October 31, 2013, 4:30 PM

How Urban Outfitters exterminated the bugs in its mobile apps

The retailer built an internal mobile team and added performance monitoring from Crittercism.

Amy Dusto

Associate Editor

Lead Photo

A year ago few consumers were using apparel retailer Urban Outfitters Inc.’s mobile shopping app, senior marketing manager Moira Gregonis says. But since the retailer released a new version of the iPhone app in September, with many of its former kinks smoothed out, it has become a quickly growing part of the business, she says. Today the app accounts for roughly 6% of the retailer’s total digital transactions, compared with just 1% in its old incarnation, she says.

“The previous app was very glitch-y—it crashed all the time, especially in the cart,” Gregonis says.  “Now that all those issues are cleared up, every day we are getting thousands of new downloads.”

Urban Outfitters has been making a big push for mobile, starting about a year and a half ago when it put together an internal mobile engineering team and began building all its own apps, Gregonis says. That allows the retailer to roll out new mobile products more quickly, including releasing app updates about once a month—updates that could take a year each if the retailer relied on outside developers, Urban Outfitters’ mobile engineering manager Chris Hunter says.

Contributing to the in-house developers’ productivity is a software tool from mobile performance monitoring company Crittercism Inc. The vendor provides a small piece of code that a client can insert into its mobile app software in about five minutes, according to Crittercism chief marketing officer Kalyan Ramanathan. That code tracks how well app features perform—for instance, the response time when a customer adds an item to the cart, how quickly the app connects to a store inventory system or what processes cause an app to crash when a customer opens it on a particular smartphone. It also points developers back to which part of their software is related to those actions.

Hunter’s team at Urban Outfitters uses the Crittercism software in the testing stage of mobile app development to find and fix bugs that cause crashes, he says. Without Crittercism, his team might be able to note the frequency of crashes, but not know what part of the code was causing them, he says. “That has contributed greatly to new code being more solid.”

Urban Outfitters first deployed Crittercism to figure out what was wrong with an internally developed app that store associates use to track inventory levels on the floor, Hunter says. Associates were reluctant to use the app, complaining that it crashed often—as it turned out, it was crashing more than 10% of the time, Hunter says. Critticism identified the source of the problem and Hunter’s team was able to upgrade the app, lowering the crash rate to less than 2%, he says.

Similarly, when the mobile team applied Crittercism’s technology to the shopping app for consumers, they learned the crash rate was above 5%. They subsequently bought that down below 2%. Since then, the team has begun using the performance monitoring software with all its in-progress work, which includes updates for the retailer’s other in-store app, a mobile checkout tool, Hunter says.

He declines to say how much Urban Outfitters pays for Crittercism, but says that “any time you can save face and get more customers using your app, that’s worth money.” Especially with consumers, the retailer may only have one chance to make the right impression—if a shopper opens the app for the first time and it crashes, she might never use it again, he says. Gregonis adds that being able to identify and fix mobile bugs quickly saves the retailer significant money by shortening development cycles.

A basic version of Crittercism, supporting mobile performance monitoring apps with 30,000 or fewer monthly active users, is free. The professional version, which has no user limits and supports extra monitoring features, such as sending alerts and tracking location data, starts at $100 per month. Crittercism also offers an enterprise version with further features and unlimited data storage on a contractual basis.

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