UX

UX Tips: Blood From A Stone

“If they use it this way, we’ll make millions!” 

This statement sums up an unfortunate attitude that is all too easy for Appreneurs to assume during the design phase. It’s a statement that seems innocent on the surface. Typically the goal of crafting a new app is indeed to make money and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. However, this sentiment obscures an underlying philosophy of design that is detrimental to both app makers and app users.

This particular debate could easily spill over into many other industries, most notably government, but those are rabbit holes outside the scope of this article. Just consider as we proceed that the ideas discussed below are not some niche concern specific to the app industry. These notions permeate almost any structured organization.

In my half-decade of working in the app industry, I’ve heard hundreds of pitches for apps and I have perceived two broad approaches that prospective makers seem to take. Let’s call them Bottom Up and Top Down. The quote that opens this article is the banner headline for the Top Down approach. Let’s examine both in detail:

Top Down

This approach is when an app maker’s primary goals are geared around serving themselves. Often the goals are to make money or to make an impact. The app industry is on fire right now. Apps generate a ridiculous amount of revenue ($15 billion for the Apple App Store in 2014*) and it is easy to be seduced by the prospect of quick riches.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to get into the app business just because that’s where the money is. That is capitalism at its finest. The problems arise when you allow the desire to make money to drive what you expect from users.

For example, I’ve heard many a pitch for a new social network that promises to be a facebook killer. These pitches often come with predictions of how many users the network will have within a certain amount of time from launch and how much revenue that user base will generate for the app.

To be fair, it’s an easy fantasy to indulge in. It’s effortless to calculate how much money you could make if you get a certain number of people actively using your network. It’s easy to construct a system of payment gateways and advertising channels that would indeed make you millions if users indulged them in the way you want.

What these pitches invariably lack, though, is a clear notion of why the users would want to use this new system in the first place. What hook will draw them away from their existing networks? What incentives will be offered to make them want to go through your payment gateways? What benefits will they get that their current networks don’t offer?

These questions are overlooked in favor of a “if we build it, they will come” mindset. It’s not hard to fall into this trap if you have spent a lot of time living with your idea. Since it is yours, you naturally think it’s amazing, and it’s human nature not to be too critical of your own ideas.

Yet if you don’t take the time to ask these hard questions, you run a high risk of setting yourself up for failure. The worst case scenario for an Appreneur is spending tons of money developing an App that no one wants to use.

Bottom Up

In contrast, the Bottom Up method is all about the users. How do they behave? What do they perceive as barriers to their goals? What problems do they face that your app could help them solve? The most successful apps tend to start with these questions. They identify a problem that users are currently facing and focus on offering a solution.

For example, companies like Uber and Lyft were responding to a set of very real problems that users deal with. Vehicles are expensive and in the midst of a long-term recession, many people have resorted to alternate forms of transportation. The past decade has seen increased demand for public transit and more frequent car-pooling efforts. Taxis proved to be too expensive to alleviate this problem, so the Uber and Lyft makers crafted potential solutions that could address these needs.

There is no doubt that the money making opportunities were huge drivers for both companies, but the process started with offering a practical solution to real problems. For users, the benefits of why to try Uber and Lyft were readily apparent, and the question then became simply a matter of affordability.

So if you are on the verge of committing to an app project, here are four crucial tips to guide you through the early stages:

  1. Think about your app in terms of what problems users have that you are helping them resolve. Don’t try to invent new problems just so users can pay you to solve them.
  2. Avoid making predictions about how much money you can make if you get millions of users. That sort of speculation can generate some impressive charts in your business plan, but it creates false expectations that can have a negative effect on the whole enterprise.
  3. Try your best to view your ideas through the lens of a potential customer who doesn’t want to spend money if they can avoid it. Imagine that you are part of the target demographic and ask yourself what incentive you would need to use the app.
  4. Once you have crafted a system gives users something they need or want, then and only then should you seriously consider how to monetize your idea.

The Top Down approach tends to idealistically overpromise since it is so easy to make up target profit numbers or user adoption rates in a vacuum. The Bottom Up approach tends to be more realistic since it is grounded in known user behaviors. Because of this distinction, Top Down systems often look better on paper than Bottom Up systems. This means that Top Down proposals should merit more suspicion and due diligence than they tend to get.

Under the right conditions, users are happy to spend money if they perceive a value for themselves. Users are eager to try new systems if the potential benefit is clear. However, users have an innate sense of when they are being exploited for no particular reason. If they sense that an app exists primarily to make money off of them, getting them to use it will be like trying to draw blood from a stone.

(Do you have an idea for an amazing app? Rocksauce Studios wants to hear from you!)

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