Inspiration

The 5 Biggest Mobile App Product Manager Mistakes

July 24, 2018

Mobile app product management is an incredibly challenging role. You need the flexibility to take on many different tasks and bring together stakeholders. You need to have the vision to keep a rapidly evolving product true to its goals and the meticulous attention to detail to coordinate all the moving pieces and parts that go into a great mobile app.

Under these kinds of conditions, a few mistakes are inevitable, but you can avoid the worst blunders by learning to spot them ahead of time.

5 Major Mobile App Product Management Mistakes

Underestimating How Quickly the App Market Will Change

Spotting a gap in the market is exciting in any industry, but it’s particularly exhilarating for mobile app companies. With the pace of digital change and the intense competition of the app industry, discovering and planning a go-to-market strategy for a brand new product feels like a major accomplishment, even before you’ve built anything. And that feeling of elation can blind you from seeing the big picture — particularly when it comes to market conditions.

Good mobile app product managers know the importance of listening to team members.
A photo of a man talking to his work group during a meeting.

One obvious problem is that you don’t know what other people are working on. It’s possible that there’s another company already building their own version of your big idea. But unexpected innovations aren’t your biggest problem — the ordinary acceleration of technology is.

Justin Grant, a VP of Product at an IoT SaaS startup learned this hard way in his first digital product manager job. His team was building a program designed to replace a $5,000 piece of networking hardware for one-tenth of the price.

“Our business plan was simple: offer similar functionality in software, simplify the IT environment as a result (one less piece of hardware to manage!) and sell it for $500 per server. Easier, cheaper — what could go wrong?”

What went wrong was something Grant probably would see easily now, as a more seasoned digital product manager: hardware development was accelerating rapidly.

In the two years it took them to bring the product to market, that $5,000 piece of hardware became a $500 piece of hardware, and the competitors added new features and improved usability to boot. Against a well-established solution at the same price point, their product simply couldn’t compete.

There’s no easy solution to this problem — you just have to do the research and planning. Take a deep look at market trends and try to get a handle on just how quickly your competitors’ technology is developing.

Then, plan out a detailed product management approach that goes beyond initial go-to-market and includes the time it will take to gain traction. Will your product still be ahead of the game when you hit the market? If so, will you be able to avoid getting overtaken as you gain traction and scale up?

Putting Product Management Decisions Ahead of Actual Evidence

Being able to act decisively and assert your authority is important for a digital product manager, but it’s easy to go too far. When you’re used to trusting your own instincts, believing in your plan and making the final call, you can lose your openness and objectivity.

Got some feedback from a reviewer about a potential defect? So what — they don’t fit the target persona anyway. Heard from your engineers that you’re not leaving enough time for testing and debugging? They’re probably dragging their feet or being overly cautious. Read an interview with an industry luminary predicting a downturn in the market sector you’re targeting? It’s just another naysayer getting in your way. But you might be approaching all of this the wrong way.

A photo of a man checking notifications on his smartphone while drinking coffee.
If our phones are always ding-ing with notifications, we can’t imagine how busy a product manager’s phone is.

Most product managers aren’t egotistical or closed-minded. The problem is, there are usually plenty of people on the other side, agreeing with your decisions. Senior management would much rather hear that there’s been enough usability testing than learn the product might need to be delayed.

And no one wants to revisit a complicated plan based on a few unhappy users. It’s easy to give in to confirmation bias without even realizing it and, as a result, miss something big.

In fact, some of the biggest companies in tech have failed because they didn’t listen to users or market leaders. In 2009, Blackberry was a mobile giant — Fortune called it the fastest growing company in the world — and then seemingly overnight, they became yet another minor player in the game.

They kept making keyboard phones for businesses while the market was driven by consumer-grade multi-touch keyboards. They had the resources to change their strategy, but they believed in their product and strategy more than they listened to their market. As a result, they were soon eclipsed by consumer-focused brands.

The lesson? Always keep your ears open — and listen to feedback and evidence, especially when it’s something you don’t want to hear. Your plan is important, but not as important as the success of your product.

Getting Obsessed with a Perfect Product Release

Your app will never be done until the product life cycle is over. Even with great usability testing, there’s a chance of bugs slipping through launch that have to be addressed.

