Finishing Strong: Approaching App Launch With Confidence
January 16, 2017
Let’s talk about app launch. Finishing a development project strong and launching an app successfully is about more than just crossing the finish line by releasing the app to the public. With our strong desire to establish long-term partnerships and build a solid foundation for our clients, it more closely resembles running the 5000m race in track. Steve Prefontaine, the best middle and long-distance runner in the early to mid 1970s, had a system for his obsessively competitive training program that aptly describes the approach we take here at stable|kernel on every app consulting project: study, plan and train. Adhering to this method ensures that our clients not only cross that finish line in first place, but also remain confident, prepared competitors for the long term.
In November of 2016 at stable|kernel, we proudly helped two of our clients launch their first mobile applications, for iOS and Android. While the industries and competitive markets for both clients are vastly different, there’s one area that every business has to navigate when it comes time to introduce a business’s app to the market: Launch. Launching is the culmination of a long-term effort towards the finish line; it’s every milestone or lap, in product development, and every sprint along the way. Adequately preparing for launch positively impacts crossing the finish line towards a strong launch in your competitive market. Just because the last code commit and design review is in the bag doesn’t mean that you’re past the finish line.
Successfully launching an app requires multiple teams, processes and checkpoints. This is the point in an app development project where it’s important to FINISH STRONG; in order to do so, we push our clients to be confidently prepared. Being confidently prepared requires an approach similar to Prefontaine’s in that you should study, plan, and train for a strong, successful launch of your application.
Prefontaine believed in studying every possible element and factor of competition. This included an intense study of personal performance in practice and in competition, of one’s competitor’s performances, style, and patterns, and of the potential weather and venue for competition. This approach is also pragmatically appropriate for companies preparing to launch a consumer-facing application. There are several areas of study in preparing for a successful product launch: your customers (if you’re already in the market in some form) and potential users, your competitors and the mobile market.
Let’s say your company determines a need for an app because it will afford additional opportunities to improve performance in the market and achieve your outcomes for success. In order to achieve those outcomes for success, you must be very familiar and comfortable with how you’re performing in your market and how that might translate to mobile. For every discovery of “room for improvement” or “more return on investment,” keep that in mind when planning out the product and how your business can better perform or meet the needs of your customers. When you launch, will your app meet the most immediate and pervasive problem that currently exists for your customers? The most successful path towards launching a strong product is to start by studying your existing customers or users. Learn as much as possible about how they use your services or products, why they keep coming back and what problems they so badly need solving that they would pay for a solution.
However, meeting additional customer needs through an app isn’t a guarantee that you’re going to keep them as a customer or gain new ones. For many industries, the mobile product is a major step towards competitive market gains, but it also means your business now has to compete in an additional field of play. Studying your competitors, their products and product cycles, can help level the playing field or even give you an advantage. Study not only their products/apps, but also their press, their app store reviews, talk to people who use them and find out why they do. Develop a clear understanding of how your competitors succeed and/or meet users’ needs. This type of research can help further refine a product roadmap that can meet and anticipate user needs.
Having highly successful competitors isn’t always a bad thing! It means that you’re introducing a product or service into a thriving market. Within a thriving market, your competitive advantage should be clear within the product and in how you market it. Per a report by Gartner, only 1% of apps become financially successful upon release. Rahul Varshneya of The Next Web attributes this largely to lack of effort and focus on marketing the new app/product across critical channels and audiences. Don’t underestimate the importance of marketing and understanding the product rhythms within your competitive market.
Once a comprehensive study of users (both existing customers and market users), competitors, and market have been conducted, it becomes easier to determine a launch date that will present the most opportunity for success among factors such as market cycles, competitor releases and customer buying trends.
Creating a plan of action towards preparing, analyzing and responding to launch implies an understanding of the dependencies and requirements that need to be met in order to finish strongly and launch an application. Prefontaine would strategize his time per lap and while he was running, would adjust pace to stay out front without blowing the last lap or turn.
Launching isn’t just the tap of a button, it’s a series of checkpoints that needs careful attention and consideration. As Alex Walz at Apptentive describes, many companies “fall into the trap of thinking submitting an app to the app stores is the same as launching an app. As they wait for the downloads to come, they realize – all too late – the fallacy of this assumption.” If you’ve taken the appropriate measures to study, develop a strong market product and pinpoint an ideal launch date, the next step towards a strong launch involves creating a plan that requires action from multiple departments such as marketing, product, IT, and possibly, customer support (if your product involves finance, hardware, on-site service, etc).
For the design and development team, a key component of launch planning is timelining the various points of being feature complete, testing and launch prep. Don’t allow feature development to eat into designated testing and launch prep time. This is precious time and cannot be sacrificed; remember, it’s not just crossing the line, it’s whether or not the launch finishes strongly. When it comes to promoting an app launch across media channels, especially in trusted industry outlets, timing and planning is INCREDIBLY CRUCIAL. Typically, you’ll want to give industry journalists a sneak peek at your app, and possibly, accompanying hardware or service, prior to public launch. If you take this approach, the product needs to be as close to market ready as possible. You should provide full transparency to the press when it comes to features or functionality that are still a work in progress, along with the intended solution that will be present at launch.
