Podcast #2 - Ezra Nanes (AccuWeather)

The second podcast  in our podcast series is an interview with Ezra Nanes, Senior Director for Digital Media Products at AccuWeather. Ezra has had a fairly non-traditional lead up to his role at AccuWeather. In his past life at various times Ezra has been an event planner, an actor, and a waiter. However following his MBA a couple of years ago, Ezra made a dramatic career switch into digital product management, and has not looked back since.

Like our last podcast with Jason Rosenblum (Dow Jones), this podcast covers a lot of ground, including:

  • some great career advise from Ezra to career switchers as well as developers and designers looking to move into product management
  • view on how cloud computing and mobile compliment each other, and the opportunities that the combination of big data, cloud, and mobile present
  • AccuWeather's focus on mobile and some key opportunities and challenges faced 

Hope you enjoy the podcast, and looking forward to any feedback on how we can improve future recordings. Cheers!

Outsourcing mobile dev - how to think about your app

How much does it cost to build an app? How long does it take to build an app? Well, it depends on several factors. Apps can be built for as little as a couple of thousand to dollars, or as much as hundreds of thousands of dollars. It all depends on what you want your app to accomplish. We have a created a framework to help you think through your app in some very concrete terms, which can help determine the cost and time to required to build the app.

Requirements v01 MA 9Mar2014.png

We look at this framework as the building blocks for an app. Like with any structure, building it requires setting a strong foundation. This requires having a good grasp of the platform(s) on which you'd like the app to be developed, knowing your localization and internationalization strategy, not leaving security to be an after thought, and having a good sense of which APIs - both internal and external - your app needs to integrate with. Once the foundation has been set you can move to building the core of your application. This involves having at least a feature level grasp of what your application will do. Finally, to maximize the value delivered by your app, you need to understand and implement your apps reporting & administrative needs and how you plan to support the app once it hits production. Let's take a closer look at each of these areas.

The Foundations:

Platform: Knowing which platforms your app needs to be built on is of paramount importance. The wrong decision here can mean the difference between a great app, and one that delivers extremely poor performance and generates little or even negative interest. Some of the key considerations here include:

  • iOS vs. Android vs. Others: This might seem like a pretty simple decision at first, but based on the demographic and region of the world you are targeting, going iOS first or Android first, is not a given. We were helping scope an app targeted towards the lower income market in the emerging world for which a simple text message based service made more sense than an extensive app. On the other hand for some apps to gain maximum virality you might have to go cross-platform from the get-go.
  • Native vs. mobile web - A few years ago HTML5 was all the rage. Today developers have begun to recognize the limitations of HTML5, and the pendulum has swung the other way. The right decision here though is not whats in vogue, but what makes sense for your app - perhaps the limitations of HTML5 are not an impediment for your app.
  • Develop native vs. using a mobile application development platform (MADP) - We will cover this top in a more in-depth manner in a future post, but at a minimum you need to know what the advantages of developing using a MADP platform vs. developing a native app are and why your development team is recommending one over the other. The comparison is usually made between the cost advantages of MADPs vs. the performance advantages of native, however in reality the comparison is rarely that straight forward.

Localization: This aspect of app development is usually not given much thought, and perhaps is as simple as starting off as an English-only app that needs to be deployed in the iTunes app store. However, what if you were an international airline carrier with passengers from all over the world? Suddenly, a seemingly simple decision requires at least some analysis to know which languages your apps needs to support and which countries app stores the app needs to be made available in.

Security: Like with localization, security is too often an after thought. Some very popular apps have taken security lightly and have seen it come back to bite them. Recently the Starbucks app, the most used mobile payments app in the US, was caught up in an embarrassing security breach when it was revealed that it was storing its customers' username, email address, and password in clear text on their mobile phone. Our recommendation is to not take security for granted from the get-go. Do not assume that your app developer will build your app to meet best practice security requirements. Be explicit about the security requirements you expect - particularly as it relates to encryption, authentication, and authentication information retrieval policies. You at least owe this much to your prospective users.

APIs: Today APIs are available for a variety of different popular external B2C applications in particular Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc., as well as B2B applications such as Salesforce. At a minimum, we recommend that project owners know which applications they need to access through their app and the feature(s) they expect to be able to provide to the end-user by enabling said access. "I'd like my application to connect to LinkedIn" is usually not very informative. "I'd like my application to connect to LinkedIn to be able to auto populate x, y, and z user profile fields" is a lot more useful.

The Core:

Features: Most of the better development teams today either completely or partially adhere to the agile development philosophy. In agile development, the primary unit of work at the team level moves away from a discussion of requirements to a discussion of user stories. These user stories are generally developed in conjunction with the development team and are too granular to invest too much time in up front. Our recommendation here is for you as the project owner to think one level up - at the level of features. 

Screen Shot 2014-03-09 at 3.54.39 PM.png

So what is the difference between a feature and a user story? Let's take the example of a recent that app we helped facilitate the development of that helps you find things to do based on your mood and your location. The ability to determine your location is a feature. However, your location can be determined based on your current coordinates, some future coordinates, or the neighborhood that you live or work in - each of these comprises a different user story. Knowing what can and cannot be done at the user-story level generally requires the guidance of the development team, and is best left to be determined in conjunction with the team.

The Accelerators:

Reporting: Why is reporting important? Shouldn't I be able to capture stats via the number of downloads and the rating that my app has received directly from the app store? That is correct, but that is not really enough information to determine what features within your app are being used, or in what conditions your app crashes, or how long it has been since a specific user has logged into your app, etc. Usually developing your app is just the first step towards attaining a greater goal, and it is impossible to predict whether or not you are making headway towards that greater goal without some deeper insight into how your users are using an app. We highly recommend thinking about what user activities and experiences you'd like to keep track of and accounting for those capabilities when developing your app. Again, like with security, don't take for granted that your development team has a good sense of what those capabilities need to be - it's your app, and you need to take ownership of it. These days, integrating reporting capabilities - even advanced ones - into your app usually doesn't require a ton of additional development effort, but it does require identifying and integrating with the right reporting tools made available by external providers (e.g., Flurry, App Annie, Google Analytics). Knowing which reporting tool to integrate with to deliver which capability is something you should defer to the development team on, but knowing which reporting capability is required in the first place is your responsibility as the project owner.

Admin: There are very few apps that require no administrative capabilities. Below are some common examples of admin capabilities that apps require:

  • Roles administration: Not all users are created equal. Some users might be considered super users and require special privileges associated to a role that they perform on your app - for example adding new stores or restaurants to a curated recommendation app. 
  • Content administration: Your app might be dealing with content submission from your users and you might want to feature or highlight certain pieces of content more than others. This might require content curation capabilities that need to be provided to you as a superuser, but not to every user.
  • Security administration: You might want to be able to change the security policies related to your app, for example the password strength requirements or how often passwords are set to expire. You might want to lock down certain users from your app until certain verification steps are complete. 

When working with an experienced development team, one of the first things they are likely to do is build user personas that are related to different user stories. This should help define the specific actions that you'd like different types of users, including admin users, to be able to perform. However, at a minimum we suggest giving some though to what constitutes an admin user and what features the admin user should be able to control.

Support: Apps don't upgrade themselves, and just because an app works close to perfectly in the beginning, it doesn't mean it will continue to do so into eternity. Apps can break for a variety of reasons ranging from OS upgrades, to API changes, to experiencing a heavier load than they have been tested against. All of these problems can generally be fixed, but not if you don't have the right support mechanism in place to help you. Most teams that develop an app might give you a 2-week or one month warranty window where they will support the app for break-fix type issues, but often you might need support for a longer than a month on app. Additionally, it is critical to know the different between break-fix and a new change. Adding a new capability to an app is not a break-fix issue, in technical terms it is considered a change request, and - depending on the complexity of the app - a change request can be more complex and expensive than developing the app itself. 

In summary, there are lots of things to consider when you go down the path of developing an app. Maybe your app is a use and discard marketing app for which many of the above considerations are an overkill, but even if that is the case it makes more sense to start with a more holistic framework like this and eliminate what you don't need, vs. start something bare and then realize two months into the project that there were several aspects of the app that had not been thought through. Spending and extra week or two researching some of the capabilities that your app needs to support is not a waste of time when you consider that not having those capabilities can easily cost you an extra couple of months or, in the worst case, your reputation.

Top 10 medical apps - where is big healthcare?