Then there will be patches, upgrades, and new versions with new features, each with its own development and testing process. You’re not going to get it perfect the first time, and obsessing over perfection can sink your app, like it did for Everpix.

Everpix was once one of the most promising apps on the market — even Verge’s post-mortem referred to it as “the world’s best photo startup.” The company was the brainchild of entrepreneur Pierre-Olivier Latour, who was frustrated with how difficult it was to organize his vacation pictures.

A photo of a workgroup smiling and laughing during a meeting.
It’s always a good sign when people are smiling during the meeting.

He designed Everpix to simplify and automate the process. Once it was configured, it would monitor the user’s chosen folders, services, and email, then automatically grab and curate vacation photos. It could even connect with family members and exchange photos so users didn’t have to send them back and forth. Sounds pretty awesome, right?

For a while, the app seemed destined for greatness. It was a finalist in a TechCrunch Disrupt competition, raised $1.8 million in startup funds, and even went through acquisition talks with Facebook, Dropbox, and other major tech companies. And yet, the team refused the offers and committed all their resources to getting the app just right.

But when they released version 1.0 a year and a half after forming, their days were already numbered. They had neglected advertising and signed up fewer than 19,000 users as they burned through their startup money, chasing perfection. Despite their impressive features, their series A failed to attract investment and they were forced to close.

One of the things that makes a good product manager is the ability to keep the product on track, even if senior management starts to go off the rails. That might mean telling your CEO that the app is “good enough” when everyone else is telling them it needs to be better.

If you put a marketing budget behind a barebones product, you can attract the users and capital you need to make it better. But if you spend your entire budget on little tweaks, you may never get the chance to share it with users.

Failing to Connect Product Strategy and Priorities

Keeping management on track may be the most intimidating part of your job, but keeping the team focused usually takes a lot more work. When you put together a talented team, a lot of them are going to have brilliant ideas. Yet, you can’t run with all of them, nor can you shut down every idea that lands at your doorstep simply because it doesn’t fit your vision.

Instead, you need to figure out which ideas are feasible. Which ideas can actually be rolled out without pulling everything in a different direction? What changes can be made without having to start from scratch?

According to Angel Investor and Technology Executive Adam Nash, good product strategy starts by answering two basic questions: “What game are we playing?” and “How do we keep score?” The right answers to those questions can make “a collection of brilliant individual contributors with talents in engineering, operations, quality, design and marketing… start running in the same direction.”

That, in turn, facilitates prioritization, by showing your team what sorts of ideas are useful for the project. However, you still need to ensure you set the right current priorities, effectively directing your resources to your most important goals. As Nash points out, staying laser focused on the priorities you have at the moment is make or break for organizations.

“Most products and companies fail not for lack of great ideas, but based on mistaking which ones are critical to execute on first, and which can wait until later.”

A photo of a man working late in the office.
Mobile app product managers burn the midnight oil as many times as necessary to finish things up.

Not Adopting the Right Tools for Digital Product Management

Changing or unifying the tech stack can be a touchy subject in a mobile app development environment. Everyone has their favorite communication apps and their preferences for storing files, organizing tasks, and so on.

But if every department has their own product management tools, and there are six different messaging apps to contend with (on top of email), it can damage productivity and make it much harder for you to coordinate stakeholders. And that gets in the way of effective product management.

You may need to sit down with all the stakeholders and figure out how to standardize technology in a way that works for everyone. They may not like having to give up their preferred tech in the short term, but everyone will grow to appreciate the easier workflow and clear communication. Check out our list of tools for product managers for a few suggestions.

Mobile Product Managers Are Human Too

As a product manager, you’re under tremendous pressure to deliver results — often with limited resources in a flawed or dysfunctional corporate environment. You’re going to fail, and at some point, you’re probably going to fail big.

When that happens, you need to keep your perspective. Learn what you can from it, then put it behind you and remember every mistake you get through puts you one step closer to the next success.

Proto.io lets anyone build mobile app prototypes that feel real. No coding or design skills required. Bring your ideas to life quickly! Sign up for a free 15-day trial of Proto.io today and get started on your next mobile app design.

Have any tips on avoiding major product management mistakes? Let us know by tweeting us @Protoio!

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