Startups

How Product Management Can Streamline Mobile App Development

February 8, 2018

When it comes to app development, it’s easy to get bogged down in the details. Building, testing and debugging each component can eat up a lot more time than you’d expect. Then you get into A/B testing and evaluating user feedback, and things get even more complicated. It’s natural to want to get every piece of your app just right, but when you’re in the middle of it, you can lose track of priorities, start missing deadlines and waste resources — all the while your competitors get a new app to market.

A digital product manager can help you organize your workflow and resources around the bigger picture. It’s their job to keep your mobile app design and development team focused on delivering a great product to consumers, not just through the first release or the next feature enhancement, but through the entire product life cycle. With the right product management approach, you can ensure that every step you take to build, design, refine and release an app serves your company effectively.

A photo of two people looking at a laptop during a meeting.
It’s important for product managers to hold frequent (but productive) meetings with the whole team.

Product Management Helps You Scale Up

The barriers to entry for mobile app development are pretty low. Coding can be a lot of work, and good design takes practice, but you don’t need formal education to do either. Anyone willing to put in the time can learn mobile app development, test and tweak their app, and even market and sell it.

If you screw up and release a dud, or take a little longer than you’d like, that’s alright — you’ll learn some valuable lessons, and all you’ll really lose is the time you sunk into that app. You can build the next one better, or test and market it more effectively. And once an app starts to catch on, you can handle things on your own too. You’ll be able to get user feedback, add new features, release new versions, and so on. And if you’re organized, you can do it all without really worrying about digital product management.

But as your company gets bigger and tries to release additional (or more ambitious) apps, you’ll reach a point where you need a more formal approach to mobile app development. Maybe the team building your website and the team building the app don’t coordinate effectively, and you have to spend a lot of time tweaking the app UX to match the website. Maybe your developers are spending too much time experimenting with new features, while your competitors are getting their app out to market. Maybe your teams are spending too much time fleshing out competing ideas for design and user flow, when they should really decide on the product and get it built.

It’s easy to throw blame around, but individual failure usually isn’t the main problem. More likely, you’ve just reached the point where you need a digital product manager to bring all the pieces together. Product management can help you get back to the clarity of vision you had when you started — where everyone on the team understood the strategy, user, and end goals for the project.

Digital Product Managers Helps You Understand Your Customers

Mobile app developers are good at understanding and meeting the technical requirements of a project. However, even though they spend a lot of time in the app world, they’re not always good at understanding customers, or even the market. They’re often motivated by meeting technical challenges or developing new functionality, but from our perspective, the most successful mobile app developers aren’t always accomplishing these goals (though they often do).

A photo of a man using a dry erase board to demonstrate an idea.
Product managers can keep the entire product development and execution processes fluid.

For every successful app that does something no one has done before, there are dozens — maybe hundreds — that do something simple, in a way that users find satisfying. They’re simple games with retro appeal, or scheduling apps with a particularly appealing workflow and attractive design. Getting those wins means understanding what your users want. And as Charles Liu, User Researcher at Helix points out, just asking your users what they want won’t get you useful answers:

“When you ask a person what they want, you let them think within the realm of possibility. And that makes user research harder than it should be. If you’re trying to create a new product or experience that doesn’t exist yet, you’ll want to know what’s causing people to not be able to do what they want with the tools they currently have. That way, you can design for an entirely new experience or incremental improvement that helps them get the job done.”

If you have your mobile app development team talking to your users or testers, they’re probably not going to ask the right questions. They want to know what features to add and what new things to build — that’s their focus. You can end up spending a lot of time and money building things you don’t need, when you could solve the problem in a simpler, more effective way.

Your digital product manager can be a bridge between your developers, customers, and testers. They can ask users the right questions, work with the technical team to determine the best way to meet users’ needs, and develop a product strategy to implement the solution. You’ll make better decisions, allocate resources more effectively, and get better ROI.

Digital Product Managers Ask the Right Questions Internally

Most people plan out projects as if they’re the only ones working on it. In other words, if your developer has to add a login process to a program and they understand how to do it, they’re not going to take the time to flowchart every step. They’ll treat the login process as one step in the project.

The same goes for your designers. If they understand all the pieces they have to design, and how they fit together, most aren’t going write a 30 item list — they’re just going to get to work.

But people make mistakes. They miss steps. They misremember how they did something the first time and end up doing it in an inconsistent manner the second time. They get versions confused or forget to test things.

A photo of a man taking a business call on his cell phone outside on an autumn day.
Somehow, taking calls outside makes them more enjoyable.

Those forgotten steps and inconsistencies can be a big problem in a project with complex dependencies. If you have a small glitch in a basic function of your app, and then you build a ton of features on top of that glitchy function, it can have serious ramifications for everyone else’s work too. You’ll have to spend more time debugging, which means a higher cost, slower release, and less happy consumers.

Your digital product manager (in collaboration with your project manager) is responsible for making sure that each step is done correctly, and that all the steps together accomplish the goal of the project.

They take the time to ask questions about what steps go into each stage, what controls and testing are needed at each point of the project, and how the different parts of the project fit together. With good digital product management, your team spends a little bit more time planning things out in the beginning, to save a lot of work later on.

Good Product Managers Can Spot Inefficiencies

Routine is comforting. Once mobile app developers find a workflow that works for them, they tend to stick with it. There’s really too much for them to do to spend extra time worrying about the process.

Although this approach makes sense for workers, it tends to lead to inefficiencies. People continue to do tasks manually that could be automated. Companies have weekly all-hands meetings because that’s how they’ve always done it, even if they might save time by having smaller department meetings instead.

Digital product managers can use metrics to understand how your mobile app development program is allocating resources and create more efficient processes. Often, just tracking how much time workers are spending on various tasks can yield profound insights.

For example, an IBM study found that software testers are spending 30-50% of their time just setting up testing environments — more time than they spend doing the actual testing! It’s obvious just from that statistic that a lot of companies need to automate some of the setup process.

Product managers can also eliminate redundancy in your process. For example, a lot of companies have sales and marketing teams that run independently of one another, which results in a lot of duplicate functionality.

A photo of a computer monitor full of system code.
We could code in our sleep at this point.

They might be creating reports on the same data, creating strategies that overlap, requesting similar content and so on. In reality, they could work more efficiently in cooperation. They’d create one report, one coherent digital content and marketing strategy that met both their goals, and so on. Not only would you be saving a lot of hours, but you’d probably have a more consistent brand strategy, with better returns.

Product Management Can Take Your Company to the Next Level

Apps are complex. Underneath the glossy exterior, there’s a complex structure, with lots of pieces that need to work together to accomplish a single purpose. Without testing and debugging, it can become glitchy, unstable and unreliable. A product manager is like the quality assurance team for your business, testing and debugging your workflow to make sure it all runs smoothly.

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Have a great product management tip? Let us know by tweeting us @Protoio!

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