We recently concluded a study where we looked at 2000 apps developed by 100 of the worlds largest companies across various industries and found some interesting trends and challenges. One of the biggest challenges that we uncovered was, on average, the mediocre quality and distribution of apps developed by large enterprises. Let's illustrate this in concrete terms. The top 5 app categories of enterprise developed apps included:

  • lifestyle apps
  • medical apps
  • health and fitness apps
  • gaming apps
  • entertainment apps

Now it might be quite easy to brush aside lifestyle app viz. dating and fashion apps, as being of the trivial variety (we don't think they are), hence for this exercise we decided to look at a more serious category of apps - medical apps. Below is a list of the top 10 free medical apps on App Annie (as of March 2nd 2014).

App Name Developed By Entity Type USP
PulsePoint PulsePoint Foundation Non-Profit empowers people to perform CPR
Rain, Rain Sleep Sounds Tim Gostony Indie Developer helps fight insomnia
Good Rx - Prescription/Medicine Prices & Coupons GoodRx Startup reduces healthcare care costs
Doctor on Demand Doctor on Demand, Inc Startup real time video consult with a physician 
Weedmaps Weedmaps Media Inc.  Startup reviews of medical marijuana strains &  dispensaries
Leafly Marijuana Strain and Dispensary Reviews Leafly Subsidiary, Privateer Holdings reviews of medical marijuana strains &  dispensaries
MyCharts Epic Small Enterprise (Private) centralized access of personal medical record
Pregnancy+ Health & Parenting Ltd. Startup complete pregnancy guide 
Ovia Fertility Ovuline Inc. Startup helps couples conceive faster
Glasses Off GlassesOff Small Enterprise (Public) helps you read without glasses on your iPhone

It is amazing that not one of the top 10 free medical apps have been developed by a large enterprise (neither were any of the top paid apps). In fact you have to go to #10, before you find an app (GlassesOff) that has been created by a publicly traded company of any sort, and at a market cap of a little over a $100M, GlassesOff hardly represents the epitome of a large enterprise.

In fact it is not until you scroll all the way down to #18 (see below) that you find an app developed by even a medium size enterprise ($100M - $1B in revenue) - WebMD.

App Annie Medical.png

To find an app developed by a legit big healthcare enterprise, you have to scroll all the way down to #27 and Quest diagnostics (see below)

App Annie Medical 2.png

Why is this? Do large enterprises genuinely not care to develop high quality apps and to find every available means to distribute these apps to their target audience? Or do large enterprises not know how to build high quality apps and to distribute them widely? We think its a bit of both - many large enterprises are still trying to make sense of the app ecosystem and what it could mean to their businesses. For the most part their top lines haven't yet been impacted, so to them the app world looks like a novelty that can - at best - help them promote their brands. Unlike all of the apps in the top 10 list, they don't always solve real or meaningful customer problems. This in turn then leads them to build lower quality apps, and care much less about the distribution of their apps. That they continue to pour money into apps is without question - in our study large enterprises have released a median of 9 apps on iTunes or Google Play. However the value they derive from the apps they have deployed is questionable. Almost 50% of apps developed by large enterprises across verticals have not been rated, and over half of them have fewer than 10,000 downloads across iTunes and Google Play combined. 

Our recommendation to large enterprises is simple. In as far as consumer facing apps are concerned, they are much better off building few higher quality apps and focusing on the distribution of those apps, vs. trying to deploy a splattering of mediocre apps with very limited user value. There are several reasons why the 10 medical apps have made it into the top 10, but the most compelling remains that they solve very real problems - from saving lives to helping couples conceive. Large enterprises can do worse than to start by looking at the most critical problems their customers or clients face that can be solved by mobile technology, and then building the highest quality app that can solve said problem. 

Mobile app development - why wage arbitrage matters little!

Wage arbitrage has defined the IT services sector for over a decade. Companies in the US in particular, and high cost countries (HCC) in general, began to take notice of the Indian IT workforce starting in the late 90s when preparing for Y2K. In fact, like with many other process optimizations, it was GE under Jack Welch, that began the trend of outsourcing IT services to India as far back as 1991, which was the year that India began to open up its economy. That said it was the noughties when IT outsourcing really came into its own. It was the decade that saw Accenture and Deloitte swell from sub-50K person consulting companies, to 200K+ person outsourcing behemoths, with a majority of that workforce added in low cost countries (LCC), and India in particular. It was also the decade that saw spectacular rise of the Indian IT services sector, most prominently Infosys, Wipro, TCS, Cognizant, and - until its eventual accounting-scandal led demise - Satyam.

However the tide has started to turn. It's not so much that wage arbitrage opportunities have disappeared - in fact an argument can be made that arbitrage opportunities will remain well into the next decade, particularly between India and the US. However, as companies move from leveraging IT to drive internal efficiencies to leveraging IT to build new digital products and services, i.e. towards digitalization, the need for wage arbitrage becomes somewhat irrelevant. Let's consider why.

When you shouldn't offshore:

Consider the following digitalization scenario. You are a large automobile company that is looking to develop an augmented reality app for Google Glass. The app essentially digitalizes your driver manual, by overlaying information pertaining to a specific automobile component or feature simply by looking at it and activating voice commands. Now assume you are the executive within the large automobile company, whose organizations responsibility it is to deliver this app.  From the executives perspective, which do you reckon is the most important success criterion vis-a-vis this particular app are:

  • building the app for the lowest cost possible
  • building the app of the high quality possible

With consumer facing products that represent a brand, it is rarely the former. The goal is usually to build the highest quality app possible under some realistic cost-constraints. This is where mobile application development begins to differ from traditional enterprise application development. With mobile you can build some very very powerful applications, e.g. augmented reality or sensor based applications, with minimal back-end, organizational, or process-driven complexity. What does this lead to? A lower price point than traditional enterprise application development. Traditional enterprise application development generally fell into one of two categories:

  • customization of complex packaged applications like SAP, Siebel etc.
  • full blown customized applications

In either case, these applications generally required integration with a multitude of complex systems and some very esoteric technology skills to build out the application. Additionally, to build these traditional applications, an army of professional services consultants is generally required for everything from gathering business requirements, to change management (as generally these applications required a change in organizational behavior), to deployment and a transition to operations. It is not uncommon for these applications to cost north of $100M, with prices north of $1B to deliver in the case of the most complex transformative apps - think healthcare.gov 2.0 to be delivered by Accenture. At a $100M price point, wage arbitrage makes a lot of a sense - a $20M savings is pretty significant in almost any context - but the average mobile app costs under $250K. Here savings of even $100K are easily trumped by working with a more expensive team but one that can deliver a very high quality product and significantly greater business value.

When should you offshore:

Wage arbitrage is by no means over but, when it comes to mobile application development, building a product offshore is not by any means purely a price decision. It usually only makes sense in one of three conditions:

  • the offshore team is very good at what they do - and is worth offshoring to regardless of price.
  • the client is offshore and needs a team that works in the same time zone/city/region.
  • there are some pretty significant budget constraints, and the individual/company requiring the offshoring capability has experience in managing the offshore team.

As discussed in our blog post on the golden rules of outsourcing, if you are an entrepreneur or a marketer that has no experience in managing an outsourced team, then you should try to avoid outsourcing all together or else enlist the help of a trusted individual/team that has experience outsourcing to do most of the heavy lifting while you learn the ropes. This is quadruply true if you are considering outsourcing to an offshore team for the first time.

The "digitalization" of the enterprise & why traditional sourcing fails

A few weeks ago Gartner published a research report titled, "Taming the Digital Dragon: The 2014 CIO Agenda". Effectively the report says that CIOs have spent the last decade focused on how to keep the lights running with more and more efficiency, but now need to start focusing on building innovative digital products and services (as well as keeping the lights running as efficiently as possible). Gartner calls this duality a bimodal future and points out to a few key things CIOs need to do to succeed, including:

  • increased migration to the public cloud.
  • changes to legacy technology and sourcing relationships.
  • implementation of agile methodologies and beyond (e.g., creation of multidisciplinary teams and alternative sourcing models).

It was interesting to note that the words "sourcing" and "talent" appeared a total of 6 times in under a 1,000 words. So why is sourcing so important, and why are current sourcing models not well equipped to handle the "digitalization" process?

Why is sourcing important? 

What the Gartner article does not get into (as it probably assumes its readers are already aware of this), is how IT services are delivered today. It's been over a decade since IT was delivered by IT. Through the "noughties" IT services have largely been sourced through external vendors, and companies spend a lot of money on this. Below is a break down global IT spend across various key categories:

Credit: Gartner

Credit: Gartner

Approaching $1T globally, IT services spend by companies represents the second largest spend item by most enterprise IT organizations. In addition to this, when you consider that telecom spend is also services spend, and that both software and hardware spend is increasingly becoming services spend (via. PaaS, SaaS, and IaaS), you very quickly realize that the modern IT organization's #1 focus is generally vendor sourcing and management.

