Selecting a Mobile Implementation Strategy

The sudden and rapid explosion of mobile technology in the past five years offers huge opportunities. While it seems likely that a number of mobile platforms will continue to thrive, mobile customers are demanding a very high quality of user experience from their applications. This article presents two strategies for implementing a mobile channel that will assist in balancing user experience and platform coverage while also providing a path forwards for your apps.

21 May 2012

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Giles Alexander is a Lead Consultant with ThoughtWorks. From a background in R&D product development, he now specialises in helping ThoughtWorks' clients develop and deliver mobile applications and the supporting architecture.

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Why does mobile matter?

Mobile is the new web: in 2000 businesses were realizing that the future of commerce and customer relations was on the just-exploding web. In a few years time, web commerce had eclipsed traditional off-line commerce. Mobile commerce is currently a fraction of web commerce. But in a few years time it will, in turn, eclipse traditional web commerce.

Businesses, large and small, know this and are planning products to prepare for and exploit the oncoming tide of mobile use. These products are innovative and engaging. In fact, most businesses are planning products that are still waiting for mobile technology to catch-up.

Because the explosion of mobile is for a good reason. People prefer the engagement and immediacy of mobiles. Mobiles fit into a person's lifestyle, moving with them, rather than demanding people meet them on the technology's terms. And in this change are new opportunities, well beyond selling the same things through a new channel.

However, the mobile market is fractured across several platforms. It is no longer enough to have great product ideas. You must also have a plan to implement these ideas. Your planning will need to take into account a number of different factors. But to start, which is more important, experience or platform coverage?


Why Experience Matters

Over the last ten years, through the ascendency of the web, advertising has been the accepted wisdom in sales. This has been accurate and effective. The web has been an enormous morass of direct connections and disintermediation. And while this is great for consumers — to a degree — it has relied on vendors finding a way to get their names in front of those consumers. The result has been an arms-race of more targetted and more intrusive advertising.

Mobile asks a question:

If my store is your favorite store and it's always in your pocket, why do I need to know what you had for dinner last night?

That is, a high quality experience will draw customers and keep them. After all, shopping is a leisure activity. Once kept, specific tracking to advertise to these customers is less necessary. But, maintaining a leading-edge user experience is necessary, because that is what mobile customers are following.

The last five years of mobile explosion has been a story of a steady increase in the fideility of user experience. Apple has established a strong position in the mobile market almost exclusively based upon providing a higher quality experience. In turn, app developers across platforms have aimed to meet or exceed the higher expectations of mobile users.

It is particularly telling that Microsoft's late entry in the mobile world with Windows Phone 7 is attempting to gain market position primarily by bettering Apple's iOS experience. They certainly appear to have bettered Apple, but is it too little, too late?


An Opening Gambit

While experience may be a prime goal, there are up to four or five distinct mobile platforms that need to be considered: iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone 7 and Mobile Web. If more than one or two of those platforms matter to you, delivering a high-fidelity experience across all of those would be an extraordinarly expensive and lengthy operation. That's not to say that a great experience across all platforms that matter is not worth aiming for. Rather than trying to get there immediately, treat this as a goal.

Instead, think about what your first move into mobile should be. A first move will involve some degree of trade-off between platform coverage and the fidelity of the experience. The nature of your app, your business, your users and the market-place will guide you as to what the trade-off should be. Given all these constraints, your choices range across a number of options between supporting a single platform with an ultra-high-fidelity experience and supporting all platforms with a bare bones experience.

For convenience we name the two extremes the Laser strategy and the Cover-Your-Bases strategy.

It is important to remember that the trade-off between platform coverage and fidelity of experience only constitutes your opening gambit when moving into the mobile space. Mobile apps and strategy will evolve. Whatever position you start in, over time you will be able to evolve towards the "Zone of Awesome" where every platform is supported with a high-fidelity user experience. But the techniques you can use to evolve your app will vary based on which strategy you have chosen for your opening gambit.

You will have to choose between these strategies and this choice will affect your app for the first two years or so of its life. It is important to be intentional about the decision, to understand what strengths and weaknesses the strategies have and what the evolution paths for each strategy might look like.


The Laser Strategy

The Laser strategy is to focus on a small set of features and just one platform, but with a very polished and immersive user experience. You would follow this strategy when experience is key to your app or product. Often, the app would substantially be the product.

For example, your goal may be to provide a substantially new approach to shopping for flights, as Hipmunk has. Or your app may be attempting to reach a very specific niche of customers who might be heavily design-influenced, as is the case with Instagram.

Either way, experience is king. Select one platform and build a very high fidelity experience app on just this platform.

