Sunday, 20 December 2009

What? Why? How?

Thought I'd post a quick link: This clever chap asked for an interview right in the middle of our Guardian iPhone app launch. Cheeky - but it worked - you can read it here.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

The philosophy behind the Guardian iPhone app

Well - the Guardian iPhone app is now live and the result of months of hard work is being used by thousands of people around the globe.

How did we do? At the time of writing we're #1 'top grossing' app, #1 'paid app' & #1 'paid news' app (UK); #2 'paid news' app US (ahead of FOX but behind CNN); #1 'top grossing' app, #1 'paid app' & #1 'paid news' app in Ireland (we only released in those countries - for now). All that in less than 24hrs - which speaks volumes about the professionalism of everyone involved (and I had a brilliant team).

For a serious content app to overtake the more 'playful' entertainment apps in the paid chart ('pocket girlfriend' for one) possibly marks an important day for Apple itself. Perhaps the AppStore has finally grown up? Certainly this represents an interesting day for the traditional newspaper and media industries - our rivals are no doubt watching closely.

In any case, the response has been overwhelming (see Twitter for more) but here are a selection that stick in the mind:

- mozbloke #guardianapp is marvellously synergetic and a ruddy triumph. Others looking to augment their brand take note.
- "The #guardianapp is my app of 2009, after #qype of course! :) I have never been happier". /via @filchambers
- jonnynexus Things I love: my wife; my dog; my friends; vegan chocolate fudge cake; and the new Guardian iPhone app.
- SteveCoulson The new iPhone app from The Guardian is what the one for CNN and The NY Times should have been.
- ngscheurich The Guardian's brilliant iPhone app has officially set the bar for mobile news.

Responses like the above are why anyone involved in consumer technology gets up in the morning. That said, "the product process does not stop when a product is launched". This is an early lesson taught to burgeoning product managers. It's a simple but critical statement for anyone interested in creating successful, usable, digital products. And one that is often overlooked, or worse - ignored.

With that in mind (and if you haven't downloaded our new Guardian iPhone app and would like too - please do so), now is a prescient time to re-visit the product process that surrounded the app and to allow you to decide whether we managed to achieve our initial aims and objectives.

Every product launch represents an opportunity to refine processes. It also offers the huge benefit of allowing the team to consume real-time metrics and usage stats. But, even before that, it's good procedure to look back and re-visit the initital product principles put in place to help guide your decisions during the development process. An excerpt from one of the first documents I wrote regarding our app reads:

"The guardian iPhone application will provide a 'best in class' AppStore experience, offering the full range of content, galleries and podcasts. Core requirements include: high degree of personalisation, keyword search, offline reading, full Twitter integration, advanced picture galleries, full ability to share content (Twitter/SMS/Email), podcasts, save for later."

Hopefully you agree that we got very close to achieving all those aims. The exception of Twitter was a difficult but pragmatic decision, associated with helping us achieve a timely launch date (though I fully appreciate this is an element of functionality that will be warmly greeted by many when added).

Next, our product principles. For anyone who wants to create great, usable, feasible products - these are a great way of reminding yourself what matters - and help to cut through some of the many disussions development teams have around design and functionality alignment.

Our principles were logged as follows:

1. Simple is always best
2. Offer a full in-app experience
3. Develop well understood user journeys
4. Do not reinvent the wheel (maintain well understood iPhone UI)
5. Innovate to enhance the editorial experience

It would be churlish to comment on whether we have achieved the above - so I'll let you decide instead (please do leave your comments at the bottom of this article!).

The process we undertook was defined, in large, by the timescales. From opening business case to launch took around five months in total. While the app was developed by a great external dev team at 2ergo, the full feature spec, design and product process was very tightly controlled internally. I'm not a big believer in handing out entire projects for quick delivery to external teams without significant thought or internal development/design. That's no reflection on the team we chose, however. They were absolutely superb throughout.

No-one knows your audience and what they need better than you. Don't attempt to short-cut that. It strikes me that many people still don't understand the AppStore. You win or lose based on what your audience think of your product. There's no place to hide, so regardless of your commercial model and whether you choose to release paid for of free - you simply have to deliver on quality.