How does the current sourcing model work?

Let's assume you are an enterprise that is looking for a vendor to come in and perform a $10M network refresh, how do you go about sourcing the appropriate vendor to handle this? A well managed procurement process would look something like this:

RFP Process Flow.png

The above process represents an ideal scenario where the IT organization has the skills in-house to develop the RFP and manage the vendor selection process. In many cases this turns out not to be the case, and a process similar to that depicted above needs to be undertaken to source a vendor to manage the vendor selection process for the network refresh. This could easily take two months by itself, and extend out the above vendor selection process into a six month long process.

What is the "digitalization" of IT?

Gartner sees IT entering its third era - the era of "digitaliztion". The first era was marked by automation of hitherto manual processes, and the second era was marked by the industrialization of IT. This is roughly similar to our depiction (shown below) of the eras of personal productivity (the PC era) and organizational productivity (the client-server era).

What Gartner refers to as the era of "digitialization", we refer to as the era of "collaborative engagement". Additionally, as we pointed out in another post, this era is significantly different from the previous two eras (both of which focused on driving internal efficiencies) in a few key ways, the most important of which is its focus on building consumer facing, revenue generating products and services. The most successful IT (or digital) organizations in this era will not be the ones that successfully deploy Microsoft office on 200,000 PCs worldwide, or implement SAP R/3 across 5 business units, but the ones that help their companies quickly and cost-effectively test new ideas and iteratively build high quality products and services.

Why does the current sourcing model fail?

It is this success criteria that is the Achilles' heel of the sourcing model in play across IT organizations today. To be successful in this new era of "digitalization" IT has to deliver in a fast, cost-effective, and high-quality manner. The current sourcing model fails on all three of these fronts. Why is that?

  • Speed: It cannot take 4-6 months to select a vendor. While that might work for a network refresh that happens once every 5-10 years, it doesn't work when speed to market can be the differentiator between you and your competition.
  • Cost:  The average consumer facing mobile app costs less than a $250K to develop. A six-month vendor sourcing process, involving an external consulting firm to help with vendor selection, can cost multiples of that by itself. Again, this may be OK when selecting a vendor to execute a $100M ERP transformation, but doesn't work when building out a $100K mobile application.
  • Quality: The vendors that build the best consumer facing products and services are quite different, and significantly more numerous, than the vendors that can successfully implement a CRM system. There only a handful of world-class vendors that can effectively execute $100M+ projects, and they well known to most IT organizations. There are lot more high-quality vendors that can deliver a $100K project, but they are not as easy to identify in the extremely fragmented ecosystem that exists at this price point.

What can companies do about it? 

While there are no easy answers to this question, a good starting point to begin thinking about "digitialization" is to determine whether to build internally - which requires having the right team with the right set of skills for this new era - or whether to outsource software development. Below is a framework that we presented in a previous post on this subject that is worth revisiting:

Outsourcing Model.png

While this might seem a bit simplistic a first, there are a two things that require some deep thinking. The more obvious of the two is whether the digital product that you are building is a core or non-core product. Lets take the example of airline building its primary app - yes the app is an important part of the overall customer experience that the airline offers, but its not the core product that the airline offers, it is a supporting product. On the other hand if NCR were to build a competing product (they are planning to do just that in partnership with PayPal) to Square Wallet, it would very much be a core product of the company.

The less obvious point to consider in the framework above, is whether or not you are a tech company - again, we wrote a piece on this subject quite recently. This would have been a non-point even a decade ago, when tech companies were primarily software, hardware, and IT services companies. However, isn't this what the "digitalization" of business is all about? Where what were traditionally non-tech companies (Nike for example), are today being considered tech companies? The primary driver behind this is "digitalization" as Gartner puts it, or "collaborative engagement" with the user (customer, employee etc.) that we describe.

The framework above is simply a starting point, albeit a very useful one. Once you have determined what kind of company you are (or the kind of company you want to be when you're all grown up) and the kind of product you are building, you can work on the sourcing strategy that you should adopt. If you are tech company building your core product, then having the right internal team is of paramount importance. In the current competitive environment we find ourselves in, this is not simply about going out and offering creatives and engineers the highest salary possible - if anything the soft incentives are as important, if not more important to the individuals that possess these skills. This particularly holds true for millennials. However, in this uber competitive market for top talent, even if you check of all the boxes, you might still be unable hire or retain the best talent, in which case you might have little choice but to outsource even core product development.

What further complicates the era of "digitalization" is that ideas for "digitalization" can originate from anywhere in an organization. Often the best ideas originate not from management, but from rank and file employees that are digital natives. Mechanisms needs to exist to drive the best of these ideas from concept to execution to market in a manner that maintains a healthy balance between speed, cost, and quality.  How can organizations achieve this? Lets take a quick look:

Speed: Companies can leverage ideation platforms to identify and build support around their best ideas, sourcing platforms to quickly find and source the best teams to build products that bring these ideas to life, and project management and collaboration platforms to track execution and delivery.

Cost: Leveraging SaaS platforms vs. hiring expensive consultants to prioritize ideation and to manage procurement will help reduce sourcing costs in itself. Additionally, working with independent, agile product development teams vs. large, general purpose consulting firms will help further reduce cost by minimizing management overhead and maximizing speed to market.

Quality:  Hiring the right team to do the job can win half the battle in terms of delivering a quality product. To win the other half, organizations should emulate how startups build digital products. Startups don't get everything right from the get-go, however they do get to market quickly, fail-fast, and iterate off those failures to build a better product. 

In Closing:

While this era of "digtitalization" is really very different from the eras that have passed, it is arguably much more exciting than the pervious two eras. If the last two eras were about developing the infrastructure layer of the digital age (PC's, networking, client-server computing, and the early stages of cloud computing), this era will be about building out the application layer that will power the digital age. IT organizations will have to adapt to delivering quality (vs. cost), adopting new sourcing models, and perhaps even look at evolving into a new operating model

5 innovative enterprise-sanctioned B2C mobile apps

It's hard to argue with the statement that enterprises are not as innovative as startups - in fact our very first blog piece was about why NCR couldn't have thought of Square Wallet. However, every once in a while enterprises do innovate, and in rare cases they even inspire startups. Below is a list of 5 apps that have managed to do just that.

Ikea 2014 catalog: This app turns the typical catalog app available on iTunes on its head. It uses augmented reality (AR) to superimpose catalog items into the room that you are viewing through the app. The app essentially enables you to do a virtual preview of furniture in a given room, without having to buy the furniture or move the furniture around. The app is also an example where an enterprise-sanctioned app provided inspiration to a startup

Audi eKurzinfoWhen was the last time you opened the drivers manual that came with your car? Well, with this app you won't ever have to. Again using AR (and built by the same team that built the Ikea catalog app), the app enables you to learn more about a particular control in your vehicle with just a few taps on your phone. Have trouble knowing which compartment is for the coolant, engine oil, or break fluid? No problem! Just point the camera towards it and the app provides you with the information you need.

Nike+ Fuel Band: Yes, we know its not the app by itself that makes the Nike+ Fuel Band magical, but the overall product. To those of you that have lived under a rock for the last few years, the app works in conjunction with the Nike+ Fuel Band, and allows you to track everything from how long you sleep, to how intensely you perform physical activities. Set at the intersection of both the quantified self and wearable tech movements, the product has the potential to change how Nike views itself as a company - transforming from a sports accessories company to a tech company.

Iron Man 3 - JARVIS: A Second Screen Experience: Every entertainment major in the US is looking to build a second screen experience for everything from popular TV shows to sporting events, but few get it right. Marvel got it right with Iron Man 3. Per one of the reviewers, the app makes you feel like you are sitting next to Tony Stark on his couch and you have the remote for his TV. Using the voice of Paul Bettany (the voice of JARVIS) adds to the realism. In the not too distant future studios might look at licensing out actor voices for apps like Siri, in much the same way as they do with skins and wallpapers today.

TurboTax SnapTax: From the insanely fun to the insanely boring! The reality is that taxes are a part of life, and since you have no choice but to do them, then you might as well get them out of the way as quickly as possible. This app allows you to do just that. Take a picture of your W-2, answer a few simple questions, e-file securely from your phone or tablet, and viola you don't have to worry about Uncle Sam for a whole year. OK, maybe its a bit more complicated than that in reality, but by all accounts it is a step up from scanning your W2 and filing it through a web browser. 