Evolution

One obvious option is to evolve horizontally: port the app to another mobile platform. Adding another platform will see both build and maintenance costs increase as a new development team is started alongside the existing development team. At the end of the porting effort, a new platform is supported, but no new features are introduced: essentially, you're just getting the same app again. In addition to missing out on a chance to expand the scope of your product, the real loss is the opportunity to learn from and adapt the feature set of your product.

An alternative approach is to use a new platform as an opportunity to explore new product and feature ideas. This may result in a different feature set with a lower fidelity experience. If the new features are successful, these could be incorporated back into the original app.

There is a specific evolution of the Laser strategy that we refer to as Embracing the Differences. But before diving into more detail on this approach, I would like to contrast the Laser strategy with a strategy from the other extreme: Cover-Your-Bases.


The Cover-your-bases Strategy

The Cover-Your-Bases strategy is to focus on building a lower fidelity app across many, if not all, of the mobile platforms. This app would provide a consistent feature set and experience across all platforms. This strategy is most suitable when you already have a large user base and the app would be a new channel to access your existing product.

Due to your existing user base, what's most important is to get the new channel in front of as many users as possible. Clearly, platform coverage is king. However, as this is mobile, experience is still very important. Instead of providing a degraded experience, provide a simplified experience with a minimal feature set.

Evolution

Evolution of this strategy is much more straight-forward than with the Laser strategy. Evolve your app vertically by increasing the quality of experience of the app across all platforms. There are two things to consider, however.

Firstly, some platforms are simply more valuable than others. Find the platforms that are most important to your product and users, and focus your efforts there. Allow the experience on these platforms to creep — or leap — ahead of the others.

Secondly, a Cover-Your-Bases strategy assumes some form of cross-platform technology. Cross-platform frameworks and the like work by offering a lowest-common denominator approach. This makes app development consistent, but it places a ceiling on the quality of the experience you can provide. It is important to consider this ceiling when selecting a cross-platform toolkit, is the ceiling high enough for your use? Is there a way to break through the ceiling, at least on your most valuable platform? Without considering these questions, you may discover that in a year or so you will be re-writing your app from scratch.

An evolutionary strategy, known as Leverage the Similarity, can be very effective when embarking down the Cover-Your-Bases strategy. Before going into detail on this, I would like to return to the evolutionary approach for the Laser strategy: embrace the differences.


Embrace the Differences

Once you have decided that the Laser strategy is your best opening gambit, one approach to evolve from there to expanded platform coverage is by embracing the differences between the platforms. Each mobile platform and channel has different interaction patterns and trends of use. Mobile embeds itself into people's lives, so while you may offer the same product as an app to both iPhone and iPad users, the different circumstances in which an iPad is used means that the app will effectively be a different product to the user.

Rather than trying to pretend all platforms are basically the same, exploit these differences as a means to experimenting with and expanding the feature set of your app.

Consider Instagram, recently purchased by Facebook. They grew very effectively with just an iPhone app, and two features: apply vintage filters to your photos and share these with your friends. They are a canonical example of the Laser strategy; to the point where they did not even have a desktop web site.

Throughout their growth on iPhone, the repeated question was when would they launch an Android app? The unspoken assumption was that Instagram's best path to an even larger market share was to release an equivalent Android app. But Instagram's market share wasn't a problem. They were exploding faster than they could deal with. Their problem was they actually had no idea how to capitalise on the value of the huge user base and social network they had built.

For example, a regular Instagram user could only interact with their social network using their iPhone. The iPhone interaction model is built around pushing out a photo, or quickly dipping in to see what's happening right now. It is not a good model for browsing, or exploring deeper. If an Instagram user starts following another user, they can't comfortably browse through that user's old photos. It's also inconvenient to follow links from that new user: which photos do they like, who else do they follow?

These are all tasks better suited to the, now unfashionable, desktop web or, perhaps, a tablet.

Though Instagram did end up building an Android app — a direct port of their iPhone app — there was another route they could have taken.

  1. Build a desktop web application to allow existing Instagram users to explore their social network. This would largely be a read-only app, except it would allow users to expand their social network. It's most compelling feature would have been various slide shows of already published photos. This desktop web application would have then offered a new feature that the iPhone app did not provide. Additionally, it would have encouraged their existing user base to flesh out their nascent social network, and reached out to other mobile users in a small degree by at least allowing them to browse the world of Instagram. The additional cost to Instagram of this step would have been minimal. It is a new platform to support, however it is a platform with readily and widely available skills. It is highly likely that the existing Instagram developers could have taken on this platform without any noticeable lag.
  2. Tweak the desktop web application to be a first-class iPad experience. For a small amount of work, they would then have had a very high-experience app on a new platform with new features.
  3. Take this iPad web app, and use a hybrid approach to embed this app within a native iPad application. Incorporate the existing iPhone photo sharing code to provide a native iPad app with a combination of the social network exploration and original photo sharing features. At this point, Instagram has expanded both their platform coverage and their feature set. They have done this in a way that allows them to correct for errors in direction quickly, and in a series of small steps that allowed them to maintain the high quality experience that has helped make them famous.