That was one of our key aims - and I think, given the reponses and rating we've achieved (4.5/5 after 200+ responses) we seem to have produced some level of success:

There's lots more to discuss - particulary around how we constructed the product, how to create a great launch plan, utilising social media in the product process (Martin Belam has written a great blog which touches on that) and some thoughts on the overall reaction. One of the key product designers John-Henry Barac - has penned his thoughts on contructing the app already and I enjoyed reading this comment:

"To me the content IS the USP: it’s the Guardian, with a huge amount of great content ... [and the app features simply] help you get more without leaving the page you’re on."

I'll end with a response from the wonderfully lucid and intelligent Chris Thorpe, who - while he works for the Guardian - had not spent any face-time with the app prior to it appearing on his phone this week:

"What fascinated me at the end of the experience was that I’d had print like experiences; luxurious, spending-time-with experiences with what had previously been online content."


Thursday, 10 December 2009

Selling 'mobile' to the chiefs

How do you sell mobile after years of overpromise and under-delivery? It's a great question and one that was discussed in depth today with some great mobile folks (if you're interested it was organised by these guys). And it was rather good...

The forum was under Chattam House rules, so I certainly won't go into too much detail about other attendees. But suffice to say there was a good mix of people representing companies who've been both early and late (with a fair few in the middle) to the medium of 'mobile'.

The last phrase in itself undergoes yearly re-definitions, and I don't intend to go into what 'mobile' is here.

The purpose of today's meeting was remarkably refreshing: the development of best practice guidelines around how best to pitch any mobile spend to your Board members. What follows are simply my views, and it's worth noting that this is definitely not an attempt to deliver a 'how best to pitch as a start-up to VCs' post. Instead, I'm concentrating solely on medium to large companies.

Ok Jon - so - how do you pitch mobile?

-Start with a realistic but ambitious long-term vision
We know mobile has overpromised and underdelivered. But you simply HAVE to start by selling the big story. Be an evangelist - because you're effectively pitching a start-up idea. We all know that the opportunities in mobile are significant over the long term. That 'longer-term' got significantly compacted when Apple released the iPhone and is closer every day. But it still may not be here yet. If you have to - talk 10 years ahead. Take geniune time to think and consider trends - and make your vision real. At this point they'll think they've heard it all before but what happens next will change their view - entirely.

-Use evidence-based decision making
Use good metrics, from varying suppliers, and give them a pragmatic vision of what the future could be over the long-term. Then tell them you're wrong, because you're absolutely bound to be wrong and the figures you've quoted are most certainly wrong. But explain that you've done you're research and this is the polar opposite of a 'me too' approach (grrrr - don't get me started). This is a vision that takes into account numerous trends and the long-term business objectives. And then tell them you're not asking for the earth - simply to try and test whether you're right or wrong.

-Don't overpromise

I've really covered this above. But DO NOT overpromise. The mobile landscape is littered with the corpses of people and companies who thought spending millions on mobile in 2001 was a great idea, because, you know, ITS THE NEXT BIG THING! Beware - keep expectations under control.

-Iterate slowly
Ask for a small sum of money to test your theory that a new market or revenue stream can be achieved. These days there is simply no excuse for spending hundreds of thousands of pounds or dollars before realising you're wrong. Ensure you explain - up front - that one of the benefits of mobile is the amazing way(s) you can now understand user engagement (or lack of it). Tell them what metrics you're testing and explain what the objectives are. And admit that you don't know if you're going to succeed or fail. But you will give it everything you've got and - good or bad - come back and present the findings.

-The 'experts' don't have a clue
One of the continuing issues I have with the tech industry are the plethora of 'experts' only too willing to sell 'the next big thing'. Ignore them - most are really selling their own consultancies and many will know less than you. Beware of sleek presentation and the 'award-winning, book-writing, evangelistic presenter' selling you a vision. (Does he own another consultancy perchance? Is he selling ads on his blog?). Instead, listen to people who have delivered real value or who have great experience of delivering innovation that's resulted in something (be it success or failure). In tough economic times you HAVE to marry ambition with pragmatism (unless you're a start-up when the 'start-small, think big and move quickly' theory obviously looks smarter than ever).

-Invest wisely to prove a market exists
I've covered this - but I'll say it again anway - DO NOT ask for the earth. Chances are you won't get it anyway. And if you do and don't succeed (and there's every chance you won't) you'll never be able to go hunting for seed money again!

