Lean app development and the steak knife

by: | Dec 10, 2014

Last week, I wrote about why you should build an app experience like a steak knife because they do one thing very, very well — unlike the multipurpose Swiss Army knife, which does nothing particularly well. My point was rooted in the idea you need to have focus to create a great app user experience, which will lead to a virtuous cycle of delighted users and app advocates.

But there’s another big reason: lean app development.

Of course, the first steak knife was created long before lean product management methodology became a thing and its evolution certainly took a lot longer than building an app. But at ArcTouch, we frequently talk about the steak knife as a metaphor for the kind of app we want to help our world-class clients create. And often, we use the acronym “MLP” (minimum lovable product) — a close relative of the Lean Startup movement’s “MVP” (minimum viable product) — in the same sentence.

great app ebook

What does lean app development have to do with a steak knife?

As part of the app definition process we perform as part of our mobile strategy services, we help clients determine their MLP (more on our lean app development process in a minute). The MVP concept was developed by product management gurus Steve Blank and Eric Reis, who popularized the lean startup movement in Silicon Valley. An MVP is the leanest product you can build to test your assumptions about that product and its intended market. (Read why we think the term MLP is a better standard than MVP for app development.).

If you burden your initial release with too many features and capabilities, you won’t really know what you’re testing. And you’ll add valuable time — and cost — to the schedule without really knowing if you’re idea is salient.

Start with one thing. Then make it even better

According to Wikipedia, the evolution of sharp table knives into steak knives started after World War I. Historically, table knives needed to be regularly polished and sharpened to be effective. The introduction of stainless steel after WWI meant knives no longer needed to be polished as part of routine maintenance. After WWII, a manufacturing breakthrough led to serrated steak knives that no longer had to be sharpened (or polished). And in the 1950s, a new heat treatment to stainless steel meant the knives would stay sharp — even if they weren’t serrated.

That sounds a bit like a lean development roadmap. Stainless steel essentially was the MVP. And because it proved true that there was demand, “innovation” with the product continued and enabled the development of serrated knives and material engineering.

Mobile: What’s true today won’t be tomorrow

The evolution of steak knives took decades. You don’t have that kind of time to build your mobile app. The fact is, what’s true today in mobile won’t be true tomorrow.

Every year, Apple and Google hold massive industry events that turn the mobile world upside down then right-side up again. With each event, improvements to iOS and Android mobile operating systems and developer tools are revealed, and entirely new hardware platforms are unveiled. In 2014, wearables, home automation, and automotive integration became new opportunities for developers and the companies building digital experiences.

As Ted Schadler and John C. McCarthy of Forrester Research point out, “Mobile programs are complex and continuously evolving.” As a result, organizations must focus on “multiphase engagement outcomes, not just project completion.”

This constant change means that companies stubbornly committed to a long-term roadmap or even an overly complex project are much more likely to fail.

Lean App Development and Strategy Through Execution

At ArcTouch, lean app development typically begins with discovery, when we discuss and confirm what we know about a company’s business, industry and customers. With this baseline, we move into definition and begin to articulate a product overview, guiding principles, and target users.

That product overview can have multiple features and benefits, but we eventually distill it down to a core MLP that everyone aligns around. It’s the app that will drive the most business value, with the minimum budget, developed to get to market fast so that we can quickly test our assumptions.

This MLP also becomes the foundation for subsequent releases. Because it’s simple — like a steak knife — it’s easy to maintain and add new layers in a way that makes sense. But only after proving that the MLP indeed delivers value both to the user and the business. It’s a strategy built through execution.

Like the steak knife, the MLP will do one thing well. Unlike the steak knife, it will take months, not years to develop the first iteration. To learn more about our lean app development process, download our free ebook, From Great Idea To Successful Mobile App.