We recently helped one of our clients conduct a design sprint competition. It was a 48-hours event and participants were asked to create either a mobile app, a web app or an interactive prototype based a couple of product ideas. Output of this event aside, there were quite a few discussions about what exactly makes a product successful. There are so many talented individuals, trying to create products that they think are going to be the next big thing, however only few of them succeed. We are using success quite loosely here. But the question remains, what makes a product liked by it’s user base? Is there any science behind it or is it a pure work of art to create an excellent product? Or is it sheer luck? We are sharing the crux of those discussions.

According to this statistics , there are more than 2 million apps on Apple App Store and Google Play Store respectively. Divided into their respective categories, most of these app compete with each other based on a few incremental and/or differentiating features. The marginal differences does not really add much value, but on the other hand, they make adoption difficult, requiring the developers to spend considerable efforts behind app discovery. Even after the app is discovered by customers, it becomes even more difficult to convert them to paying customers. But the story does not end here. It is even more difficult to make sure that the customer stick with the apps and do not jump over to a competing app. Which is easy, since most of them look and behave alike.

We believe the last one is probably the most important part of the equation. Getting your product in front of market and convert interested onlookers into paying customers is going to be challenge for everyone. However, once the customers are on board, loosing them affects the product and developers beyond lose of revenues. You loose a possible referral point.  And in many cases, the lost ones will advocate use of the other competing apps. Loosing paying customer also affects morale. It’s like reaching to the finish line first and still loosing. To me, that’s an absolute no-no.

Why do customers leave the app they had paid for? Clearly, it did not meet some of their expectations. It did not solve their needs to the extent they had hoped. But how can that happen? We spend so many efforts to add all those features that every other app seemed to have? So many things can be accomplished with the features that we have? What prompted the paying customer to leave that in that case?

Perhaps, that very reason. The feature blot affected the user experience so badly that the customer thought the app no longer meets their objectives.

What? You would say your design is so excellent, you have invested so much in how the app looks, animations, graphics, colors…so many aspects. How can then the experience be bad?

Consider this, a productivity app forces you to take multiple steps before you can actually accomplish the most basic of the goals? How happy you will be with that? Consider any app that you are using; How many options and choices they have? How many of them you use frequently? Even large companies like Microsoft need to go back to drawing board and try to make their Office products as uncluttered as possible. They can live with such efforts and investments, but what about startups with lots of constraints on their resources? Feature bloat is an absolute killer for us. We need to do a few things so exceptionally well, that it will just do what it intends to do. The primary user experience must be so prominently available to users, that they should rely on it for most important of their work in related areas. Any thing that comes as a hindrance to that experience, must be done away with ruthlessly. This probably is more difficult done than said, but a few things done exceptionally well will attract and bind users better than having too many features making users confused.

Does that mean the applications should not scale beyond the primary problem? How would we add value to our product than? While there is a certain argument to be made for very minimalistic, single function applications that I spoke about, legitimate use cases exist for multi-featured, multi-function applications. How do we make sure that our design does not hinder user’s primary experience? Some of the principles which can be applied in such scenario, are as follows;

Single Responsibility

This is what I described above. Focus on one problem to be solved. And solve it exceptionally well.

Loose coupling

As your customer base grows, you will have demands for more features, to solve related problems. And you might need to add more features to retain some of the customers and keep growing your business. In such scenarios, can we try to build those features separately, without tight integration between them? They can get integrated in the backend, but may still maintain their individual existences in a manner which let’s the users with minimal needs continue using the product as it is, but allows users with expanded needs to have the integrated experience. We see examples of this everywhere. For example, a project management software  (like JIRA) may have integration with code repositories (like Github) without diluting the experience of those who do not want to use code repositories with their project management softwares. This can be done with existing other products or with your own new product features.

First responsible moment

Where such an integration is not possible and we must integrate features tightly, the option to choose the purpose of using the application at any given point should be given as early as possible, and then present the subsequent options in a manner which allows users to focus only on the problem that they are trying to solve at the moment.

Conformity to primary experience

This probably is the most important factor to remember. No matter what, do not compromise on the primary experience. If it’s a productivity application, make sure it can also function in most productive manner. If it’s a notes taking application, make sure it can take notes in variety of situations and from variety of sources. Identify what makes the application appealing to the user base, and keep that factor in the forefront always.

So what it is ultimately?

When you don’t give enough thought to how you design your product, chances are your users will get suboptimal experience. Hence, it’s very important to go to the drawing board every once in a while and see how best you can express your ideas in terms of the product experience. To this effect, product development is an art. We observe good product design, learn from experience and establish patterns of success to apply on our product. That’s the science part of it. As for luck, I will let you decide if you believe in it….