I once worked on a web app that engaged avid gamers in opportunities or campaigns to compete against each other towards fundraising for charitable foundations or causes. Prior to launch and without notice to the project team, the client decided to promote and provide access to the app across multiple media outlets throughout the gaming industry. Given that the application was about 2 months away from being launch ready and the project team wasn’t allowed an opportunity to create a specific “test-drive experience” for media promotion purposes, it was a disastrous move for this startup because reporters were given unguided access to the staging version of the app.
If you’re familiar with this context of access, you’re most likely cringing right now; if you’re not sure what this means, imagine that you’ve been invited to test-drive a new, mold-breaking automobile on the condition that you’ll provide an honest summary of your experience to everyone in your network. However, the car isn’t exactly finished, it hasn’t passed all forms of inspection and performance testing, the look and feel hasn’t been polished and it involves a new approach to driving that you received no direction or guidance on operating. As a result, you’re incapable of having a consistent, successful experience test-driving the car. You tell everyone in your network of family and friends that no one should purchase this car as you have deemed it a horrible experience or product. Now imagine that your network of family and friends is made up of millions of industry users!
Prior to launch, time should be spent with the marketing team crafting messaging around user journeys and competitive placement. Within a launch plan, your marketing team should be focusing on developing engaging content on your company site, for social media, press kits, app stores and trusted media outlets within your market. Consistency and clarity of experience need to be communicated in messaging that is crafted for each channel. This is also a strategy that becomes more successful when time is taken to gather feedback or A/B test different approaches towards market messaging.
In some cases, the launch plan that makes the most sense involves a small-scale beta release that presents an opportunity to test, gather feedback and further improve the product in a controlled environment. Polymail, one of the highest rated email apps on the market, executed a very successful beta release campaign that hinged on gathering extensive feedback from beta users via Slack. Another option is to launch a core version of the product with a development plan to immediately follow launch with shippable increments of feature improvements. Establishing a timeline and scope for potentially shippable increments, in the event business priorities, customer needs or market pressures change, means your plan is prepared for pivoting. If you want to take the shippable increment approach, it helps to score and scale features based on their value from these perspectives. Be prepared to make tough decisions and understand your market launch feature set enough to know where to make sacrifices, if needed, to meet an immovable launch date. It’s the nature of the beast when it comes to software development.
Perhaps the most immediately crucial element in a launch plan is establishing key performance indicators or metrics, which should be easy with the discoveries that come from studying your customers, competitors and market. Once your app begins to gain traction, pay attention to engagement and retention rates and use analytics to provide insight into how users engage with the app, how often, and for how long. A strong finish and confident launch come from not only measuring the number of downloads but monitoring analytics on factors such as daily active users, app store ratings, session durations, social sharing, engagement beyond trial periods. Analytics can provide good direction on what features and user experience elements need to change in order to increase retention, acquisition and engagement rates. This also contributes to a successful release plan that anticipates what your initial users want.
The training component of the launch plan is seemingly the most straightforward but is often sacrificed for more time towards product development. In the context of app development and launch, the most important component of training towards a strong finish is testing. Always factor in time for extensive testing of your app prior to launch. We’re not just talking about quality assurance (QA) testing but also user testing, load testing and customer support scenario testing.
Extensive user testing ensures that you’ve identified edge cases, complex use cases and bugs to address in product development, which can be followed by rigorous QA testing to validate that the product development addressed discoveries made in user testing. Automated testing as part of QA can lead to higher chances of launch success since it allows for testing against device segmentation and platform standards for performance.
If your application pairs with a piece of hardware, that means you’ll likely need to rigorously test multiple app-to-hardware use cases as well as train your customer support channels in better assisting your customers with this new product. It’s common that an app presents a learning curve for certain user segments. Properly training your client services and customer support teams can be a valuable strategy to mitigating bad app store reviews. Your complete, public launch can also benefit from the focused support effort involved in a beta testing release. This can positively inform on what your support process, documentation and volume needs to be for a full launch.
If your product is a SaaS application, then you’ll need to invest a significant amount of time in training your sales, client services and support teams in understanding every use case, unique selling proposition and workaround. Yes, your product will not perfectly address every user and they will look for workarounds. As a former Client Services Manager for a SaaS company, knowing workarounds within a product became 70% of my job and confidently guiding clients towards those workarounds directly impacted my contract renewal rate each year.
The final training component of the pre-launch phase is performance and load testing. Performance testing can help determine how your application functions under various levels of usage and help to better measure application stability. Performance testing can help identify bottleneck causes and scenarios in which a high volume of performance-related errors could be expected. From this form of testing, improvements and adjustments can be made to better prepare your application and environment for heavy usage. Load testing and more specifically soak and stress testing can help test the limits of your application and system performance to the point of crashing or seriously degrading the user experience. This can also help establish solid thresholds of how much memory usage or degradation the application can take before killing the functionality of the app in high load or historically heavy user needs, as well as recovery response after heavy usage loads subside.