Phases mobile app

Building a mobile product is, undoubtedly, a costly and complex process. Analysing the market, deciding for the type of app you will build, estimating the budget and, finally, the execution – they all are lengthy steps that can sometimes discourage the product owner. However, they all are equally important; neglecting some can prejudice the others and can eventually cause delays in the release.

Which is why, at Thinslices, we place equal importance on all the phases of building a mobile product. We take time in explaining their role to the client and in discussing them in depth, once a project begins. The distinctive phases of the whole process include

  • analysis, customer persona and customer journey map
  • sketching/wireframing
  • user interface design
  • planning
  • clickable prototype
  • development
  • quality assurance
  • launch
  • maintenance.

Let’s see why each of them is important and what it means.

Analysis, customer persona and customer journey map

Every durable startup idea (not necessarily a mobile product) is based on a thorough analysis. Who is it for? What budget will be allocated? How will the product be profitable? Will it be part of a future, more complex project?

All of these questions (and their answers) are essential to establishing how the project will be tackled.

The customer persona

Who will your customers be? How will they use your product? When will they use it? After having initially installed the app, what will trigger their comeback? This is another batch of questions that need to be taken into account before getting down to work.

Make sure your initial analysis includes actual demographics, behaviour patterns, motivations and goals your buyer persona is characterized by. It is the end user/buyer that you should have in mind during each stage of the process. Once their characteristics are pinned down, try to think of your customer’s lifecycle: after they are reached, they need to be acquired, converted, retained and their loyalty nurtured. Sterne and Cutler’s E-Metrics: Business Metrics for the New Economy defines all of these steps in detail, at the same time explaining how each of them can be correlated with business metrics.

The customer journey map

Another essential part of the analysis, the customer journey map will help better understand how the customer will be using the mobile product. There is no predefined way of drawing it – all projects are unique and mapping can be adapted to specific characteristics. There are, however, a number of prerequisites:

- always have in mind the customer’s perspective

- keep in mind all of the user’s demographics

- segment your audience

- define customer goals

- evaluate the brand promise (in case the new product has to be in line with previous ones of the same brand)

Harvard Business Review gives useful advice for the proper assessment of the customer journey, albeit not destined for mobile customers exclusively. Their article includes an actual map, that can be traced back to Frog Design, a successful design company.

Customer journey map

Marketing and Monetization

Another important aspect during the analysis stage involves assessing the potential revenue. How would the product manage to make money? After all, having an app just for the sake of it can be cool, but defeats the purpose of owning a business.

This is why setting the customer demographics helps understanding the monetization part. Who would pay for installing the mobile product? The user, while downloading it in the Apple App Store? If this is the case, what is the added value worthy of payment? There are thousands of applications in the app store and many of them are free. So you have to make sure you clearly understand and state how your product stands out.

This is also the part in which you decide for mobile first, mobile only or mobile after. You need to clearly assess your marketing capacities, as well as your end user’s interest. If you plan on allocating a great deal of your time and your money for promoting a product that’s exclusively mobile, you may stand a chance. If you plan to leave it all to…fate, you should know that the Apple App Store or the Google Play Store does almost nothing for your app to stand out in the crowd..

If you see some degree of added value to going out mobile first and then taking on the web (once you have seen how things work out), well…you might as well be facing imminent death. After all, not all apps are Instagram or Angry Birds.

The wisest thing to do would be to go web first-mobile after. Once you’ve collected a consistent list of email subscribers, website visitors and potential clients who clearly state that your product is worth downloading and reusing, it might just work out.

People involved:

  • the product owner – this is usually the client; you;
  • a business analyst – helps define the product, the major feature set, the long-term roadmap, the product backlog, the business model;
  • the project manager – helps elicit requirements from the product owner and facilitates all processes until completion.

Sketching/wireframing

Sketching and wireframing

 

After having thoroughly analyzed the market and the customer persona, the next step would be to document and wireframe the app, in order to understand future functionalities.

In an article on Smashing Magazine, Lennart Hennigs gives useful guidelines for this particular stage, in which temptation is to jump directly to prototyping, even before understanding the whats and the whys.

“Start using sketches to understand the problem and to come up with a concept before firing up your favorite tool.”

Although it may look like time is not on your side, actually drawing detailed sketches of the future product helps enormously. “Who has time to doodle when the deadline is so close?!”, you may be asking yourself. Keep in mind that, without this necessary stage, you may be overlooking essential aspects that may, in the end, make the difference between your product and that of the competition.

Sketching does a lot more than simply tracing steps. It can be a powerful

  • communication tool (for setting up common views of a project)
  • collaboration tool (serves the entire team, who can better understand the specifications and the necessities of the product)

Once the sketching part is over, wireframing will help refine the ideas and arrange all components of the design the proper way. There are many tools that can help with automating the process – Balsamiq is one of them.

