Weather balloon, plane or helicopter — what kind of app are you? 🎈✈️ 🚁

Understand your mobile app to drive more business value

Gabrielle Earnshaw
4 min readJan 22, 2024

The approach to building commercial mobile apps broadly falls into one of three categories: weather balloons, planes and helicopters. Understanding which approach you are taking lets you get the most out of your app to drive more business value. Read on to find out what makes an app a weather balloon, plane or helicopter, and how to make the most of each kind.

Helicopter in flight — Photo by Tommaso Calderara on Unsplash

🎈Weather balloon

Weather balloon apps are released and then left to their own devices. Your app is most likely a weather balloon if:

  • You rarely, if ever, update the app.
  • You don’t actively add new features. You built the app, and now it’s ‘finished’.
  • You don’t collect analytics, or other data about how the app is performing.
  • You don’t conduct user research with people who use your app.
  • You had the app developed, but you don’t have people actively working on it.

Things to be aware of with weather balloon apps:

  • Keep the app updated to the latest versions of iOS and Android. This needs doing at least once a year. If you don’t, you’ll end up with a small change, such as changing text or fixing a typo, being an expensive job. If an app hasn’t been updated for several years, you might not be able to make changes at all without starting again.
  • Apps are expensive to develop, but the pay-off is that they can drive a lot of business value. But you’re probably not getting the value you could out of a weather balloon. If you feel like it’s underperforming, you’ll get more from your app by treating it like a plane (see below).
  • If you’re going to develop an app and think it will be a weather balloon, consider if you actually need an app. A mobile-optimised web site might be better for you. It’s much cheaper to build, and will drive as much value for you as a weather balloon.

Weather balloons are good for:

  • Utility apps, or with a very well-defined scope and purpose.
  • Hobby apps, or other apps where you’re not particularly interested in driving business value.

✈️ Plane

Plane apps get a bit more input than weather balloons. Much of the time they are gliding on autopilot, but you step in and steer when needed. Your app is most likely a plane if:

  • You add new features from time to time, but you typically release updates less than once a month.
  • You might collect some analytics, but you don’t make much use of them.
  • You rarely, if ever, conduct user research with end users of the app.
  • You don’t run A/B tests.
  • You have people available to work on the app when needed, but they typically work on other things as well.

Things to be aware of with plane apps:

  • Make sure you understand how business value flows in through your app. You can be much more effective with your feature development and level of effort if you understand this properly.
  • You could be driving more business value by making better use of analytics to understand how and why people use your app.

Plane apps are good for:

  • Apps that enable access to a product or service, but that aren’t the product or service itself.

🚁 Helicopter

Helicopter apps constantly have someone at the controls, making micro-adjustments and fine-tuning how they are flying. Your app is likely a helicopter if:

  • You release updates every 1–2 weeks.
  • You conduct user interviews.
  • You use analytics heavily.
  • You probably run A/B tests.
  • You have a full-time team working on the app.

Things to be aware of with helicopter apps:

  • Flying a helicopter is expensive. You need to make sure that the business value you can drive from the app outweighs the costs.
  • Work is intensive, so improvements that allow your workflows to be more effective give significant paybacks that snowball over time. It’s worth prioritising automation, removing friction and bottlenecks from your workflow, and making faster feedback loops.
  • Measure what you are doing. If you aren’t using analytics and A/B tests effectively, it’s easy to do a lot of work without actually driving any additional business value.

Helicopter apps are good for:

  • Apps where the app IS the product.
  • Apps that users pay a subscription to use.
  • Apps that directly sell goods or services.

Summary

So, that was an overview of the three different approaches to building mobile apps — weather balloons, planes and helicopters. What kind of app are you developing? And more importantly, is it the right kind for your needs?

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Gabrielle Earnshaw

Mobile App Strategy, Leadership and Engineering Expert.