What Is a Super App and What Makes It So Super?

Hamish Sherlock Hamish Sherlock
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Super apps provide the digital turf for the latest retail battle… as well as new challenges for software developers

If you’ve googled “What is a super app?” in the last year or two, you’re not alone (I’ve done it too). Word on the street is that this superlative piece of software got its name from BlackBerry founder Mike Lazaridis back in 2010. He defined it as “a closed ecosystem of many apps that people would use every day because they offer such a seamless, integrated, contextualized and efficient experience.”

Truth is, the idea of super apps has been around for a while. Trailblazers like Salesforce and ServiceNow have been creating ecosystems that began with basic offerings, only to pull in adjacent solutions and services which were logical recruits for its community of applications.

Today, super apps — so-called digital front doors — have evolved and lead to a mass marketplace of services and offerings, made possible via in-house technology and through third-party integrations – lots of them. And there are some big players in the game.

Super app superheroes

TenCent, the massive Chinese tech conglomerate and leader in the super app realm, took its WeChat app – initially a messaging app – and morphed its billion-plus user app into an ecosystem of services that includes taxi rides, payments/virtual wallets, hotel reservations, games, medical consultations and more. There are other super app contenders as well:

What’s your superpower, super app?

That may be the high-flying question in many minds these days. It’s easier to say what super apps have in common at this point. They aggregate services in a not-so-subtle sleight of hand that shifts users away from accessing the happy community of distinct apps living on their mobile devices and computers. Afterall, why maintain all those individual passwords and sift through a library of apps (that have to be constantly updated) to find the one that does a specific task when you can have one app that does it all? This is exactly the question many big firms are considering today as they look to gain a larger slice of your wallet.

Amazon, Google and Facebook all have ambitions to become super apps – in fact, each have super apps in India currently. Covered in this recent PYMNTS.com article, Walmart’s CEO Doug McMillon reported his firm’s Q4 2020 earnings and spoke of their intention to move from a “preferred destination” to a “primary destination.” An ecosystem of physical and digital that included an expansion of its existing marketplace with Shopify, and investment in eCommerce, logistics and more.

Yup, you guessed it – a super app.

Super apps present new opportunities for business, but up the ante for ensuring good user experiences

While super apps have big revenue upside potential, in the end – like any other apps – they’ll earn their audience based on some fundamentals of good software development and testing. And, they’ll be testing guinea pigs, as the universe of super apps is relatively small.

To ease the mental pain of users saying goodbye to their favorite standalone apps, super app builders must offer an attractive and frictionless marketplace with strong customer appeal. Every designer knows that a great app layout has a major impact on user satisfaction and sustained use levels.

In addition, the super app must seamlessly interact with multiple third-party vendors. Then there’s the all-important payments piece and the related security.

Quality analysts and testers will need to evaluate the app, systems, and software control flow to ensure there are no defects. Finally, your customers need to weigh in: after all, they will be the daily users who will make it or break it.

What are key elements to super apps?

Super apps will only maintain their moniker if, well, they really are super in all users’ views. They’ll need to embrace trends and characteristics that consumers expect in the market today. To do this, companies working on super apps need to consider:

  • Inclusivity - Apps have to work for all customers all of the time. This means moving physical-world thinking to the digital world and vice versa. Removing impediments to inclusivity will result in an experience that is better for everyone. Super apps will need to move forward with a careful eye here.

  • Social responsibility - Many apps have the opportunity to make the world a better place, not just by what they do, but by how they do it. Does a super app aggregate services that consider their impact on the environment? Take a transportation service: is it contributing to global warming or using green options like electric cars? Is a super app contributing to waste in poor product packaging and shipping or reducing it?

  • Data privacy - Certain geographies like Europe, the US and Canada have been more protective of personal data than others. Data is a foundational component to the success of a super app. The more data collected, the better the offerings for individuals using it. So, again, super app builders will need to weave privacy considerations into their apps and address user concerns.

Whether it’s Walmart extending its massive physical footprint into the digital realm, digital natives broadening their services through partnerships with other digital platforms, or hybrid models, there are core elements that are table stakes for success in the super app space.

To ensure all the complex pieces of the super app puzzle fit together, software testing will become more critical than ever. Localized user expectations related to functional design and the interaction of apps within the super app lend themselves to the potential for significant software bugs — something today’s tech-savvy consumers tolerate less and less.

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