The golden rules of outsourcing

In previous posts, we have covered when to outsource and the development options to consider when outsourcing. In this post we are making the assumption that you've already decided to outsource. Also, this post, as is the case with most of our posts, is in regards to outsourcing software design and/or development, not outsourcing the development of a physical good. Once you've decided to outsource, our experience is that the three most important to rules to adhere to are as follows:

1) Don't outsource without experience - If you are outsourcing for the first time, then it's not a question of if you will make mistakes, it's a question of when you will make a mistake (and how expensive it will be). If you are an entrepreneur that has raised a small friends and family round (say sub $50K) and you are outsourcing application development for the first time, then it could mean ending up with a lemon of an app, having no recourse to upgrade the app from a lemon to even just a pomegranate, and sitting through a few embarrassing thanksgiving dinners over the next few years (Note: we have made the argument before that in the scenario that you are a startup tech company you should ideally be building the app in house, but we know that this is not always an option). If you are a marketer that has an idea for an app but have never outsourced a technology project before, it could mean your job. So what if you are outsourcing for the first time? Well, in that case try to utilize at least one of the following suggestions:

  • Use the help of someone that has experience outsourcing - If you are an entrepreneur this could be a friend or a family member that has worked in tech and has outsourced before. If you are a marketer working for a large organization try to leverage the help of a full-time or contract PM.
  • Outsource something non-core first - For example, if you are a marketer working for a large company then start by outsourcing an app whose development, if it blows up, won't cost you your job (and hope that you are right).
  • Work for someone that has experience outsourcing, and learn from them - This especially makes sense for folks that are looking to become professional PMs. It also works an entrepreneur learning the ropes prior to outsourcing the development of his/her own app.

2) Do your due diligence - This might seem a bit obvious, but the devil is in the details. It's probably easier to get this point across by providing some examples of what due diligence does not mean. In particular, due diligence is not:

  • Outsourcing to the first referral you get from a friend or colleague. If anything, this is just the starting point towards building your target list of potential outsourcers.
  • Interviewing the CEO, president, or sales representative of the company that you are outsourcing to - unless they are personally going to manage, design, or develop your project.
  • Being impressed by a client list that includes some of the worlds largest brands. Many of these brands are not the best at policing who uses their logo and in what context. Additionally, just because a team has built a two-page jingle app with a dancing Santa for PepsiCo, does not suddenly qualify you them to develop Snapchat.

So, what does a half way decent due diligence process look like? At a minimum, it should include:

  • Developing a list of "trusted" outsourcers through referrals or through your own organization's procurement group.
  • Interviewing as many of the key stakeholders as possible that will be responsible for delivery (i.e., not the sales people). This might only be the lead product or project manager in the case of a larger organization, or could mean everyone on the team (designer, developer, and PM) if its a relatively small organization.
  • Checking in on client references. The easy part is making the call, the harder part is doing the research to ensure that the reference being provided is legitimate (try to establish the legitimacy of the relationship through LinkedIn), and knowing what questions to ask (focus on their management practices in dealing with the client and not just on how brilliant the app that the outsourcer built turned out).

Now for a bit of self promotion: if you'd like to do better than the minimum in terms of due diligence, then you could always use our services.

3) Manage your outsourcer - Outsourcing is NEVER about delegating away your management responsibilities. Even if you are Fortune 50 company that has hired a firm like Accenture or Deloitte to manage your $100M CRM transformation, you will still have a small army of your own VPs, directors, and senior managers that oversee the work of the consulting firm's partners, associate partners, and senior managers. Now this might seem like overkill but, having worked on both sides of the equation, we can tell you that very often there is no other way. When it comes to outsourcing application development, it's much better to be known as a helicopter client than a UFO by your outsourcer - at least if you want what is delivered to match your expectations.

The best practices in terms of managing your outsourcer can (and mostly likely will) be a series of blog posts in itself, but at a high level it should include:

  • Daily calls or scrum sessions to provide the necessary feedback, and to keep tabs on everyday activities.
  • Helping your outsourcer mitigate risks and manage issues that arise. Please note, these are not one and the same - an issue is a risk that has been realized, and if something becomes an issue without ever being a risk, then that is quite often the sign of poor project management.
  • Having a transition plan.  Outsourcing app development has a finite time bound, at some point an internal team or a different outsourcer will take over the project. If you haven't thought about what that transition plan will look like once project execution comes to an end, then you might be in for some rude surprises.

Note, that there are no silver bullets to outsourcing, but neither is it evil like some people make it sound. In fact, as we have pointed out before, in many cases it is the optimal operating model. As with anything else that you do, you get better at it with experience.

Are you a digital, IT or tech company?

In the hiring internally vs. outsourcing development post, we pointed out that knowing if you are an IT company or not is one of the keys to understanding whether a company should outsource development or build products internally. As we thought about this further, we realized that using the phrase "IT company" is somewhat limiting. Over the years, IT has developed a very specific connotation. In particular, in the context of most medium and large enterprises, IT generally refers to the department that keeps your computing infrastructure up and running and not the department that builds your enterprises' most innovative products and services.

So what are some of the other terms that you can use - excluding IT - to ask yourself the same question - "are you an X company?" A few terms immediately come to mind, in particular digital and tech. Let's looks at the relative merits of each of these terms.

Are you a digital company?  Digital technology has been around for over 50 years, with the move towards digital accelerating in the last three decades as computing power has increased. Today almost everything that companies produce, share, and store are in digital format. While this hold true for all companies, the change has been particularly dramatic for companies that produced products that were once in analog format that are now being converted to the digital format. Publishing companies are a perfect example of where this change has been felt most in the dramatic fashion.

Are you a tech company? Until recently the word "tech" was used to described companies that were either software, computer hardware, or Internet companies. However, as the size of computer hardware components continue to shrink and as software becomes ubiquitous, companies that were not traditionally considered tech companies, are today being referred to as tech companies. This applies to companies in sectors ranging from big box retail to sports and fitness.

So what is our preferred terminology? Honestly, our pick would still be "IT company". The reason for this is that it best describes the type of technology that we are referring to - information technology. However, given the connotation that has increasingly been attached to IT, it is not a term that is widely accepted and hence can confuse people.

Digital, is our least favorite term. Describing a company as a digital company because the primary method by which a company produces, shares and stores information is digital, is akin to calling a company an electric company because electricity is used to keep the companies factories and offices running. 

Tech on the other hand is a term that we can live with. Tech is increasingly being used to describe both traditional IT companies, as well not traditional companies that are increasingly building tech-centric products and services. It is not as descriptive as the words IT, but its not as amorphous as the word digital either.

Top 10 Retail Apps on Thanksgiving Eve (iTunes)

This being thanksgiving weekend in the US we decided to take a break from our usual heavy posts and look at the top 10 retails apps heading into Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The apps are rated based on their popularity on iTunes, and the rankings have been obtained from AppAnnie.

iTunes Rank* (Lifestyle) App Name Publisher App Type iTunes Rating
1 Black Friday 2013 Ads App - BlackFriday.fm Sazze, Inc. Coupons 4.6 (4,582)
2 Apple Store Apple mCommerce 3.5 (51,632)
3 RetailMeNot Coupons RetailMeNot, Inc. Coupons 4.5 (171)
4 Cartwheel by Target Target Coupons 3.5 (14)
5 Groupon Groupon, Inc. Daily Deals 4.2 (348,989)
6 Amazon App Amazon Mobile LLC mCommerce 3.7 (107,186)
7 eBay eBay Inc. mCommerce 3.9 (207,887)
8 Black Friday FatWallet, Inc. Coupons 2.3 (2,633)
10 Walmart Walmart mCommerce 2.8 (47,483)
12 glasses.com for iPhone 1 800 CONTACTS, Inc. mCommerce 4 (1,079)

Happy Turkey Day, and avoid the lines and/or coupon management hell by using some of these apps!

Hiring creatives and engineers? Understand the soft incentives

A study by Princeton University scholars Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton has shown that the quality of an individual's everyday experience is not impacted much beyond an annual income of approximately $75,000. This is probably doubly true of creative and engineering talent. To motivate these people to come and work for you, rather than another employer generally requires one or more of the following incentives:

Challenge: The best talent likes to be challenged. They would much rather work around the clock to design a unique user experience or develop an innovative app than a meaningless app which doesn’t extend their skills or challenge their faculties. For a case in point, compare the challenge posed to the Ikea team that built out their 2014 catalog, which leverages augmented reality to give a virtual preview of furniture in a room, to the numerous other catalog apps that litter iTunes and Google Play.