- Don't get caught in the 'web v's app' debate
Do both - you need a strong portfolio. Not all of it will work. But some of it might. If you've followed the 'invest wisely' path then you won't be going back to your board having lost millions of dollars. And you'll be telling them that you haven't a clue whether the browser or 'app' will win - so you're going to invest wisely in both (if that's right for you) and do everything you can through free marketing channels and social media to increase the profile of what you've created.

Friday, 27 February 2009

Some start-up product lessons

The mantra of start-up product development usually involves two core words: 'rapid' & 'innovation'. Implicit in this is that we consider ourselves better placed than many others to filter out the 'urgent but unimportant' and concentrate instead on issues that add most value for the end user.

The casual observer might be fooled into thinking this means that product decisions at start-ups are constraint-free. They would be wrong. Just like our counterparts in larger organisations, we're under pressure too, not from complex stakeholder relationships, poorly defined ideas or lengthy development procesess, but more often than not, from significant resource limitations.

In an ideal world, there would always be enough people, money and time to complete every great idea that will help to build product momentum and engagement. The reality, however, is that all product decisions are ultimately cost/benefit choices and, in the best companies, there are always more good ideas than people to develop them.

At Mippin we've made a number of significant decisions over the past few months. So, in a continued spirit of openness, I thought it timely to take a step back and give you an insight into why we've made some of those decisions and the lessons learned:

Lesson 1: Be inclusive
Six months ago much of Mippin's functionality was hidden behind registration. The resulting bounce rate was a minor source of frustration, particularly given the huge levels of engagement from those who did sign-up. For us it became clear that if users didn't see the necessity of registration they simply voted with their feet. Instead, we developed some great code that allowed us to recognise (with near-perfect precision) all returning uniques, their devices and settings. Once we'd achieved that, we were able to push back and open all elements of the service to all our users, whether registered returners or first time browsers.

Lesson 2: Don't add cellophane
Ever bought a newspaper wrapped in cellophane? Annoying isn't it? The digital equivalent of this is offering up content and then forcing your users to interact before reaching it. When it comes to media, access is everything. Surfacing engaging content is the key to providing an experience that will drive repeat usage. Take a look at the image at the top of this article to see how we evolved our homepage with this in mind.

Lesson 3: Search can't fail - EVER
If search fails once, it fails for good. Google have set the bar for everyone (though arguably not on mobile) here and we've worked hard to improve our search results to maximise relevancy as well as adding new vertical searches - for images, video and wikipedia. We've also decided to offer results for popular sites - whether they take users away from Mippin or not. For us a positive user experience that takes someone away from Mippin is way better than a negative user experience that attempts to get them to stay.

Lesson 4: Be a data geek
Keeping an eye on the relevant forces at play within your industry sounds obvious, but it's surprising how few companies are able to react to market changes quickly. One of the benefits of being a smaller team is the ability to alter your development effort as required and with minimal fuss. We noticed significant spikes coming from top end devices (particularly Android and iPhone) much earlier than others and launched dedicated versions of Mippin that were able to showcase a richer user experience by leveraging the functionality associated with new touchscreen devices. (Discover how happy we are with ourselves about this here.)

Lesson 5: Don't get sidetracked
Lastly, users want you you to solve a simple problem better than anyone else. At Mippin we're proud of being able to offer some very clever implicit personalisation that surfaces the most engaging content with minimal user effort. The key when devloping a product is never to veer too far away from your core purpose (unless you spot brilliant market potential elsewhere, clearly). When it comes to adding new functionality, ensure it stacks up behind the reason your company exists. Our social strategy is a good example of this (we've blogged lots about that here). Instead of simply allowing users to connect, our aim was to enhance the content discovery experience - that's central to our core product - by allowing users to act as individual editors, collating and sharing the most engaging content they find.

In the interests of brevity I'll stop there...for now.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Did Apple kill the mobile industry?

This post has been prompted by a comment made recently by a colleague of mine: "Apple killed the mobile industry".

I couldn't believe my ears and it developed into a heated discussion about the benefits and impacts of seismic industry shifts. Before continuing, it's worth noting that the person who made the comment both has a long understanding of the mobile industry and is tremendously well respected within it.

My instant reaction was to defend a company who have got it right more than most. Early disclaimer: I'm not the complete Mac evangelist (having always owned a PC) but when it comes to the iPhone I'm pretty vocal about where they've got it right. And let's face it, they have got so much right; a genre-busting mobile package containing a wonderful UI wrapped up in a beautiful product design. The iPhone has 'pazzaz', certainly more so than any product released into the mobile arena before.

