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Want to Win at Mobile? Start Treating Apps Like Products, Not Projects

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Today’s consumers have power; we know this. They can jump on Twitter and complain publicly about any company anytime. They can walk into a store and showroom any product on the floor, then instantly buy it for cheaper online. In more and more cities, they can get whatever they want—food, toilet paper, a manicure—delivered to their doorsteps on-demand.

The main driver behind this burgeoning consumer power? Mobile. We’re spending more and more time with mobile each passing year—last year saw a 52 percent increase in mobile app usage. And this shift means we as individuals have more information, access and capabilities at our fingertips than many companies had within their walls just a short decade ago. We can use that information to seek out the brands that offer us the lowest prices, most convenience and best experience. If your brand isn’t the one that checks those boxes, you can bet we’ll head elsewhere.

So let’s face it: companies aren’t in charge of the market anymore; the market’s in charge of them. And yes. Most companies get this; they realize they must go where their customers are. But, in spite of the clear trend, fewer than half of enterprises have actually implemented mobile strategies. And those who are building mobile apps are often failing to meet elevated user expectations.

Yeah, Yeah, Yeah. But How Do We Deliver Better Apps?

Everyone wants great apps. Consumers want to use them, and companies want the efficiency, added revenue and customer loyalty they promise to deliver. But we have a long way to go before every app is a great one—simple, powerful and purposeful.

To achieve this, rather than viewing mobile as just a box to check, companies need to start thinking of their mobile offerings as products that will be measured and improved upon constantly; as living creatures that are never “complete,” but always evolving. And to do this, they need to reorient their cultures, incentives and processes to align with the mobile reality. Here’s how:

1) Throw Out the Projects

In many cases, short-term thinking is the culprit behind “crapplications.” Too many companies tackle the mobile imperative by outsourcing an app or two and calling it a day. Or they bring mobility in-house but treat apps like one-off initiatives, amassing resources, planning, delivering and then moving on to the next thing.

This is understandable, really. We’ve been conditioned by our histories of IT projects—long ramp-up, big push, go-live, and on to the next thing! But the mobile world is wired differently.

This starts with treating mobile apps as products. We have to view them as real assets that have specific targets we aim for and the machinery in place to drive continual improvement based on those measures. In practice, the means apps need: product managers, steady funding, the ability to track key app metrics, and dedicated, long-lived development teams – not transient teams that come together briefly and then disband (it’s hard for developers to care about a product it they’re constantly jumping from one project to the next).

A big drawback of the old project-based worldview is that it disincentivizes teams to focus on things like maintainability and thoughtful instrumentation of apps to understand how the experience can be improved over time. A forward-looking perspective is particularly critical for mobile given the pace of technology change, ratcheting expectations and the user’s ability to simply delete your app if they don’t love it.

2) Create a Leaner Lifecycle

None of this, however, can come at the expense of speed. In fact, mobile means companies need to move faster than ever before.

They have to make the leap from a few releases a year to a continuous cadence that can keep up with continual hardware and software updates across a multitude of platforms.

To do that, we need to rethink how we deliver software. It turns out that Lean and Continuous Delivery principles are perfectly suited to mobile, which thrives on bite-size feature sets and the ability to rapidly build and refine.

Start transforming your traditional application lifecycle into a lightweight app lifecycle by examining your processes and optimizing everything around velocity. Automate where you haven’t already. Identify and eliminate all the handoffs that our sluggish legacy processes were built around.
At the top of the list:

  • Ditch traditional requirements gathering in favor of rapid, visual prototyping (in other words, the app is the requirement).
  • Adopt a minimum viable product (MVP) approach that formulates and tests hypotheses by rapidly delivering small pieces of functionality to users. This let’s you quickly learn from actual usage and adapt from there.

Development teams naturally despise overhead and waste. By seeking it out and stripping it away as I’m describing, companies can finally create an app development engine that moves at the speed of mobile. (Bonus? This kind of modern development approach is far more likely to attract top talent, too.)

3) Reinvent Measurement and Incentives

Generations of project teams have labored under the “Iron Triangle” metrics of cost, schedule and scope. This is a poor way to measure success in the age of mobile. Instead, teams should be rewarded based on the actual success of the app as a product.

This is a huge cultural shift for many delivery organizations. But it has tons of advantages. It elevates thinking from, “How quickly can I implement this change?” to “What strategic impact might this change have?”

The result is empowered teams that make better decisions because they have a clear line-of-sight to the real business objectives.

To build a team that delivers great mobile apps, devise incentives that reward specific product success metrics like adoption, usage and stickiness. For consumer-facing apps, you can even tie lifetime value of customers into this reward structure.

Connecting the dots between user needs, business objectives and dev team goals is a relatively straightforward shift. That doesn’t make it easy, but the good news is it’s well worth it from a cultural perspective too: aside from ensuring everyone pulls in the same direction, real-world drivers are a hell of a lot more inspiring than “on-time” or “on-budget” when it comes to goal-setting.

Make the Shift from Project to Product Thinking

Look – the shift from web to mobile hasn’t been a comfortable one. It’s probably not going to get easier anytime soon. But the good news is that it’s giving us the perfect excuse to throw out a lot of legacy thinking and processes that aren’t doing anyone any favors.

Mobile is an opportunity not just to change what we produce for end users but to rethink how we create products in a way that’s better, faster and even—dare we say it?—fun. Instead of being overwhelmed by all the new demands that mobile is putting on businesses, let’s look at the technological shift as a chance to get better at what we do.

It might seem like semantics to move from “project thinking” to “product thinking,” but there’s meaningful change behind those words. And if we can make this crucial shift from treating our apps as one-off projects to thinking about them as live, evolving products, we can start to build things that change as fast as the world around us is changing. That will be a sight to behold.

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1 Comment

  1. Michael

    Great article. As a lawyer who works with app development companies I think there is a valuable takeaway from this way of thinking. Much in the way that IT service companies have transitioned from a break/fix project oriented world to managed services, I think a progressive app development company should value themselves as the ongoing app development partner and price their services accordingly. Of course there needs to be some initial milestones pre-launch, but an ongoing maintenance environment that provides for ongoing edits and tweaking makes sense.

    Thank you for your insights.

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