Collaboration: Yes, the best talent can sometimes be difficult to collaborate with, but that’s usually if they are forced to collaborate with team members that are not on par with their own abilities or they are posed with a task that's too trivial for a top notch team to pursue. Put them in a high performing team and ask them to collaborate on a seemingly insurmountable challenge, and this can quickly change. Picture the team that worked together to make this happen: 

Credit:  GQ  

Credit: GQ 

Recognition The best talent likes to be appreciated and recognized for their work, and not just in the context of their own team or department but amongst their peers as well. Find a way to build incentive models where their work is recognized beyond the walls of your company, and by their peers across the industry. Some ways of doing this include:

  • sponsoring creative and technical team members to present in industry and peer conferences
  • permitting designers to showcase select work assets on platforms like Dribbble and Behance
  • encouraging developers to contribute appropriate code to various open source communities via. GitHub

Work environment: Build a work environment that suits your team. Some seemingly trivial items that matter to creative and engineering talent include:

  • dress code - in general creative talent likes to express itself, and technical talent just wants to feel comfortable
  • work time - A Tayloristic 9:00 to 5:00 workday, while potentially great for regimented factory work, doesn't hold the same effectiveness with top talent
  • office layout - cubicle hell can be as uninspiring as a rigid 9:00 to 5:00 schedule
  •  work location - unless you are in all hands on deck turnaround type situation, or you're trying to meet a very tight launch deadline, give talent options here 

The world of work is changing tremendously, and creative and engineering talent today have more options than they have arguably ever had. Options that only a couple of decade ago were considered fringe options at best (e.g., freelancing, working at a startup, being an indie app developer, etc.) are today considered viable alternatives to working a soulless job. Make sure that the job you are offering inspires talent to pursue their best work at work, and doesn't simply become a pay check that finances a much more meaningful side-gig. 

Lean startup in the enterprise - the era of collaborative engagement (part 3/6)

This is the third entry in our six part series on the era of collaborative engagement that businesses are stepping into. The second entry focused on this being the era of B2C rather than B2B. In this piece we will begin to look at the implications of this shift, particularly as it pertains to how digital products in this new consumer-facing era are conceptualized and developed.

Lean startup:

In an environment where the primary concern is to optimize existing operations, we are generally dealing with a whole lot of knowns, and are building systems and processes to optimize those knowns. On the other hand, when you are developing new consumer facing products and services, the knowns - in particular consumer preferences and user behavior - are a lot less concrete, and what you need to build is not always clear up front. Hypothesis-driven experimentation, as prescribed by the lean startup approach, provides the best mechanism for tackling this problem. 

In his landmark book, The Lean Startup, Eric Ries provides the example of how Intuit uses hypothesis driven validation to build new products and features. Eric cites the example of SnapTax, software developed by Intuit, that initially started with the hypothesis that customers would prefer scanning their W2 to automatically feed the content into their tax returns instead of manually entering the information. However, when they began to test the hypothesis they quickly discovered that scanning could be at least as cumbersome as entering the information manually, and that what customers really wanted was the ability to take a picture of their W2 from their cell phones and have the information automatically populate their returns.

It's not about software:

What's critical to note though is that success of hypothesis driven testing has less to do with developing software than knowing what experiments to run and how to interpret the data collected from those experiments. Consider the example of Dropbox. To test the hypothesis that people were craving a simple to use storage solution that would enable users to synch files across their various devices, Dropbox created a video (see below) to test this hypothesis. Following the release of the video, Dropbox's beta sign ups shot up from a few thousand to almost 75K overnight, which immediately validated the core hypothesis surrounding the product. Yes, in Dropbox's case they did write code to actually develop the product in parallel to releasing this video, however technically this same hypothesis could have been tested without writing a single line or product code.


A different approach to managing IT-centric projects:

What the lean startup approach does is add a new stage to how IT-centric projects are managed and success measured. In more traditional IT-centric projects project generally evolve through three phases: 

  • requirements gathering
  • build
  • operate

When deploying consumer-facing products with more unknowns than knows, the requirements gathering stage changes to what can be thought of as the "search" stage. In this stage, like startups, enterprise project teams should focus on hypothesis driven testing to find the right product/product features to build or service/service options to provide. With this change, the success criteria and metrics used to quantify each stage start to look something like this:

Success Metrics.png

Our observation: 

Off late, we have spent a tremendous amount of time and energy researching consumer-facing mobile applications deployed by large companies, and the data we have uncovered is clearly pointing to very limited focus by companies on the search phase. For some perspective, consider these stats for Pepsico.

  • # of apps in Google Play across all brands: 25
  • total max global downloads on Google Play: 1.86M
  • total consumers engaged (assuming all unique consumers, and 50% of engaged users are on iOS vs. Android): 3.72M  

For a company with over 25 millions likes on Facebook, and many times that in terms of global consumers, less than 5M downloads across 51 apps (iOS & Android), for an average of less than 75K downloads per app, is a very low number. What's more interesting to note is that what we see with PepsiCo is not an anomaly, brand after brand from companies across verticals show the same trend. 

In conclusion: 

In our view getting the search phase right is absolutely critical when deploying new products and services. Adding the search phase to the traditional project management approach is the critical first step towards reversing this trend.

Podcast #1 - Jason Rosenblum

We're kicking off our podcast series with an interview with Jason Rosenblum, Director of Emerging and Mobile Products at Dow Jones. Jason started off his career as a developer working with the likes of CNet, Conde Nast, and Time Inc. before moving into product management roles with Dun and Bradsreet, Barnes & Noble, and most recently with Dow Jones, which owns the Wall Street Journal, Barrons, and MarketWatch.  

The podcast covers a lot of ground including Jason's journey from developer to a product director, via. way of an MBA at NYU Stern, product successes and priorities at Dow Jones, the evolution of the media space, and the evolution of computing from personal computing to ubiquitous computing. 


The Google Glass promise - delivering usability thru ubiquitous computing

This past week was my first look at Google Glass. While it will definitely take some getting used to, and is most certainly not ready for prime time, I for one am very excited by its potential, particularly its potential to give us a glimpse into what a world with ubiquitous computing will look like. Ubiquitous computing at its core is about seamlessly embedding technology into everyday life. Let us consider two use situations in which doing this will make a world of difference.

Check-in'sFoursquare introduced check-ins to the world in a fairly big way in 2009. Since then some of the webs biggest properties, including Facebook and Yelp, as well as numerous other competitors and services have tried to utilize check-ins in one form or another. However, Foursquare's growth began to slow down about 2.5 years ago.


Credit:  PlacePunch

Credit: PlacePunch

At the time the chart above was presented (May 2011), Foursquare had approximately 9M users. Since then, Foursquare's user acquisition per day has risen slightly to approximately 27.5K per day, but remains below the days of its peak user acquisition. Now one might make the argument that this is because of the proliferation of social networks, and the space having reached a state of maturity. However, I think that argument does not hold given that the social networks that emerged post-Foursquare, in particular Pinterest and Instagram, both surpassed the popularity of Foursquare. What's also interesting to note is that other popular check-in services, most notably those offered by Facebook (via. Places) and Yelp have not caught fire either. I think the reason behind this is the current user experience offered on mobile as it relates to check-ins. Unlike in the case of both Pinterest and Instagram, where the service simply provided a much more efficient means of doing something that people were already doing (i.e. creating collages and touching up images), check-in's, outside of the context of travel and dining in particular, are introducing new user behavior.

Can user behavior be modified? Most definitely yes, but the technology has to make the entire process as seamless as possible - unfortunately with check-ins that is not the case, at least not yet. The process of having to take out your smart phone, update your status, and check into a place when starting something fun and interesting, is at best a novelty, and one that wears itself out unless its almost completely seamless. However the day is not too far off where check-ins are as smooth as speaking to something like Google glass, and saying "Check in to Yankee Stadium". When this happens, check-ins will go from being a novelty to being a part of everyday user behavior.

Augmented Reality (AR):  AR has been on the radar of most of us techies at least since 2008, however its applications in every day life are still very much a novelty. Interestingly the concept itself is not new, its been around for over a century, however there wasn't much movement on the AR front through most of the last century. In fact, simple applications of virtual reality (VR), AR's first cousin, seemed to have made much more headway than AR itself did through to the end of the last century. This might seem a bit counterintuitive given that VR requires the simulation of entire new worlds, vs. AR, which simply requires superimposing elements of the virtual world into the the real world. As is turns out, the latter is a more difficult problem to crack (unless of course you are trying to do something like full immersion virtual reality). This is because tracking real world objects in real time and interpreting them is a very complex problem, and requires some significant computing horsepower, which just wasn't available for every day use through most of the 20th century. Today of course the smart phone in our pocket has augmented reality capabilities. That said, outside of a few interesting applications of augmented reality, we have not seen any killer apps that leverage the technology. 

