The secret to first-rate mobile apps for customers? Iterate, iterate, iterate

How four organizations tapped into fast-moving advances in mobile technology to crank up the functionality of their existing customer offerings.

Take four heavy-hitting brands -- Allstate, Hilton, United Airlines and American Express, all of which place a premium on customer loyalty and retention. Mix in the customer-pleasing form of mobile devices and the ever-advancing function of mobile apps.

What you get are four organizations using mobile to connect better with customers by leveraging their well-organized IT structures and well-skilled IT staffers.

"Mobile is really about supporting your overall business objective," says Forrester Research analyst Julie Ask. "Sometimes it's around revenue or sales, sometimes it's about influencing sales in stores. It could be about customer service." But to be successful, she adds, "mobile has to be an enabler of a better customer experience."

Alan Pelz-Sharpe, research director for social business at 451 Research, agrees. "It's all about understanding the personas and building the apps around the personas," he says. "Building an app is relatively straightforward today. But folding it back into the cogs within an organization, when some of the cogs are very old, that's a different story."

These four organizations, among the winners of IDGE's Digital Edge 25 awards, managed to do just that, delivering expanded functionality in their mobile apps within their existing systems. What they learned along the way might help your organization tune up its own mobile offerings.

Allstate Insurance: Drivewise Mobile

For the past several years, many insurance companies have turned to telematics devices, which are plug-in units installed in customers' cars to monitor driving habits, such as braking and speed, and help set rates. Allstate Insurance had its own offering, the Drivewise program, but the company wanted to take the idea a step further and make the information flow more of a two-way street.

The most recent iteration, Drivewise Mobile, collects the same information about driving behavior, but via a driver's smartphone when that phone is in the vehicle. The app also delivers related information in near real-time directly to the driver's smartphone, says Ginger Purgatorio, vice president of Allstate's Drivewise program.

"One of the real benefits to moving to the mobile program is it can expand the way we interact with customers.

"[Drivewise Mobile] makes providing feedback to the customers seamless," she says. "Prior to the app, you relied on the customers to go to the website. That's not as convenient as having it on their phone and being in their pocket at any given moment."

Although other insurance companies have similar telematics offerings, Allstate was the first major insurer to collect that information exclusively through a smartphone app.

Users can check the app when they arrive at their destination and get feedback on their recent driving performance. The app has trip history and shows progress over time, so users can compare past and present performance.

"Ultimately we'd like to influence our customers' behavior, teach them to be safer and impact the safety of the roadway," Purgatorio says.

Chetan Phadnis, vice president of connected car engineering, says Allstate workers were inspired to build the app after seeing the success of its plug-in and the evolution of smartphone technology.

"The smartphone sensor sophistication is really what opened the door to this possibility. I think we hit it at the right point," he says, adding that Allstate already had strong in-house talent for developing algorithms and analytics program. (Check out this video to see and hear more about the Drivewise Mobile project.)

As of this summer, Drivewise Mobile was available in 26 states, with Allstate expanding availability as the company meets state-by-state regulatory requirements. Allstate says it currently has 820,000 customers actively participating in the Drivewise program.

"There's a potential for telematics to revolutionize the insurance industry, particularly insurance pricing," Purgatorio says, adding that "the more data you have, the more personalized the product can be. I think that's the future for us here."

Hilton Worldwide: Digital Check-in with Room Selection

As part of its ongoing research into what customers value, Hilton Worldwide found that 84% wanted to have control over the room in which they stay. And while the company already had a mobile app, its new Digital Check-in with Room Selection allows Hilton customers to remotely check in and select their room across multiple devices and platforms. The app debuted in mid-2014.

Virginia Suliman, vice president for worldwide digital design and development, says employees had proposed the room-selection idea back in 2007, suggesting that customers at its extended-stay Homewood Suites, in particular, would appreciate being able to pick their rooms.

"We saw applicability more broadly, and we saw the value of floor plans, so we've continued to perfect it and improve it with newer technology," she says.

Joshua Sloser, vice president of digital product innovation, says Hilton IT had a strong foundation to support this ambitious project. "Our IT team made some investments in our foundational technology that allows us to do something at this magnitude," he says, pointing specifically to Hilton's work about a decade ago to integrate its systems across almost every property.

"From a development standpoint, that helped us tremendously, so we could have a unified way to connect to this one system and view, at the property-level, room inventory and understand when people check in and check out," Sloser says.

While competitors offer digital check-in, the room-selection feature is unique, Suliman says. In developing the app, she says, one of the biggest challenges was presenting the information on a mobile screen in an uncluttered way. Hilton opted to use iconography to describe, for example, whether a room has one bed or two.

Hilton staff built the software almost entirely in-house, working with software vendor Lokion to help with the floor plan aspect of the project, Sloser says. An upcoming addition will allow guests to not only choose their room, but also have a digital key loaded onto their smartphones, allowing them to bypass the reception desk and go straight to their rooms.

