16 It’s not an app you’re building–it’s a product

“What do you do?” I ask. “We’re a start-up,” he says with a nervous smile “…we have an idea for an app…”

Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Wide-eyed dreams of millions earned selling something you’ve built in just a few months—or maybe even weeks. And all this made possible by the millions of downloads a day on your favourite app store.

Mobile apps may seem new and different, but when it comes right down to it—an app is merely a product, and the app store, your distribution channel. Once you release an app, you join the ranks of millions before you, someone with a product, trying to entice their audience to look, to try, and hopefully to buy.

“Ah but tech is different” they say. “Never before has there been such a wide audience, such an opportunity to instantly sell to the whole world!”

To be honest, I don’t buy it. Instant distribution is just that. It doesn’t guarantee success, or even sales. What it does guarantee is an overcrowded marketplace where relying on being ‘discovered’ by users (or app store curators) is not enough to grow a product into a viable business.

Luckily however, there’s plenty you can do to rise above the crowd and create a product people will fall in love with.

Be clear about your business model
How will you make money? It’s pretty crowded out there and each successful app seems to sprout myriads of imitators. If you’re relying exclusively on app store sales for income, you’d better have a plan to promote your product every chance you get. Remember however that selling the app itself is not the only way to make money.

Research the pain points
For almost any product (even a completely new one), there is a pre-existing audience. Sometimes, your audience is using a competing product. Other times, they’re using something completely different—like an equivalent physical product (or even a combination of products). And for each of these products, there are pain points, things that aggravate users and make them long for something better.

Look for pain points in all directions: user experience, missing features, performance, behaviour, functionality; even language and branding. Solve these pain points and you’ve got a real chance of winning over those customers.

Decide who your app is for, and why
The best thing about doing research is that you meet lots people (virtually and otherwise). That guy with the colourful avatar who insists on answering every question on your competitor’s message board. The lady you watched (ok… eavesdropped) using a similar product on the train home one day. Will your product suit both of them? If so why? (And just as importantly, why not?) We can all name a product that is bloated beyond belief from trying to please too many people—each with vastly different needs and behaviours. Don’t let your product become one of them.

Use the Internet to promote your product
Adding a rudimentary product page to your corporate web site is not enough. Create awareness of your product any way you can (except spam!) If you’ve done your research, you already know where your potential users hang out. Go find them in blogs, message boards, and through social media. Once you’ve developed an audience, create buzz with promotions, contests or monthly draws. (And yes, I know that doing this on your average app store is a problem—so be creative. Maybe a free app isn’t the only thing you can offer them.)

Customer service is now your job (get used to it)
I don’t mean to sound grouchy here but users will have questions, and they deserve an answer—especially if you’re charging for your product. With a bit of planning, even the smallest team can provide excellent customer service. Create a schedule to ensure someone is always available to respond to queries (even if only within business hours). Create easy to understand stock responses to common questions. These will save loads of time and prevent the confusion that can occur when emails are accidentally answered in “engineer-speak”.

And don’t forget the personal touches. You may have answered that question a thousand times, but knowing there’s a real person on the other end will make a world of difference to your customers.

Listen, learn and evolve your product
Every interaction with your customers is an opportunity to evolve the product in some way. Pay attention to power users, but don’t ignore people who are using your product in ways you never intended. That ‘weird behaviour’ may be the pain point that inspires your competitor’s next product.

Create an API
Building to each and every platform costs money. As soon as you launch on one platform, you will be under pressure to support more and more of them. If your product is completely closed—it’s all on you. Your decision not to support a given platform will become a source of stress for you, and your users. With an open API, you create opportunities for others to expand you product in ways you may not be interested in. (Remember those users you chose not to target? Maybe someone else can!)

About Stephanie Rieger ()

Stephanie is a designer at Yiibu, those crazy people behind Rethinking the Mobile Web.

With a diverse background and passion for the many ways people interact with technology, Stephanie's expertise lies in marrying design, technology and business goals to craft simple, elegant experiences.

A compulsive tester, researcher and closet anthropologist, Stephanie is always keen to discover and share insights on the intricacies of cross-platform mobile design and mobility trends from around the world.

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