So why has augmented reality not taken off? Check-in's, for all its flaws mentioned in the previous section, are much more a norm for people to use than augmented reality. Why is this? Look no further than the image below!

Credit:  Alta Media

Credit: Alta Media

Walking around and looking at the world through your smart phones, does not just feel unnatural, it can be downright dangerous in its current form. Ubiquitous computing technologies like Google Glass change this entirely. The greatest promise of ubiquitous computing lies in its ability to match the service being offered with the medium that's most natural to deliver said service. For several augmented reality services, everything from obtaining directions while walking on a road to receiving a guided museum tour, eyewear like Google Glass is a much more appropriate medium to deliver the service than a smart phone is.  Below is a short video released last week by Philips Healthcare and Accenture Technology Labs that does a great job of illustrating this point, and providing us with a glimpse into the world of ubiquitous computing. Enjoy!

First healthcare wearable display proof of concept using Google Glass to send real time Philips Intellivue Solutions data.

Enterprise Sponsored Consumer Apps - Development Options

Over the years, the word outsourcing has developed a very negative connotation. However, the reality is that in many scenarios companies do have to consider outsourcing product development. In this blog we examine the various development options available to companies when building consumer facing mobile products. You can use this as a guide to help you think through options that you should consider when developing a new product.

Consumer facing apps within an enterprise are generally sponsored by one of three entities - product or digital, sales and marketing, or customer service. In the table below we look at the type of apps produced by each of these entities, and some examples for each type of app.


Sponsoring Entity Description Examples
Product  Core product or service being offered is  digital  Bloomberg for iPadPayPal HereNike+
Sales and Marketing  Application helps drive marketing  campaigns, or maximize sales Iron Man 3 - The Official Game ,Ikea CatalogCoca-Cola Freestyle
Customer Service  Application helps improve customer service  and experience SQ Mobile, Hilton HHonors

I next combined this with the hiring internally vs. outsourcing development framework that I put forth all the way back in our second blog post

Screen Shot 2013-09-29 at 3.51.27 PM.png

The key idea put forth there was that unless you are an information technology company and building your core product, outsourcing development should always be on the table. Based on this I looked at the app examples above, and at the options one should have considered when developing these apps.

Example Company Type Product Type Optimal Strategy
Bloomberg for iPad Finance/Tech Core Develop In--house
PayPal Here Finance/Tech Core Develop In-house
Nike+ Fashion/Apparel & Accesories Core It depends
Iron Man 3 - The Official Game Media & Entertainment/Various Non-Core Outsource
Ikea Catalog Retail/Furniture Non-Core Outsource
Coca-Cola Freestyle CPG/Food & Beverage Non-Core Outsource
SQ Mobile Transportation/Airline Core It depends
Hilton HHonors Accommodation/Hotel & Lodging Core It depends

However, outsourcing is a very broad term, and there are a plethora options to consider when looking to outsource. Below are the primary and secondary options available for the examples mentioned above in scenarios where outsourcing should have been in play.

Example Full Service SI*/Consulting Full Service
Boutique Consulting/Industry Boutique Consulting/Mobile Licensed
Iron Man 3      
Ikea Catalog      
Coca-Cola Freestyle      
SQ Mobile      
Hilton HHonors      
* = Systems Integrator;  - Primary Option;  ✔ = Secondary Option

Lets consider the rationale for each of the selections above: 

  •  Nike+: Here the product is part of a core product or service that company is providing, hence if the company has the ability to develop it in-house then the company should. That said, the development of the app itself could be outsourced to a team that specializes in mobile product development. Alternately, a full service agency can be used, however the company might or might not require the additional services that a full service agency offers, and hence might end up paying a higher margin than is required.
  • Iron Man 3 - The Official Game: The general industry norm here is to license out game development to external entities, which is what Marvel did here, and it remains the recommended strategy. Outside of this, engaging with a company that specializes in game development for media companies can also be a potential option. 
  • Ikea Catalog: A catalog is probably something that the company releases on a periodic (quarterly, semi-annual or annual) basis, and hence the company should have standard templates and forms that it can use to develop the digital collateral internally, however in the case of this particular app, Ikea was rolling out an augmented reality feature. They could have considered a full-service marketing agency for this, but given the degree of specialization required, a mobile development team that specializes in augmented reality should have been the primary option. 
  • Coca-Cola Freestyle: This app was primarily built to support the discovery of Coke's new freestyle machines. Releasing this app should have been part of a wider product marketing campaign, and hence should have been managed by the full service agency responsible for the campaign. This full-service agency would then have the option of developing the application internally, or outsourcing it to a specialized mobile product development team.
  •  SQ Mobile and HIlton HHonors: In both these case the apps have some very deep integration into the back end systems, including hotel and airline reservation systems, real-time flight scheduling systems, CRM systems, and ERP systems. This type of work is best handled internally or by a full-service Systems Integrator (SI), or a boutique consulting firm that specializes in that particular industry. The development of the front end of the mobile app itself could very well have then been outsourced to a mobile product development team to maximize the UX/UI and development expertise offered by the specialized mobile product development team.

In conclusion, while the decision to build internally vs. to outsource is an important one, it is equally as important to consider the options available when outsourcing and to choose the option that makes most sense for a given scenario. 


International Airline Carriers - Travel Apps & Mobility Readiness

Last week I examined the mobile readiness of apps developed by the 6 largest US airline carriers. This week I did the same with popular international carriers. Below is a table outlining their mobile readiness, as well as availability on and ratings across the major mobile device platforms available.

App Landing Page Responsive Web Mobile Web iPhone iPad Android Windows Phone Blackberry
British Airways No No  ★★★
 Compatible ★★★½
Virgin Atlantic No Yes  ★★½
 Compatible n/a n/a n/a
Air France No Yes ★★½
Compatible ★★★½
Lufthansa No Yes ★★★½
Singapore Airlines No Yes ★★
Compatible ★★★½
n/a n/a
Cathay Pacific No Yes ★★★
n/a ★★½
Emirates No Yes n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a

Next, I dove a level deeper to examine the core features supported by each airline on their primary mobile apps.

Feature British Virgin Air France Lufthansa Singapore Air Cathay Pacific
Book Flights   ✔ (iOS)
Check In
Flight Status Push Notifications          
Flight Status and Schedules
Multi-Passenger Check In          
Rewards Status  
Flight Details        
E-Boarding Pass    
In Flight Service Guide          
Alternate Flight Options          
Social Media Integration        
Passbook Integration          
Seat Change          
Weather Information          
In-flight Tracker          
City Guides          
Misc. Fun        
Fare Alerts/Offers          
Upgrade Offers        
Personal Travel Details          
My Trips  
Redemption Bookings          
World Wide Office Directory          
SMS Customer Service          
Virtual Club Tours          
Crew Profiles          
Multi-language support Y (25) N Y (11) Y (12) Y (10) Y (2 partial)

Similar to some observations made in last weeks post, a few things in particular stood out:

  • Like their US counterparts, none of the major international carriers have responsive web sites. As pointed out last week, with the device ecosystem continuing to fragment, and with the current state of the sites built for mobile (again equally as unimpressive as their US counterparts), responsive web design will become a standard sooner rather than later.
  • Apps are an extension of your brand, but they have to have a minimum feature set to be useful. Virgin Atlantic has arguably the most fun brand of any major airline worldwide, and while it delivers on the fun aspect of things, it does little else that can be deemed useful. Not surprisingly, their iPhone app is rated poorly and has attracted some very harsh reviews on iTunes. What is surprising though is that they are the only major carrier that we looked at that has built an app for iOS, but not for Android.
  • Unsurprisingly, unlike their US counterparts, the apps of most major international airlines support multiple languages, with British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines all supporting at least 10 different languages. 
  • Unlike their US counterparts, most international airlines continue to build and support Blackberry apps - this makes sense given that Blackberry's international sales have been their own really bright spot over the last half dozen years. That said, none of the airlines' Blackberry apps have stellar ratings. 
  • Again like their US counterparts, only a minority of the international airlines that we looked at (namely Lufthansa and Cathay Pacific) have tried to take advantage of the larger form-factor afforded by the iPad and built a native app for it. There could be some significant opportunities here that the airlines might be missing out on.
  • The most obvious observation of all: Emirates, which has consistently been considered amongst the three best airlines in the world, does not yet have a mobile app! 

