differentiate between hero apps and soldier apps, because the business approach to each is different in some important ways. The narrower scope and reduced external visibility of soldier apps often means that they can be completed in a shorter time frame, and keeping them updated tends to require less effort. It would be a mistake for a business to treat a hero app like a soldier app, and vice-versa.

In both cases—particularly if an organization wants to pursue both simultaneously—a business has to decide how to allocate their resources and whether to bring in outside help. Even businesses that don’t have in-house development teams have to dedicate people and time to executing software projects, and those that do have in-house developers might have do dedicate them full-time if there’s a hero app involved, leaving nothing with which to pursue soldier apps.

Heroes Get the Glory, but Soldiers Win the War

Large enterprises will need a public facing hero app and possibly hundreds of internal soldier apps.  Ultimately, it’s all about resourcing, priorities and execution. Hero apps and soldier apps are both necessary, for different reasons, and both should be part of the mobility road-map.

At Mobile Mentor, we know how to build, deploy, support and update apps.  We are happy to work quietly in the background to make YOU a hero.