Never neglect sketching in favour of wireframing! They are both equally important and the latter comes as the natural continuation of the former.

The whole sketching and wireframing process is the work of the designer, but assistance from the whole team is required for optimal results.

  • the product owner – it is important that he state what he imagines the sequence of steps is
  • the project manager
  • the designer
  • the rest of the team (all the people involved in the making process can bring valuable input during this stage)

A very valuable tool during sketching and even user interface design is Marvel App, chosen for its simplicity, performance, link generation, an app icon plus the nice look and feel.

Marvel encompasses all stages of the incipient design process within a single app. Once a Dropbox account is setup, files can be uploaded (in any available format) and then transformed into jpegs. Photos can be connected via hotspots and then browsed through just like an ordinary prototype.

Other wireframing and prototyping applications, such as Adobe Fireworks, involve several stages for the same process: setting and arranging hotspots in Fireworks, then going to a setup and build tool (such as TAP), waiting for the Dreamweaver library files saved in Fireworks to upload to FileZilla, and having to do this each time, even for the smallest change. With Marvel, once you have all the files you need in Dropbox, it’s all quite easy.

Wireframing

 

User interface design

Sketching and wireframing are processes tightly connected to this stage, in which clarity and usability gain almost total control. The designers at FreshTilledSoil define User Interface Design as an agglomeration of

  • information architecture (defined structure of the information)
  • interaction design
  • visual design

It basically includes refining all the information baggage accumulated so far. The focus of this stage is always THE USER.

How will they react to each stage of the process of the app? Is the design intuitive? Do they know how to find their way around it? All of these are questions that the user interface design part should take into account.

Once the USER is clearly portrayed, a number of design interface rules, stated by team treehouse, can be followed:

  • attention to patterns
  • consistency
  • hierarchy
  • feedback (we have written an entire article about this)
  • simplicity

Several online resources indicate proper ways of getting that right user interface design. Here are some of our favourites: 99designs, goodui, appledeveloper, webdesignerdepot. Plus one of our older articles, that summarizes the whole point of UX and UI.

This is when your actual product starts to take shape.

People involved:

  • the product owner
  • the project manager
  • the designer

 

Planning

If, during the initial phase of research, you haven’t figured out what type of product will be developed (native or cross-platform), it is now time to set everything in place. Before the execution continues, it is mandatory that all resources needed are estimated.

How much time will the front-end development take?

How much time will back-end development take?

How many programmers will be needed for each of the following stages and how long will each phase last?

Most importantly, how much will it cost?

According to the product requirements, the implementation plan will be set in place. This includes

  • the roadmap
  • the prototype (how complex will it be?)
  • the resources (time and manwork)
  • the costs

 

Planning the app
(Source: Flickr, Jez Nicholson)

 

 

The clickable prototype

Once the User Interface Design is finished, it can be transposed into a clickable prototype.

“Good prototype is worth a thousand pictures” (Tom Kelly, general manager of IDEO, an innovative product development company). Sketches, wireframes and user interface design are corroborated to generate a clickable sample of what is closest to the final version of the product.

“A prototype model is built to test a concept or act as an early platform to validate that a design meets the target user’s requirements.”

The definition above belongs to Marc Serughetti, director of product marketing for virtual prototyping at Synopsys and was quoted from eetimes. Just like any piece of hardware that requires prototyping before being launched on the market, a mobile product involves constant observation and improvement before reaching the final, clean stage.

All recipes for prototyping stress the importance of the communication with the client. Properly grasping his understanding of the concept is essential during this phase. Constant communication and feedback from both parties ensure that the clickable prototype corresponds to a common vision. That of the team and that of the client.

At Thinslices, we’ve developed an efficient way of dealing with prototypes: a three-stage process that entails

  • working on “proof of concept”: we do market research, analyze the results, identify the key features needed for providing the concept for the mobile product, we create user scenarios and we finally come up with the concept;
  • a design stage: this is where the interactive screen mockup focuses on the interface and clearly emphasises the main visual elements;
  • coding in static mode: this helps stakeholders understand how users will interact with the product. Depending on the client’s requests, HTML/CSS and flash can be used in the case of mobile web apps and actual screens in the case of native apps.

At this stage, testing plays an important part. Friends, family, coworkers – they should all be asked to maneuver the interactive prototype of the user interface, so that usability concerns are eliminated. Here’s a slideshare on how to do it.

Prototyping may be costly, but it’s the safest path to almost complete usability.

People needed include

  • the product owner
  • the project manager
  • the designer
  • the developer responsible with the front-end part
  • all the people who can help with testing the basic product functionalities

 

Development

Depending on the marketing plan (and on the budget), the type of product will span on different periods of time; and it will require specific programming skills, both of which will be clearly established during the planning phase.