In my view, like their US counterparts, popular international airlines are in the 3rd inning of their evolution to mobile - they too have gone past very rudimentary mobile web sites, built apps, and are now starting to pack on features. The next step would be to step away from features for a bit, assess and enhance overall user experience, and then move towards some more innovative applications of mobile. One example of this is Singapore Airlines doing something very interesting in combining customer service with mobile via. something called PPS connect  (now integrated into their mobile apps). Essentially with PPS connect, customers when traveling internationally, can send an SMS to Singapore Airlines' customer service, who will then call you back within 30 minutes of receiving the SMS. I think the future for providing these type of superior customer service interactions integrated into your mobile app experience offers some very exciting opportunities for the airline industry.


US Commercial Airline Carriers - Travel Apps & Mobility Readiness

This week I examined the mobile readiness of apps developed by the major US carriers. Below is a table outlying their mobile readiness, as well as availability and ratings across the major mobile device categories available.

App Landing Page Responsive Web Mobile Web iPhone iPad Android Windows Phone Blackberry
American Airlines No Yes  ★★★
 Compatible ★★
United Airlines No Yes  ★★★
 Compatible ★★★★
Fly Delta No Yes ★★★½
US Airways No Yes ★★★
Compatible ★★★★
n/a n/a
JetBlue No Yes ★★½
Compatible ★★★★
n/a n/a
SouhtWest Airlines No Yes ★★★
Compatible ★★★★
n/a ★★

Next, I dove a level deeper to examine the core features supported by each airline on their primary mobile apps.

Feature American United Delta US Airways JetBlue SouthWest
Book Flights
Check In
Flight Status Push Notifications    
Flight Status and Schedules  
Rewards Enrollment          
Rewards Status
Standby List Monitor        
Flight Details      
E-Boarding Pass  
Airport Locator          
Terminal Maps      
Parking Reminder        
Club Locations      
Club Passes          
In Flight Entertainment Guide        
Alternate Flight Options        
Social Media Integration      
Purchase Trip Extras        
Manage Travel Preferences          
Passbook Integration      
Checked Bag Tracking          
Seat Change          
Public Transit Details          
Weather Information        
In-flight Tracker          
Fleet Info          
Partner Info          
City Guides          
Misc. Fun          
Fare Alerts           ✔ (iPhone)
Car Reservations          

So, what are the conclusions if any that we can draw from this?  Here are a few that stood out to me:

  • The most glaring gap currently seems to be that none of the major US carriers have responsive web sites. As the device ecosystem continues to fragment, and with the current state of the sites built for mobile (click on any of links under the mobile web column in the first table), responsive web design will become a standard sooner rather than later.
  • Features matter, but its important to understand which features truly matter to the customer. Delta for example has the most features of any carrier, but their apps are not rated much higher than that of the other airlines. In fact none of their apps are rated 4-star or higher, even though they have the widest set of features, and provide them most device compatibility.
  • Apps are an extension of your brand. SouthWest does the best job of this - they are a no-frills airline, and their apps are relatively no-frills as well. Similarly JetBlue has a fun playful image, and some of the app features they provide (e.g., City Guides, ability to create custom post cards, etc.) help drive that brand image.
  • Delta and American aside, none of the other major carriers have made any significant effort to consider the possibilities of developing native apps for the iPad. There is some significant opportunity here, given the different form factors that the carriers might be missing out on.
  • Except for United, all other airlines have created landing pages for their mobile apps. As the number of apps and mobile devices supported continue to increase, I think this will become almost a necessity, as app discovery on both iTunes and Google Play can be a huge challenge in its own right.
  • The most obvious observation of all - Windows Phone and Blackberry remain at best a marginal consideration. American Airlines in fact discontinued support of their blackberry application.  

In my view, airlines are in the 3rd inning of the evolution from web to mobile - they have gone past very rudimentary mobile web, built apps, and are now starting to pack on features. The next step would be to step away from features for a bit, assess and enhance overall user experience, and then move towards some more innovative applications of mobile.

Next week we will look at what some of the major international carriers are doing with mobile. 

Enterprise Mobile Apps

Over the last few months, we have researched the use of mobile by enterprises and spoken with leaders within the enterprise about the areas that they are looking to leverage mobile in within their businesses. Below are some of the categories in which have seen larger companies build or commission apps:

Gaming: Consumer facing companies are looking at games as a way of engaging their audience. Many of the apps built in this segment can be considered "use and discard" apps (i.e., they are used as part of a specific marketing campaign to promote a product or a service and then discontinued). A typical example of this is a media brand licensing or developing a game in conjunction with the launch of a movie or the start of a new season of a TV show. 

Gamification: Here, a brand tries to combine online with offline experience to drive consumer behavior. A very simple example of this includes the Starbucks application which, among other things, allows their patrons to visualize their star rewards earned and incentivizes them to buy more products to earn rewards. Some of the best apps here overlap with apps in the mobile health and fitness space (a separate category below) that reward people for achieving specific fitness goals (e.g., the Nike+ app that allows users to track and achieve fitness goals and is tied to the Nike+ fuel band).

Instructional: These apps work in conjunction with a product that consumers have purchased. The most basic versions of these apps are along the lines of digital "how to" manuals. The trend is that the development of these types of apps is becoming a mandatory check point, similar to the production of a PDF instruction guide prior to launch. However, more interesting applications in this category combine the physical world with the the digital world through augmented reality. For example, Audi's eKurzinfo app allows owners to experience the full range of functionality their car has to offer with the help of augmented reality.

Catalogs: These apps are particularly useful to field sales teams. Consider, for example, the Medtronic app used by their sales teams in field sales calls. Prior to the launch of this app, Medtronic sales reps routinely carried with them about 25 pounds of product literature. Again, the trend here is towards this becoming a mandatory check list item for any company that sells a large number of product SKU's.

Mobile commerce (mCommerce): These are generally direct to consumer apps whereby a consumer can place orders for a product through the application. Companies are approach to mCommerce in one of two ways - through native mobile apps or through mobile optimized web apps. Like with mobile portals (see below), we are not sure if companies will continue to build native applications or simply move towards making their web sites responsive, but as of right now there are some great examples of native mobile mCommerce apps out there. 

Productivity: Most of the best personal productivity apps (e.g., Evernote, Clear, Mailbox, etc.) are products created by startups, but there are also some great organizational productivity apps built by enterprises. Consider the app created by the global construction firm Bechtel that helps its engineers fill out and report safety incidents while on a job site. We had some early conversations with an transportation company to help them build an app that will enable their technical operations personnel to perform hands free inspections of their fleet. 

Mobile health (mHealth): Here we are primarily concerned with apps that require some level of regulatory approval because they:

  • serve as an accessory to a regulated medical device, viz. the Mobile MIM software that displays images on iPhones, iPads and iPods originating from PET scans, MRI's, x-rays, ultra-sounds etc.
  • transform a mobile device into a medical device viz. Kinsa health's smart thermometer 

While the examples cited above are of apps or products created by startups, we believe that as the regulations around mHealth become clear, this category has the potential to be truly game changing. 

Mobile portals: These are essentially mobile versions of companies web portals. It is unclear what the future holds in as far as this category of apps is concerned. Does building responsive web sites eliminate the need for building native mobile portals? Or, do companies continue to build native mobile portal separately from their web portals? A great example of the latter is hospitals that have done a pretty good job of creating native mobile portals to help their patients navigate services offered, as well as navigate their physical facilities.

Health and Fitness:  This is a very broad category of apps and it includes apps that help users manage (rather than monitor, which tends to be in the mHealth category) every aspect of their health, from allergies, to quitting smoking, to motivating kids to brush their teeth. Fitness apps help people with everything from reaching their weight goals, to tracking their sleep patterns, to getting them ready for their next marathon.

Travel: Again, this is another extremely broad category of apps. It includes apps created by every major US and international carrier to help users with flight reservations and check-ins, as well as digital versions of travel and restaurant guides, and also mobile bus and subway maps. This is a category that we think will only get better as wearable tech and augmented reality systems improve. 

In conclusion, we believe that larger companies have only begun to scratch the surface of mobile. As technology improves, and knowledge about what can be achieved through mobile increases within the enterprise, we will see an explosion in mobile development both within and for the enterprise.

How to measure and manage project success

In a recent article published by McKinsey, the authors talk about how application development spend as a percentage of total corporate IT investment increased from 32% in 1990 to almost 60% in 2011. The article then talks about how few organizations have the means of measuring the output of their application development projects, and recommends an output metric called Use-case points (UCPs) that can then be used to measure productivity of IT projects. 

