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Micro apps: A simple way to add sophisticated features

When building a new web or mobile app seems like overkill, micro apps might be the most practical way for developers to add niche features and functionality.

Building upon the demand for desktop, web and mobile applications, organizations are now pursuing micro apps as another software vehicle for customer engagement and marketing efforts. These micro apps are desirable since they support rich media and other semi-complex app functions, but are easier to create than traditional web and mobile applications.

But what are micro apps, and what do developers need to know about building them? In this article, we'll discuss micro app development in detail, including how they differ from web services and the scenarios where they are the most effective.

What is a micro app?

Most IT pros are familiar with the practice of creating tiny piece of software that do a single task exceedingly well. These are often referred to as widgets, slides, plugins and other terms that make it clear they are part of a larger software ecosystem. In some ways, micro apps are emerging as a sort-of standard for these standalone applications.

Typically, micro apps make up one small part of a larger platform, such as Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts, or AccuWeather. They are essentially smaller pieces of web applications that can either run as part of a larger application or run independently when needed. These apps can be added to a webpage using a micro front-end design approach, or even as overlapping, HTML-based windows (i.e., the Google Hangouts window in Gmail).

In terms of use cases, micro apps typically exist as a natural extension of a larger, web-based application, or part of a mobile application. Micro apps should present one small bit of functionality with a limited number of interactions. This could be a customer service interface or a dashboard that provides stock market information at a glance. They're also an ideal delivery format for technical white papers, case studies and landing pages, since they allow for so many multimedia options such as video embeds and manipulatable graphics. A particularly savvy UX designer or graphic artist might even use micro apps as a "digital business card" that shows off their technical prowess.

Micro apps are usually capable of collecting granular customer data that can trigger certain events. For instance, perhaps a marketing team wants to identify customers who frequently visit your site and offer them time-sensitive coupons. Or maybe they'd like to target an offer at customers who rarely use your mobile app, to encourage more visits. Developers can also use this data to customize what the user sees or the alerts they receive.

When to use micro apps vs. mobile or desktop

The major benefit of micro apps is that developers can embed them as components of nearly any web application, and they are often very easy to reuse. Also, while a limited percentage of customers will actually download a mobile application, every customer that comes to your website will likely see and engage with the micro apps embedded within. You can even use retargeting techniques to have your micro apps follow users to other websites after they visit.

But, like any superhero, micro apps have their weaknesses. The downside is their focus and embedded nature, which doesn't do much for customer retention, since they are not specific destinations that customers are likely to continue accessing purposefully. There are certainly micro apps that customers will keep reusing, like weather widgets or stock tickers embedded within a web app. However, if you are looking to build something that is a destination for long-term, daily customer use, consider building a new mobile or web app. Micro apps are best used in limited capacities, such as one-off marketing campaigns.

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