As I said above, Instagram did actually end up releasing an Android app, rather than following this strategy. However, Instagram's purchase by Facebook could be viewed as a variant on this approach. It will be interesting to watch where they go next. While they are now part of the world's biggest social network, Facebook has promised to allow them to continue to operate independently. The obvious next move would be augment their limited social networking features with the might of Facebook.

This worked example is just that: an example. But it is quite illustrative of the sort of alternatives that exist when opening with the Laser strategy, beyond porting the same app to other platforms. A hybrid web approach featured very strongly in this example. It is expected that a hybrid web approach would feature strongly in many evolutions of the Laser strategy, it's important to be careful if a step needs to be taken that would rule this out as an option.


Leverage the Similarity

Similarly to how embracing the differences is a powerful way to evolve from a Laser strategy opening gambit, leveraging the similarities between platforms can be an effective method of evolving from a Cover-Your-Bases strategy. If you have chosen the Cover-Your-Bases strategy, platform coverage is your primary goal — meaning that as new features are introduced these new features should be available over all the supported platforms.

But this is mobile, and user experience is critically important. While the opening gambit may allow a bare-bones experience, over time this experience should improve. Where the Laser strategy evolved roughly horizontally, the Cover-Your-Bases strategy will evolve roughly vertically. The only variation will be that as it is determined which platforms are of the highest value, effort should be made to accelerate the user experience on these platforms.

While a hybrid web approach could assist in evolving a Laser strategy, we'd expect it to be foundational to any Cover-Your-Bases strategy.

For this strategy, I'd like you to consider the example of DemocracyNow!, a global TV and radio news program operated out of New York and broadcasting over the web. The goal of DemocracyNow! has been to reach as many potential listeners and viewers as possible. To achieve this, DemocracyNow! realised that it is important to offer mechanisms that suit the listeners and viewers, and hence they have started building mobile apps. A mobile app should make it easy to watch a DemocracyNow! program on a morning commute.

DemocracyNow! decided to tackle this by building a mobile web app. As well as providing high-quality platform coverage, this also provides some ability to deal with an experience glass ceiling that they may run into. For example, given that DemocracyNow! episodes can be quite substantial video files, how do you allow a viewer to download these to be watched later? HTML5 does provide offline storage, but the capacity is quite limited, and web pages have limited abilities to run background download processes.

In this case, the experience requirements are not for a high quality user interface.

This situation is very suited to a hybrid approach. Take the DemocracyNow! web app and embed it in a native app. The native portion of the app can then download videos in the background and make them available to the HTML5 UI. This is a particularly powerful approach as not only does HTML5 provide a very high quality experience on iOS and Android devices, it can also degrade very gracefully on lower quality devices, such as BlackBerry and Windows Phone 7.

Switching to a hybrid approach like this is an effective way to break through the experience glass ceiling inherent in a cross-platform approach. In truely sophisticated hybrid approaches, as well as allowing background access to native device features, it would be possible to alternate between cross-platform and native UIs. Preparing for this does require careful consideration of the hybrid approach selected. HTML5 has much to recommend it.


Guiding Principles and Philosophy

At the core, there are only a small set of principles that guide the selection of a mobile strategy. First, and foremost, we recommend following the ideas coming out of the Lean Startup movement. This movement encourages an obsessive focus on defining and developing only the minimum required feature set. Mobile offers a unique opportunity here. While mainline web development at most big companies has grown into a huge organisation with a life and goals unto itself, mobile is often started as a much smaller sibling. Over time, it will of course grow. But while it is easy and people may not be watching closely, trying running mobile development as a startup.

The intention behind using startup ideas is that by releasing early you'll learn more quickly what your product should actually be. Learning is a critical principle. Mobile is new, the platforms are evolving rapidly and people's relationship with mobile is evolving as well. This means there will be many opportunities, but you will need to be learning and moving fast to take advantage of them.

As mentioned earlier, there are advantages to choosing technologies that are more open. Typically, open technologies will be less likely to restrict your future movements. This is because an open technology can be supported by multiple vendors. Each vendor may have a slightly different take on where the technology should go. Switching between vendors while using the same technology is significantly less painful. More specifically, prefer the web and web technologies. As well as being open it has the greatest degree of vendor support ever seen.

Finally, avoid thinking in terms of releases of your app. That is, rather than bundling together several features and a platform launch, think in terms of the features and plan to release these independently. While, for marketing reasons, you may choose to batch features up, that should remain a choice entirely independent of technology and implementation. Separating features from releases will also allow you to move platform support independently.


