Agile App Development: The Lean Approach

Why has the Agile App Development approach captured so much attention from the software development and entrepreneurial communities?  Here are three basic reasons:
  1. By testing, failing, and learning to overcome barriers to success quickly, a Lean approach can help you get your app right faster and invest less capital in doing so.
  2. Meanwhile, Agile helps you build more value into your business faster.  By sticking to developing only what your customers will pay for, you can reduce your investment.  Spend less money for more market value.
  3. Agile and Lean approaches are both forgiving.  They ASSUME your app will need refactoring or rewrites. The methodology doesn’t allow for long-term development claims that can’t be realized.  It only promises that the most important things will be done first.  And each wave of development can be justified separately.
These processes, used together, result in the shortest distance between where you are now, and success with your app. Mobile apps are never truly finished. The process of developing your dreams into reality is iterative, and will require you to make updates to the app based on a wide variety of reasons, including the test results of your value hypotheses, new user input, business opportunities that emerge, pivots to your plan, budget modifications, and a host of other factors.  The important thing is to learn quickly, and adjust accordingly.  

An Agile development approach is ideal for these adjustments, because only the most important work items (the things that are most valuable and that you are most confident of) are developed first, letting you validate your product concept before you get too far.  This streamlines your investment, ensuring that everything you build in software will build value into your business for a higher return on investment.

When considering an app developer for your needs, find a team that can accommodate you as you make changes to optimize your business.  Relationship is key to a successful development process. If you can’t see eye to eye with the app development team or service provider, or they refuse to make adjustments as you go, you are going to run into issues in the future, whether you use an iterative development approach or not.

You may be asking yourself, “What exactly does an iterative development approach look like, and why is it better than other more traditional approaches?” The answer is that it is an ongoing process of development, feedback, and iteration. When you first develop your idea, you must then make a plan. This plan will include all of the benefits and issues of your particular market, along with all of the research and paperwork needed for your app to be professional and garner attention from users and investors. After your plan is developed, you must have the app developed.

The idea stage is where you model your product concept prior to developing code.  The modeling may be as simple as depicting a set of boxes for buttons and stepping through a workflow in a PowerPoint presentation, or it can be as sophisticated as a complete design with a full wireframe sequence to back it up.  We favor a blend of the two — the complete design of one or two main screens in your app to convey the aesthetics of your brand, plus a few sketches of the screens representing the main sequence of actions through your app.  This should be enough to step through your main use case with early adopters and investors.  They can generally see what it is that you will be asking them to fund or purchase, and it should be enough to discuss why they would or wouldn’t invest.  This is an ideal time to test your value hypothesis, as a Lean approach suggests.

The next step is development, where coders first come into play.  There are many ways to attack this part of the process and each firm will do it differently. Blast Off Apps steps you through 4 stages of development, at each stage delivering as much tangible evidence of progress as possible. From screenshots and demos to a visual prototype, the back end business logic, complete prototype and a final product, we empower the entrepreneur with the most potent of weapons: creative control over each phase of progress. You will develop, in the end, a Minimum Viable Product or MVP

The minimum viable product is the bare minimum investment required in order to meet the essential goal of your customer, and this is what you need to test in the market.  Did we meet the user’s objective?  How well were they able to use it?  Were there any problems?  How the user validation happens is up to the entrepreneur. Some take the tactic of just releasing to their friends, family, or colleagues, and then following up for feedback. Others decide to release it to the public and rely on a formal feedback channel with users that download and utilize the app. As part of the mix, the Blast Off Apps team can act as your surrogate customer for testing the main functions of your app to ensure that they are intuitive, of good performance, and likely to deliver value.

There is no one great way to validate your product with prospective customers. It is up to you as the CEO of your idea, to decide which is best for you. But a good rule of thumb is to release your app to enough users in your target market to be able to detect consistent feedback. A pattern may emerge after only 8 phone conversations, or it may take 90 or 100 user responses to ferret out the underlying needs and objections.

As you collect data from prospective customers, and interview them to learn what is going well and not so well, you should be documenting your findings. Normally, if you are hearing similar suggestions or criticisms from the majority of your initial customers, something has to change in the app. Go ahead now and Iterate the development based on the new ideas, re‐release the app, rinse and repeat. This will again involve your development firm, and that’s why we stress the importance of that relationship.

If you are not happy with the development firm, or they are one that focuses solely on the initial development of the app and not the whole quality cycle, beware. Taking the app (and code) to another firm WILL take longer and could possibly cost more. It is possible the app may need a complete rebuild from the ground up (and this has actually happened to a few of our clients before they started working with us). This will cost money and take much more time than just sticking with the development firm you started with. You should make sure that documentation is included with the cost of your app .

Documentation serves as instructions for coders to follow when trying to update the app. If the docs aren't available, the team receiving the development job will need to figure out themselves how to read and work with the code (and we have been known to re‐create some brand new documentation for apps developed by others who failed to deliver it). So make sure you require documentation as part of your statement of work, and choose your development team wisely!

Say you now have a set of early adopters, you are receiving their ongoing feedback about the app, and you are making modifications to the MVP. What next? The next step is to issue a general release of your app to your market. But you need to get most of the priority bugs out first (recognizing that it is nearly impossible to be 100% bug free). Factor in likes and dislikes, and address them. This will again involve your development firm. That is why we always cite the relationship with your development team members as the most important part of picking a team to work with.

Once complete, the update's "launch" will be as simple as submitting it to the app stores, typically handled by the development team. This is the time to announce the app to new users. As your app gets updated, your existing users are still using the app you first developed. Updates will be automatically applied on each existing user’s device (as long as the user has their phone set to automatic updates) and the user will enjoy a brand new experience while never losing the use of the app. After your users get the update, you will get more feedback on the way people are using your app as well as explicit concerns and praise from the users themselves. This will lead to another cycle of development; rinse and repeat.

It is a long‐term commitment to work on an app, and the team you work with is very important to keep things running smoothly. The best partner will be one that can shoulder the technical implementation details, and lead the iterative development process while you attend to the business of the startup. Blast Off Apps is committed to helping even the most novice entrepreneurs execute their ideas in a manner that maximizes success. Product concept consultancy, development, testing, documentation, and many other offerings are available to help you realize your dream.
Adam Paulagile, app startup