People-first apps: The importance of putting business need ahead of tech

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Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Insights

People-first apps - The importance of putting business need ahead of tech

On 10 January 1985, at Alexandra Palace in North London, press gathered for the launch of something truly exciting. Clive Sinclair, inventor of the best-selling ZX Spectrum home computer, had claimed to have reinvented travel, “[putting] personal, private transport back where it belongs – in the hands of the individual.” With snappers and journos from broadsheets, red tops and TV readied, six glamorous models in grey and yellow jumpsuits burst forth from cardboard boxes driving what one Sunday Times journalist went on to call a “Formula One bath-chair.”

The launch of Clive Sinclair’s C5 – the world’s first electrical powered ‘car’ – was not a low key affair, but it was an unmitigated disaster. Batteries went flat in minutes, some couldn’t get up the smallest of inclines, many wouldn’t start at all.

And the winter launch proved the inadequacy of the invention entirely. Those hardy souls that did venture out onto the London roads returned shivering with cold and coughing from a faceful of noxious fumes. People felt unsafe and exposed driving a flimsy invention among the frenetic traffic of the capital. The public were no more enamoured. Production was terminated in August 1985, just eight months after the launch. The company had sold 8,000 units.

Sinclair’s problem (other than bad manufacturing) was that he designed with the tech in mind, not the user. He thought product first, then invented the problem to go with it. The brochure for the C5 called it the ‘ideal solution for all types of local journey,’ but we already had bikes and legs. Invention and innovation are absolutely crucial in tech, but without a practical application they’re simply an ineffective curio, destined to fail.

Apps need an application

In his 1990 research paper The Sinclair C5 – Why Did it Fail?, Andrew P Marks put forth a long list of reasons for said failure: principal among them, however, was “a badly defined market [and]….a lack of both quantitative and qualitative market research.” Essentially, Sinclair invented something without asking anyone if they needed it – or wanted it. Consultation, collaboration and communication should go hand in hand when developing new apps and new technology.

In 2012, there were two big players in the ‘e-hailing’ market – Uber and the London-based Hailo. Uber had got a foothold in the US, Hailo had done similar in the UK with 2.5 million passengers and a $140 million valuation.

The British firm raised around $48 million in investment and used some of that cash to launch in the US’s biggest taxi market, New York. Online mag AllThingsD declared the two rival firms were set for an “epic NYC e-hail throwdown.” Rather than go head to head, however, Hailo decided to focus their energy on the yellow cab market, leaving Uber with the high end for which they’d have needed to recruit new drivers.

It didn’t work. The model didn’t translate from the UK to the US. According to Fortune, in London, cab drivers were highly trained and equipped with smartphones: cabs are a luxury product. In the US, the grid system makes it easier for unskilled drivers to work in the industry, and it wasn’t standard for cab drivers to have smartphones as part of their job. Another stumbling block: New York cabs worked with payment processors that used outdated technology which were incredibly difficult to integrate with the app.

In short, the company made assumptions about the end users without conducting the requisite research. If they’d have asked, they would have spotted these issues before they made the leap. In this case, the app had a proven application in the UK, but without consultation, that solution simply didn’t translate overseas. The company eventually sold 60% of its share to Daimler and merged with myTaxi.

The right kind of consultation

Sinclair and Hailo’s problems were undoubtedly customer facing, but the issues started in-house. Consultation should have been a priority yet the right discussions either didn’t happen or were ignored internally. The development of technology, whether a new, public-facing product or an internal enterprise app, needs to have a clear process to make sure people are put first. There are a few ways:

  • Open communication – In app design and development, particularly with enterprise solutions for the engineering and manufacturing sector, your front line staff will be more aware of any issues than any other member of staff. You need to encourage dialogue for improvement throughout the business, and the voices from the shop floor should be the loudest. Whether it’s Kaizen philosophy or Dave Brailsford’s marginal gains, the concept of continuous improvement relies on knowledge. The people that can give you that are the end users.
  • Understanding the why – You need an app. You need AI. You need smart devices to talk to each other. Why? The most fundamental question businesses need to ask themselves before they leap headlong into commissioning a technical solution is: why do we need this tech? What are we trying to achieve? What is the goal? It could be productivity, it could be better communication – without knowing and understanding the why, you’re likely to fail.
  • Agile methodology – Agile development is a must for businesses that want to develop effective apps or app tech. Rather than design and deliver, agile is an iterative approach which allows the product to evolve one stage at a time. Starting with an initial consultation with key stakeholders (including end users), you need to develop a clear project plan and activity plan of what needs to be done at each stage in the process. At the end of each stage (or sprint) comes user testing. You can pick apart each iteration, highlighting what works and what doesn’t. User testing will help test, measure and refine the final product. Read more about agile here.
  • Innovation days – Let your end users get their hands on the app early. Once the app is at a point where it can be used, feedback from the people who will use it day to day is paramount. Agile development works best where bugs and faults and improvements are highlighted early. The sooner that your users can get to grips with it, the sooner you’ll get honest feedback on the practicalities and the value of the final product.
  • Bring in the specialists – App development is a specific skill set, and not one that naturally exists in-house. Your IT team will undoubtedly have unparalleled knowledge of the existing IT systems, but the intricacies of designing and building a great app are not the same thing. It’s why companies like Rolls-Royce are enlisting the help of third parties to help drive innovation. App specialists will understand the importance of a customer first approach, and get a true reflection of employee needs in the business.
  • Keep improving – You can’t ‘set it and forget it’ with apps. You should at least aim to refresh and improve the functionality of each app every 12 months to ensure it’s still relevant to the users’ needs, and to tackle any new issues that may arise. Again, these changes should be powered by feedback from the people that use them.

The results of people-first thinking

Few could claim Google Glass was a roaring success when it was initially launched. It was expensive for one, with only the earliest and richest of adopters jumping in. It was also mired in complaints from people concerned about their privacy, it looked ugly and there was no clear function. So far, so C5.

But Glass didn’t die without a trace – an in-house team got to work on changing its functionality, focusing on how it could really help people as opposed to simply trying to wow them. After much thinking, Google Glass’ second act was in the workplace, specifically in the manufacturing and engineering industry, where Glass Enterprise Edition (GEE) has slowly started to be adopted by large teams.

Wired magazine tells the story of Heather Erickson, a 30-year-old factory worker in Jackson, Minnesota. Erickson builds motors for tractors, and GEE is a constant companion. Any help setting up or operating machines is right in front of her eyes. If she needs help or assistance, she can call it up with voice controls. The functionality isn’t much different from Glass’ first iteration, but the value to the user is.

The move was a significant pivot from Alphabet (Google’s parent company, tasked with developing the new headset), and one which was likely driven by the failure of the consumer product. But it perfectly encapsulates the difference between tech first thinking and people first thinking. The public didn’t need Google Glass, factory workers who require both hands free to operate machinery, did.

It was a sensible move from Google, and an effective one. According to Wired, “the companies testing GEE – including giants like Boeing, DHL, and Volkswagen – have measured huge gains in productivity and noticeable improvements in quality.” As a cherry on top, it’s a smart commercial pivot, too – a 2016 Forrester Research report predicted that by 2025, nearly 14.4 million US workers will wear smart glasses.

Technology for technology’s sake is a toy – a gadget which is interesting for a while but will soon wear thin. Where apps and app technology – including bleeding edge tech like AI, IoT and AR – succeed is by thinking about the end user first.

Get it right, and businesses can improve everything from productivity to learning to wellbeing. Get it wrong, and you’re stuck at the side of the road with a London bus’ exhaust fumes in your face. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

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