SAN FRANCISCO — Applications that allow real estate agents and consumers to access for-sale listings and other information on their mobile phones are all the rage, but it may be better to offer no mobile app at all than one that’s frustrating to use.
There are few shortcuts to developing a good mobile real estate application, but it helps if you know the pitfalls to avoid, three veteran mobile app developers said during a workshop presentation today at Real Estate Connect San Francisco.
Apps need to be developed for the specific platform or smart-phone operating system they will run on, said Sasha Aickin, engineering manager for Redfin’s search team.
"If you try to make something that will work anywhere, you’re going to be sad," Aickin said.
Writing in native code is more expensive, Aickin said, but will provide a better user experience than tackling the job in HTML 5.
Find out what information users want access to through your mobile app, and "don’t make an ad, make an app," Aickin advised.
Getting it right the first time is crucial, because a poorly designed mobile app will drive consumers away and it’s hard to get them back.
"Wow your consumers," said Eric Blumberg, the founder and president of SmarterAgent, which provides branded mobile apps for brokers and agents. "If you give them a lousy experience, they leave."
"No one will give your app a second chance" if they have a poor user experience, said Jim Secord, president and chief operating officer of Kurio, which provides mobile apps to brokers and agents in 35 markets.
Trying to build a single mobile application that works on all devices or platforms is asking for failure, Secord said.
When designing an app, one way to get the most out of a platform is to exploit existing capabilities such as calendar, address book and maps. When a user calls up a listing, for example, they should also be provided with links to maps and driving directions, and options to enter an open house into their calendar or place a phone call or e-mail to their agent.
Users also appreciate links to other services, Secord said. Kurio provides a link to Walk Score, a Web-based service that scores the "walkability" of neighborhoods.
While users still want photos of listings, Kurio resizes them, scaling them for the device they’ll be viewed on. It’s also important to be aware of a particular device’s limitations.
"If you think you can send 30 pictures up on a cell phone — they are going to say this app is slow. It’s horrible," Blumberg said. The most sophisticated apps can even monitor the speed of the user’s data connection in order to avoid flooding users with data, he said. "You have to be smart enough to know what to send to the phone, and how good the connection is." …CONTINUED
Once an application has been written, test it by walking around with it in the field, Aickin said. The app’s qualities won’t be clear from behind a desk, he said.
Watch people using the prototype and, as hard as it might be, don’t talk to them while they are using it, Aickin said. It’s important to see how people will actually use the app, and not influence their behavior.
Once an app is ready to be released, if it’s destined for Apples iPhone app store, don’t be surprised if it takes some time to get it approved. The iPhone’s operating system and app store have spurred a revolution in mobile app development (see story).
The logjam of new applications can mean wait times of three to six weeks after an application is submitted until it’s approved for release to the public, Aickin said.
"It’s a little crazy right now," he said of the iPhone app store. It’s possible to design an app so it can be updated by changing out blocks of code without going through the entire approval process again, he said.
Mobile app adoption among real estate brokers and agents is "very viral," Secord said, and since Kurio’s applications became available to the public, it’s finding Realtors are helping spread the word.
While the company was once satisfied if a small percentage of agents in a given market adopted the company’s mobile apps, Kurio is now shooting for 15 percent adoption. Kurio’s adoption rates exceed 20 percent of multiple listing service members in four markets — the East San Francisco Bay Area (24 percent), Las Vegas (22 percent), Orlando (21 percent) and Central Virginia (21 percent) — Secord said.
Blumberg said SmarterAgent builds applications for hundreds of phones, including many with only limited Web browsing or text capabilities, and is the only company in the field obtaining certifications for its apps from mobile phone carriers.
"If you only put an iPhone app out, it’s like saying I’m only going to sell to people who drive a Mercedes," Blumberg said.
The iPhone has ignited interest in mobile phone apps, even among owners of less capable phones, Blumberg said.
"We’ve seen a double-digit increase in downloads and usage on other phones," Blumberg said.
The panelists agreed that the BlackBerry continues to be the most popular smart phone among real estate agents and brokers, in large part because of its ability to access lockboxes.
Mobile apps are so important to real estate professionals that they may switch phones to gain access to a particular application, Secord said.
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