Dimensions to Measure

While we believe that user experience and platform coverage are the two key dimensions to use when determining your mobile implementation strategy there are numerous other variables to consider.

You

  • Lifespan/lifecycle: How often will you be going through the app development process? How long is the app intended to last? Will it be quite quickly replaced? A short-lived app would be better suited to a Laser strategy: if the app is not to be maintained, a quickly developed single-platform app could be most appropriate.
  • Budget: you've decided to build an app, so clearly you can afford something, but how many updates can you afford? If your budget stretches to a release, but not many updates, then a Laser strategy would allow you to focus on the high value platforms effectively, with only a small number of releases.
  • Existing systems and in-house skills: Do you have a large set of existing in-house systems that any app will have to be integated with? What are your available in-house skills for development? Do you have a large pool of Java developers keen to be re-trained? If you have large and complex existing systems, a mobile app is probably a new channel onto your existing product. Additionally, re-training your in-house skills will take a few releases to pay off. The Cover-Your-Bases strategy is likely suitable.

Your Users

  • Who are they? What drives them? What are their demographics? Their relationships with mobile technology? A narrowly focussed user base could be targetted well with a Laser strategy, while if your user base is broad your best bet is to attempt to reach as many as possible with Cover-Your-Bases.
  • What is the competition doing? It is generally a bad idea to be responding to your competition but if mobile or user-experience is one of your key differentiators, it is important to be aware.
  • Marketing buzz: Is the intent to create marketing buzz around this app? Will the buzz be for the app itself, or will it be an exercise to create brand buzz? A brand building exercise could go a couple of ways: if the app is intended to contribute to and expand your brand, then you should move quickly. However, if the app is to become a brand in itself, then the quality and long-term evolution are significantly more important.

The App

  • Nature: Is the app part of a branding exercise? Part of a competition? Something your users will use occasionally, or intended to be a long-lived workhorse that will substantially replace your customers existing communication channels with your product.
  • B2[ECB]: Is it a business to employee, customer or business app? Each of these will have substantially different interaction models. The accepted wisdom is that employees will tolerate a much lower-quality experience. However, this is changing. As mobile has raised consumers' expectations of experience, it has also raised employees expectations. With the advent of bring-your-own-device it is no longer enough to regard your employees as a captive audience.
  • Native device features: What degree of access to native device features does your app require?

How do you make this happen?

This article has described the Laser and Cover-Your-Bases strategies and how those strategies may evolve into a long-term, viable mobile strategy, but how do you actually make any of this happen?

Executing any implementation strategy involves decisions about organisational structure and technical selection. For this article I will be leaving the technical selection aside for now, other than to say, as mentioned, above that hybrid web approaches have a lot of potential.

Making Laser Happen

If you have decided to follow a strategy close to the Laser strategy, the development organisation should reflect this. The most important aspect here is to set aside any notion of maintaining feature and experience parity. Instead, allow each platform to evolve at a different rate.

Making Cover-Your-Bases Happen

When it comes to arranging your development organization for delivering a mobile app, the primary goal will be to be able to grow the feature-set and experience across all platforms. The best way to achieve this is to develop and deliver features independently of each other: arrange 'Y'-shaped feature teams responsibile for end-to-end development of new features across all mobile platforms, and back-end systems. The 'stem' of the Y develops any back-end and application logic changes, and then the arms split to deliver the feature into the various mobile platforms. A feature team arrangement like this will allow the teams flexiblility to deliver the best experience possible for each platform.


Conclusion

In the end, everyone knows that mobile is the wave of the future. The three biggest companies in technology are fighting over it right now. But unlike the web before it, mobile is making user experience matter. And it matters to the point where it could substantially change the shape of online commerce. It is a rare business that can safely ignore this for long.

However, mobile is also fragmented. And given the cost of building a high quality user experience, how do you deal with this? Expect to have to trade platform coverage and user experience off against each other, at least initially. Over time you will be able to evolve to provide a quality experience across a large number of platforms. But to get here efficiently you will need to be intentional in how you select your mobile implementation strategy.

Imagine how your app or product may evolve, prepare for the most likely evolutionary paths. And pay especially close attention to what HTML5 and mobile web technology can offer you.

Finally, take advantage of how new mobile is. Can you run your mobile development group as a lean startup? Can you build a culture of rapid pace and learning into this group? And then prepare your development teams for this exciting new world.


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Acknowledgements

I'd like to thank Jonny LeRoy and Pete Hodgson for helping develop these ideas and reviewing this article. I'd also like to thank Dan Tao, Renaud Tircher and Srini Raguraman for helping develop these ideas. And finally, credit to Dan, Pete and Jonny for being really good with names.

Significant Revisions

21 May 2012: First version for martinfowler.com