I think the post is a bit confusing because in its introduction it mixes two related, but separate, concepts (i.e. measuring team productivity vs. measuring project output). The confusion arises primarily from the use of the word "output" as it relates to projects. The output of an application development project is very different from the output of an application development team. Why is this? Because project output should always be tied to metrics that measure one of the following:

  • Brand awareness
  • Revenue
  • Cost 
  • Risk

A project that does not improve any of the above should not be undertaken in the first place - whether this be a software development project or building an entirely new line of business. Additionally, if a project is undertaken that addresses one or more of these objectives, then the output of the project should be measured against the metrics tied to these objectives. These metrics are usually very tangible and can range from an increase in the number of likes on Facebook, to an increase in revenue per customer, to a reduction in operational churn, or to the minimization of downtime.

Critically, the output of an application development team (measured in UCPs) can be stellar, but the output of the project itself can be abysmal. This can happen due to any number of reasons, not the least of which include:

  • Scope risk - if the scope of the project is continuously shifting, then even the most productive team will find it hard to be successful. Managing scope usually ends up being the single most important responsibility of a project manager, and requires strong leadership as well as executive support and credibility (which usually comes with experience).
  • Cross team execution risk - application development projects rarely occur in a silo. This is especially true in larger companies, where multiple teams both from within and outside an organization are generally involved. It's also rare that every team involved in the project buys into the project's output objectives, and may, in fact, openly oppose those objectives. Of the 7 reasons listed by IBM as to why projects fail, the top 5 are all, in some way, related to the risks that arise from cross team execution. In this case as well, the role of a strong project manager and executive leadership support of the project manager can prove decisive.
  • Market risk - this is critical in software development leading to the launch of a new product or service category. Apple's Newton PDA was released a decade before the PalmPilot, and two decades before the iPhone. The market was just not ready for it. One way of minimizing this risk is by taking the lean start up approach and iterating through ideas. This doesn't necessarily change the market appetite for a product or service, but it gives you a good sense of what the market is willing to accept at a given point in time.

While I agree that measuring the output of an application development team is important (though I am not in 100% agreement with the methods suggested; more on this in a later post), the output of an application development project should be tied to metrics that drive business objectives.

Focus on B2C vs. B2B - the era of collaborative engagement (part 2/6)

This is the second in our series of blogs focussed on the era of collaborative engagement that businesses are stepping into.

The eras of personal productivity and organizational productivity were inherently both very inward looking. This made sense given that:

  • the technology required for external collaborative engagement with consumers had either not been invented or was in its infancy
  • there was clear line of sight ROI that could be driven by attacking the lowest hanging fruit first - i.e. improving average employee efficiency, and overall organizational efficiency

In 2013 the ability to interact directly with consumers is greater than its ever been, and its no longer enough to simply improve profit margins by driving internal efficiencies. Lets look at each of these topics in a bit more detail.

Improved ability to interact with external constituents:

Interaction with consumers usually occurs in the context of three business functions - marketing, sales and customer service. The most obvious change that has occurred since the dawn of the Internet is the increase in the number of communication and collaboration channels available for each of these business functions.


Business Function Channels.png

Marketing: Until very recently marketing was largely analog and outbound. Even the term inbound marketing was not coined until 2005. Fast forward to 2013 and marketing's focus is almost entirely digital, and increasingly inbound. The technologies that were required to supercharge inbound digital marketing - SEO, blogs, and social media platforms - came into their own in the 2000's. Beyond providing marketing an outlet to build brand awareness and loyalty, blogs and social media have combined to enable collaboration between brands and consumers, ultimately giving consumers a much more immediate and larger say in shaping a business' products and services. In parallel, outbound marketing technology is also improving significantly. Outbound marketing efforts are moving past simple demographic targeting to hyper-targeting consumers based on their personal preferences and whereabouts.

Sales: Even though e-commerce sales average less than 6% of total US retail sales, the percentage has been increasing every quarter. With the increased adoption of mobile and social commerce the percentage of total retail sales represented by online sales will start to increase at an even greater pace. Additionally, the technology available to physical sales representatives, ranging from insurance agents to in-store sales representatives, is improving leaps and bounds. As we look into the future, with the emergence of big data, wearable technology, and augmented reality, online and offline sales will, in some sense, begin to merge. It's only a matter of time before your general purchase preferences are known from the minute you walk into a store, and your sales experience is customized based on that.

 Customer Service: It wasn't until the early to mid 2000's that Unified Communications across legacy voice and early web channels began to see serious adoption. VoIP technology within the enterprise only began to get deployed in the early 00's, with most companies spending the bulk of the 00's converting their legacy telephony infrastructure to VoIP. However, while this was happening social media began to emerge and it was no longer enough to offer customer service agents a unified view of the customer across traditional channels. Today customer service organizations have to be concerned about real-time multi-way conversations on everything from forums to blogs to social media platforms. Moving forward, leading customer service organizations will begin to use data and predictive analytics to take a much more proactive approach to offering customer service, thus helping turn a potentially negative tweet into a positive one.

Improving profit margins by driving internal efficiencies:

After the post-World War 2 boom decades of the 1950's and 1960's, US corporate growth began to suffer setbacks in the 1970's. A confluence of events, ranging from the OPEC-led oil embargo to the rise of Toyota led Japanese lean-manufacturing, began to disrupt American industry. However, coming out of the tumultuous 70's Apple and Microsoft heralded the beginning of the PC era. The productivity gains available from moving corporate workforces away from largely pen, paper, typewriter and timeshare terminals, to the Macintosh or, more likely, a Wintel PC were immediate. As this was happening the groundwork was being laid for the adoption of TCP/IP in corporate settings everywhere. Adopting a common networking standard was key in the evolution of client-server computing. By the early 90's, most companies had built out LAN and WAN capacity and the timing proved perfect for the release of SAP R/3. Starting in the early 80's, operations engineers had started to look east for inspiration on how to compete with Japan Inc., and found what they were looking for in Kanban style lean production. With the release of R/3 the technical capabilities finally existed at a low enough price point that companies began en masse to ruthlessly apply the principles of lean production across their entire supply chain, which was by now largely global. How successful did the combination of the personal productivity era and organizational productivity era end up being at driving corporate profits? Look no further than the chart below:

 Credit:  The Atlantic

 Credit: The Atlantic

The argument we are making here is not that there are no longer personal or organizational productivity gains to be had. Rather, we believe that improving efficiencies will no longer be enough to differentiate companies from their competition. Technology and the economies of scale that were once available only to the largest corporations are now available to even the smallest startup. Hence, as the cost side of the equation begins to even out, in order to outperform competitors companies will have to grow their top line and this can only happen by building better products and services, accurately targeting the right consumer, and by creating an overall delightful consumer experience.

v2.0 - The era of collaborative engagement, and how its different - Part 1/6

A couple of weeks ago I had the distinct pleasure of engaging UX guru and lean UX NYC co-chair, Will Evans, on the blog entry that I published outlining The Era of Consumer Engagement. While we agreed on most things, Will brought up some ideas for improvement that I simply could not ignore. Below are some of the key changes to that blog entry that came out of the conversation:

  • Era of Collaborative Engagement (changed from the Era of Consumer Engagement). Mobile and social have shifted the focus away from one-way communication, and towards collaboration. The impact of this shift is felt not just when engaging with consumers, but also when engaging with employees, business partners, suppliers and investors. 
  • Lotus Notes (added to the era of Organizational Productivity): Notes software truly was the first step in the direction of intra-enterprise collaboration, well before the era of collaborative engagement commenced. 

Without further adieu, here's the new and improved version of that previous post:

Over the past 3 decades business related information technology has experienced three key era's of growth. While the first two era's are somewhat related, in that they both focused on productivity gains, the third era is clearly a bit different. 


Screen Shot 2013-08-13 at 10.17.01 AM.png

Below are what we consider 5 key differentiators between the era of "collaborative engagement", vs. the eras of "personal productivity" and "organizational productivity:

  • Focus on B2C vs. B2BSocial and mobile have an impact on both B2B and B2C, however the greater impact is on how organizations engage with external constituents (i.e., customers or citizens) vs. internal constituents (i.e., partners or employees).
  • Lean startup in the enterprise: Build. Measure. Learn. When you are building a product for the consumer, its best to build lean and iterate vs. to build bulky and pray.
  • Centrality of UX: If you cannot impress a consumer in the first 30-60 seconds of interaction with a new mobile app, then you might have lost them forever. In this new world, UX is king.
  • Decentralized creativity: Ideas for new and interesting products and services, and suggestions for improvement, can come from internal or external constituents, not just top level management.   
  • Driving top line growthThe primary focus of enhancing personal or organization productivity is cost minimization. While effective customer engagement can no doubt reduce cost, its biggest pull lies in driving new revenue. 

Each of the above differences warrants a deeper look, and we will do so in future blog posts, but the bottom line is this - we are leaving the era of back office IT, and entering the era of front office IT.