Apps are Pets
When beginning a mobile, web or other app software project, keep in mind it’s more like adopting a pet than building a product. Software needs continual care, maintenance and feature development. Users expect updates — whether to take advantage of the latest mobile Operating System release, to fix a bug that somehow slipped through Quality Assurance, or simply to add features. Building an app is not a “one-time and you’re done” operation.
Product / Market Fit
Consult the experts, whether Marc Andressen (co-creator of the first web browser), Steve Blank of Stanford, Paul Graham of Y-Combinator or Sean Ellis of LogMeIn, they all agree: it’s about getting the right product, to the right people. That said, your app’s features should depend heavily on who that app is marketed to. To achieve this takes a lot of “get out of the building” type thinking promoted by Eric Ries in his book The Lean Startup. Interacting with your market as soon as possible is paramount.
Agile software development process, user-centric design, and Lean thinking can all help you discover what features to build, but all the theory in the world won’t help unless you learn from your market, measure feedback, and build the features that users desire: you must go through this “build, measure, learn” cycle a few times to get it right.
Accrue Technical Debt Wisely
You may be initially wowed by a software team that can deliver features fast and furiously — especially when you they look cool, and progress comes swiftly — but in just a few short months, a mobile app project can grind to a halt. Why? At the beginning of a project software developers often build features without building the surrounding infrastructure to support them. It’s like building a glorious bathroom complete with steam shower in a house with no plumbing.
The industry term for this is “technical debt.” While this form of indebtedness can get you a quick jolt of progress, it can also come back to bite you. For quick experiments, technical debt may be the right option, but for meaningful, high-quality app development, building it right means a robust software architecture, infrastructure to support scaling to a massive audience, and putting in place the security necessary to protect both your users and your investment.
There is a reason that, on average, large IT projects run 45 percent over budget and 7 percent over time, while delivering 56 percent less value than predicted. In a survey of 600 people closely related to a software project, 78% of respondents reported that the “Business is usually or always out of sync with project requirements.” It is extremely difficult to correctly estimate large software projects. So, smart teams have stopped trying.
But, without an estimate, how will your app hit deadlines and a budget? The secret is once again, in the agile process: you can correctly estimate software deliverables over the short term. The agile software development process promotes short “sprints” and we suggest a one-week time period. This way, your team releases a fully-functional and complete product every week! And since you are learning from your users, what you will do over the next few months, will be in direct response to their usage and feedback. Think of a product initiative as an experiment, where the goal is to learn what a market wants, and deliver it.
Asking your users directly what they want (or don’t want) is a pitfall to avoid. You are the innovator, and you understand the possibilities for future directions of your product better than anyone, including your users, so asking them is asking for trouble. Instead, simply observe them. Focus groups are notorious not only for their expense, but also their “false sense of science.” Studying users behind a one-way mirror may have worked well in that Mad Men episode, but for software, the “Starbucks Method” is about a million times cheaper, and much more insightful. Get into the cafe, hand out some 20’s, 0r buy people lunch in exchange for watching them use your product.
There is no harm in providing a few in-app survey questions. Take a look at Qualaroo for how to do this well. For building community, GetSatisfaction is a good bet. Bottom line: Target your questions to the specific user experience, not the overall product.
As the recent “Downpocalypse” of the Apple Developer Center demonstrated (no new iPhone apps could be created for over a week!) hitching your app to a single horse is a dangerous move. Though an initial iOS app release makes sense in many cases, building with cross-platform mobile technologies like HTML5, Adobe Phonegap, Ludei or Unity, allows your app to diversify its bets; placing expensive native features only where they’re needed. This way you can release on iOS, Android, the Web, even PC, Mac and gaming consoles.
Choose the Right Team
Select a development team that will maximize your budget and give the best value. Sometimes the cheapest guy on Craig’s List, Upwork, or RentACoder is the right way to go — such as with one-off experiments or when a quick and dirty initial draft of an app on a shoestring budget is expected to be tossed and re-written from scratch — but for most projects, it makes sense to proceed with a team that can provide end-to-end services, engage with your users, and help guide you strategically to that nirvana of mass adoption.