Having spent the best part of six years working on mobile, and being something of a stickler for great UX, it was immensely refreshing to - at last - be able to really move away from the poor experiences of the past (yes they were mostly poor!) and instead begin to offer something approaching a rich mobile experience.

The net effect is that Apple have left the mobile industry fumbling around in the dark. Motorola, as we have known it, probably won't exist in two years time. Even the giant - Nokia - is biting its fingernails trying to figure out how they were so easily trumped & how Symbian might combat the threat from another newcomer (Android). And the operators? Every single one is simultaneously attempting to eek the last remaining (considerable) pennies out of ringtones and downloads, while scratching their heads wondering what the new business model is in an 'open portal' world. Chances are there will be some big casualties there too ...

It's a messy situation, brought into focus by a company who took a simple problem (poor browsing experience on mobile) and created an excellent solution. So Apple have revolutionised the mobile industry. But they key question for me was: how could someone with decades of mobile experience suggest that the industry got anything other than exactly what it deserved?

His answer was pretty concise: they've done what others have done in the mobile industry for years - overpromised. This made me think about the iPhone marketing push. It was pretty clear: The iPhone gives you the entire web in your hands. Well, yes it does. But here we get onto the the key question: is it a good user experience? The simple answer to that question is: no, no, no.

It takes about an hour to realise this once you own one. The web isn't made for a small screen - even if that screen is made by Apple. Apple did overpromise and I'm guilty of buying into it too. I was hooked. I saw the ads. "Wow! New York Times full website & the Guardian looking great. And so quick too. They've really done it!".

Of course, the truth is very different. The best experience on mobile comes from companies that understand this (it's why I work for a mobile start-up - Mippin). To get the best user experience you have to offer a service that's optimised per device - and that means the iPhone too.

Disruption is a good thing - kudos to Apple. I still love my iPhone, but it's not perfect. I certainly don't think they 'killed the mobile industry' (I still prefer to use the words 'stimulated' & 'revolutionised') - but they are guilty of peddling an enormous falsehood that the web left untouched 'works' on mobile.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

The Android effect

In an earlier post I highlighted the success of our Android application.

It's a subject worth revisiting as my stats indicate that the HTC Dream is now one of the most popular devices used to access Mippin.

It's a remarkable story, given that Google's first Android phone was launched a snip over three months ago.

Since our own app hit the Android store (on December 15th 2008), the number of G1 users accessing Mippin has increased by a mammoth 1500%. And, crucially for any company involved in mobile content services, these users display some favorable characteristics; they are both significantly engaged and impressively loyal.

How engaged? To add some context, users of the HTC Dream spend an average of nearly seven minutes (6.52 to be precise) using Mippin. This compares favourably indeed to the iPhone (currently our fifth most popular single device) whose users spend 3.32mins using our product. While both these lie some way behind users of the Nokia N73 - who notch up an average of 10minutes - we're still incredibly happy to report these figures.

How loyal? Android users also offer significantly reduced bounce rates. I won't go into too much detail, but suffice to say that for every 100 new users who visit the service using a G1, almost all are still using the service one month later. Here too, Android beats Apple, though both are just behind users of the N95, who remain the most loyal Mippin users of all.

It's clearly still way too early to say with confidence that 2009 will be the breakout year for mobile, but these figures do indicate that despite the current economic gloom, there's still room for huge optimism. With more and more manufacturers embracing Android and smart phones gaining in market share, we're very definitely at the start of a significant shift in mobile browsing habits.

This was succinctly summed up by one of our user testers before Christmas, who told us: "I do find myself going to the same old places on my phone, but I'm really keen to discover more!"

Now, clearly, this was music to our ears, as one of key benefits of using Mippin is the ease with which it's possible to explore and discover new content (for the record Mippin now houses over 50,000 sites and nearly 35m stories). But it's also reflective of the 'new' type of user, someone who - backed by a solid payment plan and hi-end device - is unafraid to experiment on mobile.

In fact, we've produced a new video just for them (well, actually for the Mobile Monday Peer Awards, ahem). Here it is:

(For those interested the track is 'Setting Sun' by the Chemical Brothers)

Our other videos are here:

Get Social With Mippin
Make your site mobile in 60 seconds
The Mippin iPhone [Pepsi] Challenge
Mippin: The original launch video (Director's Cut)