Architecture & DesignFreedom Through Apps: Knowing How to Iterate Apps

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Becoming rich through the development of applications is a common dream. At the start of this series, I wrote how the road leads through independence. From there, I explained the idea of the lone wolf app developer. The last article was how to get folks together and do a sexy startup. However, this is the structural component of making the dream of retiring rich. It’s time to learn how to create the compelling apps that users will buy.

Perhaps the most successful mobile game of all time is the Angry Birds franchise from Rovio—a Finnish game developer. At first glance, it appears that Rovio has been making great mobile games forever; however, the truth is much different. Angry Birds was their 52nd game released. Not the first, nor even their fifth…, but rather their 52nd. Flappy Bird, another popular bird game, found its creator, Nguyễn Hà Đông, re-using a character he had created for a game that was cancelled a year earlier. Not even the titans of the mobile game market earned their chops on their first game. Instead, they had to “kiss a lot of frogs” before they found their prince.

Applications and Apps

It used to be that Electronic Arts built megalithic games with storylines and cinematography and big budgets. Today, PopCap Games (a division of Electronic Arts) builds small games to run on mobile devices. Instead of a game development cycle running years, they run months. Instead of teams of hundreds, they’re teams of dozens.

The market has changed. The market used to be that we had to invest and test to see if it worked at the end. However, today we’re focused on the minimum viable product (MVP). That is what can I get out into the market to test and let users react to it. We need to learn what did—and didn’t work when the users got it. What did they love? What did they hate?

Favorite Features

Every developer, when they’re developing an app, has their favorite feature. It’s the one that they think makes the App cool, sexy, exciting, or relevant. It’s a painful lesson to learn that the users can’t find the feature, find it confusing, or actively dislike it.

The whole reason for iteration is to not put so much into an App or any feature that you can’t change it. Your favorite feature can be the thing that is holding your application back. Even Scott Adams of Dilbert fame admits that some of the comics that are the funniest to him aren’t well received by the market. We’re all unique and we’re going to find things that tickle our fancy but aren’t for everyone.

However, there’s more to launching an app than learning about just the features that users like.

Learning from Launch

In development, we know to build spikes and tests. We know to build our solutions once so we learn how it works, and then to go back and do it again. Every spike we build, we learn something about the way the technology works, the way it flows, what’s important, what’s not, and what we need to think about differently. Developing apps is the same way. Your first app shows you how to get something into the app store.

Your second app may teach you how to add media, or advertising, or something else. Each app you write can teach you something about the process, the market, or yourself. Successful developers have asked what they can learn as they release each app. They’ve asked what can they do better?

The Role of Luck

Rarely did I make it through a conversation with a successful entrepreneur who didn’t somehow mention luck. Each of them would speak about the breaks that they got, the things that they thought were breaks but weren’t, and the things that they wanted but didn’t get. Whether it was software development or getting started as a consultant, the conversation kept coming up over-and-over again about the need for luck.

However, as I spent more time speaking with them I realized that they had a different view of luck than those who bet on the lottery. They looked at luck as something that favors the prepared. They continued to put themselves into positions where they could get lucky. Instead of hoping that something good would happen, they deliberately set themselves in positions that would allow them to be lucky.

Despite these entrepreneurs having made some very big bets, they knew that they needed to make it easy for luck to find them. For instance, in my work I attend a lot of conferences. If I want to allow for serendipitous connections, I need to initiate conversations when I’m at breakfast and lunch. I have to choose to be in areas where people can find me. In truth, I’ve landed as much business from random conversations than I have from my presentations. Successful app developers have figured this out. They create opportunities for luck to find them.

Don’t Bet the Farm

There’s folklore about FedEx CEO Fred Smith literally going to Las Vegas to gamble the last $5,000 in the FedEx business account in the hopes that he’d be able to win enough money so that he could buy fuel for the planes the following Monday. The stories of the fateful trip differ with some having him playing blackjack and others having him literally placing the whole sum on a roulette table in the hopes that black would come up. While this makes for a great story, most entrepreneurs—like me—loathe bet the farm—all or nothing—type bets. We know no matter how lucky we are, eventually the dice are going to come up craps. We can’t win every time, and every time we place everything on the line, we’re putting too much at risk.

The stories of success through these bet the farm heroics are great stories. However, what we don’t hear are the people who bet the farm and lost. So, careful entrepreneurs and successful businessmen have learned to make many smaller bets until they understand what they believe will work. As they become more confident in what works, they make bigger bets.

How to Iterate

One problem with iterating on apps is simply how to do it. Here are a few suggestions on how to make it work for you:

  • Make the Hello World App: It may be beneath you to create a simple application with one function that doesn’t demonstrate your greatness. However, making such an app and getting it into the market place gives you the opportunity to learn the process before you do it for real.
  • Trial Balloons: Take your top five ideas and do a minimally viable product for them and launch them all. Instead of launching one large application with a lot of effort, create the small applications that you believe might work.
  • Instrument Your Apps for Usage: Have your app keep track of the user’s use of the application and the features they’re using (with their permission). Have those results transmitted back to you so you can see for real what features the users are using, when they’re using the App, and how long they’re using it. You might just learn something insightful.
  • Beg for Feedback (Good and Bad): If you’re going to learn what works in apps, you’re going to need feedback—particularly bad feedback. You need some good feedback to fuel your passion but it’s the bad feedback that will make you better.

Iterating in development seems natural to those who’ve been doing agile development. Iterating in creating a “final” product is strange and takes a bit of courage to get used to—but if you can you, may just be more successful than FedEx. To be more successful than FedEx, you’ll have to learn the lessons of organizations like FedEx.

About the Author

Robert Bogue is a thought leader and an engaging presenter who speaks at events around the world. Rob has been awarded the Microsoft MVP designation a dozen times. He is also the author of over 25 books, including The SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide for End Users: 2013. Rob is a developer, an IT Pro, Architect, organizational change agent, pilot, comedian, and friend. Follow Rob’s blog at You also can email Rob at

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