Should I build an app? 4 things your charity should consider first

By Alex Green 7 February 2020 5 minute read

There are over 4 million apps in the iOS and Android app stores, and this number is growing every day. If we added in web and hybrid apps there would be even more. Do we need more? And even if we make more apps, will anyone be able to find them amongst the Candy Crush clones? Chances are that your app, no matter how useful and beautifully crafted, will find it hard to reach its target users without significant promotion. An app isn’t just for Christmas, it will require ongoing investment in development work, user support and marketing to keep providing value.

At our annual conference, NPC Ignites I ran a session to help people work out if building an app is right for their charity.

Think about systems and services

I’ve often wondered about where the drive for thinking and making digital in discrete products comes from—how often have you heard ‘let’s make a new app’ or ‘ build a new website’. Perhaps it’s a cultural legacy from the print publishing teams that many organisations’ digital teams grew out of? Or maybe it’s driven by pressure to have a concrete ‘thing’ to articulate to funders and internal stakeholders?

Whatever the reason, we need to stop thinking about digital as a series of products rolling up assembly line but as the development of services which sit alongside and interact with a more traditional offer. We need to start thinking about those digital services as part of a broader ecosystem of interactions which is continuous and integral with everyday life. This might mean resisting the urge to make new user-facing products and instead working to enhance the ecosystem that already exists by building better infrastructure or tools to navigate it—a great example of this is the BBC’s Own It app (yes I know this is an app!) which is a virtual keyboard to mediate young people’s interactions with existing social media platforms.

So, should you build an app?

Well… it depends—like all good questions, there’s no easy answer here. There can be good reasons to make an app when you are fulfilling a well-defined need and you really need the capabilities a native app can offer—although I would always encourage you to think about whether a Progressive Web App might work with the added functions HTML5 device integration APIs now offer.

To start working out if a building app is the right direction to go in, you should start by thinking through the four questions below.

  1. What do your users need?

This is what people actually really need, not just what you think they should need or you think might be easy to get your funders and stakeholders to support. This is where we all need to get better at listening to our users and thinking about UX as co-design not just consultation. At NPC we’ve done some work exploring how to build co-production into digital development for children and young people in our My Best Life project, and will be doing more of this in its next phase.


  1. Where are the gaps in their world?

 To locate and understand the root issues driving problems you need to walk alongside your users, listen, learn and build empathy. This might be building on work you’ve already been doing to understand needs or using established service design techniques like journey mapping to identify and explore pain points. It can also be helpful to draw from the mapping approaches developed by systems thinking to map the actors, institutions and relationships that shape the broader context.


  1. What already exists?

This isn’t just asking whether exactly the digital intervention you’re considering already exists, it’s asking if there’s a different way to solve the problem. A good way to think about this is to find out what has already been created. For example—if you’re considering developing a listings or signposting service for people to find information, then it’s likely people are already trying to find this information via Google. So rather than making a new directory to solve this problem, you could work out how to improve the ranking of the information they need to find in existing search engines.


  1. Who and how?

Once you’ve defined the space and the issue you want to address, it’s important to think about both who is already working in the space and  who is best placed to address the issue. This can be a particularly challenging question as the answer might not be you—but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do about it. At this point you might decide that the best way to achieve impact is to work in partnership with another organisation, empower others to address the problem (through funding or other support) or form a coalition to advocate for change.


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