Keys To Building a Mobile Software Strategy

strategy |ˈstratəjē|

a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.

There is popular saying in IT circles, especially among disaster recovery planners, that “Hope is Not a Strategy.” The same is true of developing a mobile software strategy for your business. More is required than simply throwing an app into the App Store and hoping for the best. A well thought out plan is essential to getting a good return on your investment and avoid having your app die a lonely death in the App Store.

Here are some things to consider when developing your mobile software strategy:

Outcomes. Start with the end in mind, as well-known author Steven Covey would say.  What business outcomes are you hoping to achieve? Better awareness of your business? Monetizing your intellectual property (IP)? Transacting business with your customers no matter whey they are? Are you trying to maintain competitiveness, or bring break-away innovation and thought leadership to your industry?

Target Market. Who is your audience? What do they really need or want? Perhaps you already have a good feel for that, but thorough research will help validate it and help reduce the possibility that you’ve been wearing blinders. What kind of experience do you want them to have when they’re using your app? Simple and easy, or is complex OK?  Is your audience sophisticated engineering types, average consumers, or somewhere in between? Does your idea pertain only to a particular industry, or is there cross-industry appeal? The Steve Jobs mindset of “customers don’t know what they want until we show them” worked well for Apple most of the time, but the safest approach would be to do the research.

Platform. Apple? Android? Windows Mobile? This is actually the easiest decision to make. If you start with just Apple’s iOS platform (iPhone & iPad), you are likely to find all the market you need. The Apple and Android ecosystems are radically different from a developer’s point of view, and it stems from the simple fact that Apple tightly controls their platform, while Google does not.  In reality this translates to an Android platform that is splintered and non-standardized, with dozens of different device types and form factors to support. This naturally translates to higher development and support costs with no reasonable way to quantify the potential return. With Apple, there are essentially only two form factors to support, and Apple takes great care to ensure good backwards compatibility when upgraded models are released. From a business standpoint, Google Play (previously known as the Android Marketplace) is still problematic and lacks a solid review process that provides adequate protection for developers. Add to that poor support from communications carriers and hardware manufacturers for the devices themselves, and it quickly becomes apparent that Android is not the place to start your strategy.

Development. What is your core business? If the answer isn’t software development, or you’re not interested in adding it as a core strength, how to outsource the development of your apps will be an extremely important consideration. You might also explore licensing and re-branding an existing third-party app that has enough of the key functionality you need.

Reflect a bit before pulling the outsourcing trigger. The quality and sophistication of current software development tools, particularly on the Apple platform, has drained the software development swamp and lowered the barrier to entry tremendously. Setting up an Apple development shop today is more of a people investment than anything else.  A key consideration now is how much control you want (or perhaps need) to have over your own destiny. If you are willing to make the people investment necessary to do your own in-house development, you will have maximum control over quality, cost, time-to-market, customer satisfaction (see below), and the ability to innovate quickly.

If you do choose the outsourcing route, your options are on-shore with a U.S-based developer, off-shore (think India, Russia, China), or perhaps a talented teenage niece or nephew. As in so many areas of life, the time-honored mantra of “you get what you pay for” applies here as well.

Working with off-shore developers is typically difficult because of cultural barriers, time-zone differences, potential legal issues, and blatant dishonesty. If $15-$20/hr for software development seems too good to be true, well…it is. Buyer beware.

At the risk of sounding snarky, and I’ll admit this is a pet peeve of mine, I believe it’s worth pointing out that despite what tech pundits may say, great software is not developed in a weekend over a pizza and a liter of Coke. Just as not everyone with a pencil and ruler can design and construct an elegant home, neither is elegantly-designed and well-built software something that just anyone can do. Interview and review the portfolios of many (10-20) outsourcers before making any decisions.

My preference, which I would also advise to you, is to first seriously consider building your apps in-house, and if that doesn’t make sense for your business, use a US-based development company. Daniel Pink informs us that left-brained activity like software development is shifting overseas. While that may be true to a degree, Mr. Pink is not responsible for your business’s reputation and credibility, nor will he be there to help you with the issues you’re likely to encounter offshore. There are great (and affordable) left- and right-brained developers right here in the good ‘ole USA.

Marketing. Designing and building a software idea into a real product is only 20% of the process. The rest is sales and marketing. How will customers find your app? How are you going to generate awareness? Are you targeting a mass market, or a niche? Rest assured, with 500,000 iPhone apps and 220,000 iPad apps already in the App store, your apps are not likely to get noticed on their own. You must do the pick and shovel work necessary (or pay someone) to get the word out to your target audience.

Price. If you’re creating a Brochure or Transactional app, the price should be $0.00 because your goal is to get it into as many hands as possible. Beyond that, the key question is “what do you want to get paid for?” If it’s your IP in a form that the app actually delivers, such as performing a particular complex calculation, simplifying a complex task, or supplying valuable data and analytics, then the price of the app should reflect that value. We unforutnately have to deal with the fact that the $0.99 game market has negatively skewed the value of software in the minds of many, especially in the mobile marketplace. Resist the temptation to undervalue what you’re offering. Research from Distimo and others shows that people do associate better value with higher prices, and it’s reflected in their behavior when selecting a non-game app. They also tend to value good reviews higher than price. App reviews are a topic for another day, but it’s worth pointing out now that one-star reviews are potentially deadly to the financial life of your app.

Support. Hopefully your apps will be well-crafted and rock-solid, but all software has bugs, and you will want to be prepared to take care of customers who eventually find the ones that matter. (Yes, there are bugs that don’t matter!) Another key advantage of doing your development in-house is that you can handle these support issues yourself and maintain full control over the situation and manage customers expectations. No need to cajole your outsourcer into dropping everything he’s doing and work on your problem Right This Minute.  He most likely won’t anyway.

Summing up…

Considerable time and effort goes into creating an effective mobile software strategy. The “gold-rush” days of the App Store, where just being in the store was enough, are over. The great news is, however, there has never been a better time for a business to use software to expand markets and create innovative new solutions that help customers in meaningful ways.

There’s so much more to say on this topic, but if you focus on the points above, you’ll be off to a great start. And if you’d like to go deeper, please feel free to contact me.

Assuming money was not an issue, would you prefer to build your apps in-house or outsource their development?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are snarky, offensive, or off-topic. If in doubt, read My Comments Policy.

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