Finweek English Edition - - FRONT PAGE - BY GARETH OCHSE garethochse@gmail.com

Ap­pli­ca­tion devel­op­ment is a tough game. With over 1m apps on the iOS and An­droid app stores, there are some suc­cesses, but there are also over 900 000 apps that have had barely a few hun­dred down­loads each de­spite all the ef­fort that’s gone into them.

What went wrong with the 900 000 fail­ures? Since ap­pli­ca­tions are in many ways small busi­ness ven­tures, what par­al­lels can we draw with busi­nesses as a whole?

Some in­sight into this was re­cently given at Google’s I/O con­fer­ence where Tomer Sharon, a Google Search User Ex­pe­ri­ence Re­searcher, listed ‘five rea­sons why no­body is us­ing your app’. The lessons are eas­ily trans­fer­able to big­ger busi­nesses as the mis­takes ap­pli­ca­tion de­vel­op­ers make are the same en­trepreneurs make when try­ing to build a busi­ness:


Your friends, just like your mom, will

al­ways pre­tend to love ev­ery­thing you want to do. They want you to suc­ceed.

They want you to be ex­cited about some­thing and go and do it be­cause they are in their safe cor­po­rate jobs and will never try. They are to­tally bi­ased and the only time you know if a friend would ac­tu­ally use your busi­ness or ap­pli­ca­tion is when they’ve re­newed their an­nual sub­scrip­tion two years from now. Un­til then they’re too bi­ased to give hon­est feed­back. So don’t ever ask friends or fam­ily if they would use your prod­uct or buy your app. In­stead, talk to your tar­get mar­ket di­rectly, prefer­ably peo­ple you’ve never met be­fore and who will need a lot of con­vinc­ing.


Does your busi­ness solve a real prob­lem that peo­ple will ac­tu­ally pay money to solve? These days the low cost route to f in­d­ing this out is to cre­ate a land­ing page to gauge in­ter­est in lieu of real prod­uct test­ing. These are mini-web­sites that make bold prom­ises about what they’re about to launch with a call to “Sign up here”. The prob­lem with this ap­proach, Sharon ex­plains, is that the only thing you’re re­ally learn­ing is who is in­ter­ested enough to give their email ad­dress. Whether or not your app ful­fils a real need and is wor­thy of some­one’s time and at­ten­tion is a whole other ques­tion – one that nor­mally re­quires a lot of time, ef­fort and money to an­swer.


“The f irst rule of re­search is don’t lis­ten to users,” Sharon says. “In­stead, ob­serve their be­hav­iour.” He points to a re­cent study of UK’s mo­tor­way toi­lets, in which 99% of peo­ple claimed to have washed their hands af­ter leav­ing the bath­room. But when equip­ment was in­stalled to track real habits, it turned out that only 32% of men and 64% of women ac­tu­ally did wash their hands. “Some peo­ple would say, they’re just liars. They’re not,” Sharon says. “We are hav­ing trou­ble pre­dict­ing our be­hav­iour. There are many rea­sons for that.”

The im­pli­ca­tion for you as some­one who is build­ing a busi­ness is that you need to spend time watch­ing how your tar­get mar­ket cus­tomers cur­rently go about solv­ing the prob­lem that you in­tend to solve in your busi­ness. This means go­ing to see them, watch­ing them silently (prefer­ably with a cam­era) and only later com­ing back to them to ask for ex­pla­na­tion of their ac­tions or to test an im­proved method/ver­sion.

In my ex­pe­ri­ence, this shift from lis­ten­ing to cus­tomers is tricky, par­tially be­cause it’s ask­ing more to watch and film some­one than to chat to them over cof­fee, and be­cause it’s a dif­fer­ent skills set that we rarely get a chance to prac­tice.


Ev­ery prod­uct makes as­sump­tions, but there’s one as­sump­tion that’s most im­por­tant. It’s what Sharon calls the ‘ r isk iest as­sump­tion’, t he as­sump­tion most core to your prod­uct. “If the riski­est as­sump­tion is not true, then the whole idea falls apart,” Sharon says.

While I’ll leave you to f ig­ure out which is the core as­sump­tion be­hind your busi­ness, it’s im­por­tant to point out that risky as­sump­tions ap­ply as much to the prod­uct as it does to the mar­ket­ing of it: peo­ple love the idea of vi­ral growth, but it’s in­cred­i­bly hard to achieve. If your app or busi­ness re­lies on a sig­nif­i­cant source of new traf­fic/ cus­tomers com­ing through vi­ral growth, then you need to re­work your en­tire busi­ness model, from sales and mar­ket­ing strate­gies to dis­tri­bu­tion deals and sell­ing price to un­der­stand how the busi­ness would look if you didn’t get any vi­ral traf­fic. Chances are you’d never start, and would save a lot of your cap­i­tal as a re­sult.


Thanks to the con­cepts of ‘min­i­mal vi­able prod­uct’ and ‘pivot’, there is a cur­rent pop­u­lar idea that one should quickly launch an app with bare-bones func­tion­al­ity, see if it sticks, ‘pivot’ (or change the fun­da­men­tal func­tions of a prod­uct), then es­sen­tially re­launch it.

This ap­proach is far more de­signed to max­imise a start-up’s bets be­fore they run out of money than it is about de­sign­ing a prod­uct for real hu­man use and therein lies the dif­fer­ence. Sharon calls this a ‘Bob the Builder men­tal­ity’ and he in­sists that it’s not the way to build a suc­cess­ful app.

Just be­cause some­thing can be coded again and again doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have been de­signed based upon real hu­man needs and user in­sights in the first place. Your progress in cod­ing and piv­ot­ing will feel good, but un­less you’ve built some­thing for real hu­man use you’re dead in the wa­ter no mat­ter how of­ten you pivot. While this is fairly stan­dard stuff the real core of Sharon’s ad­vice is about how you an­swer these ques­tions: don’t ask your friends or fam­ily, un­der­stand what prob­lem you’re re­ally solv­ing, and most im­por­tantly learn to watch peo­ple ac­tu­ally solve the prob­lem, rather than ask­ing them to tell you how they do it.

When you poll po­ten­tial users ask about re­peated be­hav­iours and prefer­ably as short-an­swer feed­back be­cause fun­da­men­tally, a well-de­signed busi­ness is like a well-de­signed app, or any other well-de­signed prod­uct. It’s shaped around hu­man need. And the more vis­cer­ally you can un­der­stand that need, the more rel­e­vant and po­ten­tially suc­cess­ful your prod­uct will be.

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