Are you building a native or a cross-platform app? Or perhaps hybrid? Web applications are a lot easier to distribute, but they require better development skills (plus higher budgets). Getting a unanimous look and feel for all platforms intended, as well as a proper level of flexibility for them can be quite a challenge.

Native apps are apps written for a certain platform – iOS or Android. They work particularly well on their “native” platform, but will be impossible to translate to a different one. Hybrid apps can be installed just like their native counterparts, but will work via a web browser; web apps will work exclusively via browsers.

The main advantage of web apps is that they can be built using already available technology (such as Java Script), but the main drawback is that they won’t be able to integrate any of the smartphone’s technical assets. Web apps can have different characteristics, depending on their user interaction pattern: traditional (the website as we all know it), responsive and adaptive.

We have expanded on overall costs of a thorough mobile product development process before, in an article we published via Contract IQ. What we stressed on was the complexity of every part of the development process; prototyping, proof of concept, development and quality assurance are the main stages an app passes through since birth.

The people involved:

  • a business analyst – helps define the product, the major feature set, the long-term roadmap, the product backlog, the business model;
  • a designer;
  • a technical/software architect – defines the high-level technical solution and the choice for the best technology stack;
  • a team of developers;
  • a SCRUM master - his duties are to remove all eventual impediments a team faces during a sprint;
  • a quality analyst

Quality assurance

Quality assurance needs to be in place from the very beginning. However, it is of crucial importance during development. A proper QA process is undergone with the help of specific tools, functioning during precise stages. Some of these tools and processes are described here.

The main stages of the QA process include, as a mobilemarketer article advises,

  • a preparatory phase (lasts between the actual beginning of the development process and the primary form assembly of the mobile product)
  • the introduction of functional requirements
  • test documentation (depending on the complexity of a mobile product, detailed or rather complex instructions need to be written)
  • user feedback
  • the preparation of a test environment (where the required mobile product is installed on the mobile device)
  • control
  • acceptance testing (checking of all the initially established acceptance criteria are fulfilled)

Further advice on how to properly execute QA can be found here, here and here.

People involved:

  • the product owner
  • the project manager/SCRUM master
  • the tester

Launch

After all testing has been done and the product is in final format, the app can be submitted to the store. Preparing the launch of a mobile app can be overwhelming. Both Apple Store and Google Play Store have exact policies regarding what needs to happen marketing-wise so that the product reaches the end-users.

A new, comprehensive project called Launch This Year , features step-by-step lessons on how to take your product to a whole new level. Marketing and business specialists include Ben Yoskowitz (Lean Analytics),  Hiten Shah (KissMetrics) and Naval Ravikant (founder at angel.co).

An article from Adobe explains how to settle things from the coding point of view.

People involved: the whole team, as this is the moment in which all eventual dysfunctions left have to be set aside.

Maintenance and support

As there are no two identical apps in the app store, there is no typical process to be universally applied for maintaining a mobile product’s functionality after its launch.

Depending on the complexity of the product, maintenance can include

  • planning for continuous updates: it is advisable that not all features of the product are released simultaneously; the core of the app should come out at launch and the rest of the features should be released progressively, in accordance with the principles of agile development methodologies.

Your project budget should take into account this continuous revisitation of some of the product’s functionalities, for a determined period after launch.

  • testing upgrades: you have to make sure that users who haven’t installed the new, upgraded version of the app, get to benefit from its advantages; Serge Huber, CTO at Jahia Solutions, suggests setting up a migration tool that would enable the easy, automated translation from the old version to the new one.

People involved:

  • the team of developers
  • the product owner
  • the tester/QA

Conclusion

Building a mobile product is long and costly. Apart from the money invested, it requires long-term commitment. The initial research and analysis stage, that can sometimes take a few months, is almost entirely up to you. Deciding on the type of product you want to build, analysing its end-users and its Unique Value Proposition is a mandatory part of the journey.

Afterwards, once the team is in place, constant communication and monitoring are required. Daily conference calls become a MUST, just as become email exchanges with the project manager. Keep this in mind and dedicate time and effort to all phases that follow analysis. The team will need to consult you on various issues throughout design, development and even testing. The sooner you agree on how to tackle these phases, the better.

Also, keep in mind that the project is not over once the app is in Store. On the contrary, hard work is just beginning. Content marketing, direct emailing, social media marketing, as well as networking from your side – will need to be deployed at once, ideally months before the release. Product updates and upgrades will also be mandatory.

Remaining in the App Store – and in your users’ phones – can be harder than you imagined. You’re in it for the long term – so don’t neglect any of the steps in the process!

 

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