Sloser says Hilton has had more than 5 million digital check-ins via the app, which is growing in popularity. He says app downloads hit 1 million in about 200 days, and just 60 days later reached the 2 million mark.

American Express: Digital Pay with Points

American Express' Digital Pay with Points application allows cardholders to use reward points for products or services at the point of sale at participating vendors, rather than only online.

Digital Pay with Points was built on the company's data assets and advanced APIs that integrate with vendors through the Amex digital platform.

"We're trying to bring the value of our brand and all the services and assets the customers expect and bring them to life on new types of digital platforms so we can go where our customers are," says David Wolf, vice president of digital partnerships and development. The company first started building out developer-facing APIs that could enable unique customer experiences on third-party platforms in 2011, he says.

"We can track your spend against an offer, and we can send a real-time statement and your reward through a statement credit -- no coupons or codes -- everything happens completely behind the scenes," Wolf says.

The Membership Rewards program is one of Amex's flagship assets and one of the largest loyalty currency programs in the world, Wolf says.

Historically, most customers saved up points for big purchases, he says. "But we know through research that they were looking for new ways to engage with this program and to extract value from this program," Wolf says. "So with this technology we were able to deploy a real-time loyalty redemption program directly at the point of sale."

Wolf says the Pay with Points application builds on other functionalities that Amex has developed, such as allowing customers to connect to their accounts within Twitter by tweeting a special hashtag to load an offer to their card. The company has introduced a similar capability within Facebook, too.

Sastry Durvasula, senior vice president of enterprise information management and digital partnerships at Amex, says the company engineers its functions with the goal of providing "that seamless, slick, native experience for the consumer." That starts with the API platform that Amex developed and [shares with] third parties.

"We have a closed-loop network, so we work with millions of merchants across 100-plus countries. And the number of operational systems that have been supporting the functionality has grown over time," he says. "This sets the foundation, so we're not reinventing the wheel every time."

Wolf says the Pay with Points app works regardless of form factor. Customers can use it whether swiping their card at a fast-food register terminal or paying with their card via Apple Pay in a cab.

"We are completely agnostic in terms of the form factor, in keeping with our goal to go where our customers are," Wolf says.

Forrester's Ask calls the app "outstanding" and elegant in its simplicity. "They tend to get it right, and they tend to be cited as market leaders," she adds of American Express. "They do things that make sense for their businesses and that drive tremendous value."

Like most other companies, Amex uses some off-the-shelf technology combined with a significant amount of in-house engineering (using open-source technology) to power the Pay with Points function, Wolf says.

Amex officials don't report numbers publicly, but Wolf says that "millions of customers are paying with points, and it results in billions of points being redeemed through these new experiences." He also notes that the Pay with Points function is particularly important in attracting younger consumers who are big users of mobile.

Wolf says one challenge is enabling interaction that requires complex back-end processes while still keeping the consumer's experience simple, intuitive and fast. "It requires some heavy IT lifting," he says.

Amex met this challenge first by choosing investments wisely and putting the resources into the foundational assets, which included training and hiring the right IT talent for the tasks and moving to agile development; and second by creating a workplace culture that makes workers feel comfortable taking calculated risks. "Without that, a lot of these experiences wouldn't have made it to market," Wolf says.

"There are no other Pay with Points at point of sale. No one else can do it because our unique close-loop setup lets us do it," Wolf says, adding that the Pay with Points application is positively impacting both the company's top and bottom line.

United Airlines: United Mobile App

United Airlines has worked hard over the years to develop technology products that put more functions in consumers' hands. Airport kiosks for passenger check-in are a case in point.

So four years ago, when United saw that mobile would be the linchpin in its digital strategy, the airline went all in. "We started by putting ourselves in the role of the customer," says Scott Wilson, vice president of e-commerce and merchandising. "We know the ins and outs of the complexities of this industry, but we needed to think about what it means for our 400,000 daily customers."

United Airlines' United Mobile App allows customers to use their smartphones for a whole host of tasks, everything from managing their travel itineraries to buying seat upgrades. United launched its first app in 2011 and revamped and relaunched it in November 2013.

"We saw digital was going to be imperative for additional efficiencies that we needed in order to scale to the number of customers we expected and to improve customer service," Wilson says, adding that company leaders also believed that a better mobile app would help fuel revenue growth.

A team of about 90 workers, 30 from Wilson's unit and another 60 from IT, developed and built the new app. A Chicago firm that specializes in human-digital interaction conducted ethnographic research, studying how employees, consumers and travel agents move through the entire flying experience from booking to landing.

In addition to higher customer satisfaction and better efficiency for agents, Wilson says the mobile app has increased revenue, for example, by allowing customers to easily purchase seats with extra leg room. "With the mobile app, it's not intrusive. It's embedded into the experience," he says.

Wilson reports 4 million downloads of the first version and 20 million downloads of the new app in the two years it's been available. Also, he says the 4 million customers who used the first mobile app were United's most frequent travelers; the full range of United customers, even those who travel infrequently, use the new app.

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