Your App is like La La Land


As we find ourselves in Oscars season once again, I have been musing about the 2017 Oscars favourite, the musical hit La La Land. You see love stories and Apps are very similar, because they are both very simple and very complicated. In this blog I explore the charming similarities between delivering web applications and producing a great film. Consider this La La Land Synopsis: Aspiring actress and daytime barista on the Warner Brothers lot, Mia admires pianist Seb from afar. Seb is oblivious to her because he only has eyes for his dreams of opening his own Jazz club - one that is true to his artistic integrity. The meet-cute happens. They are all of a sudden inseparable. They fall deeply in love but their passion for their art, for their career dreams and their inability to support each other becomes an obstacle in Act Two. The third Act brings them the success and happiness they both hoped for but in an unusual twist for a love story. ENORMOUS SPOILER ALERT - the rest of this blog is littered with spoilers! Seb and Mia do not end up together - this time love doesn't conquer all, perhaps a more realist, millennial take on the three Act love story. It is beautiful and poignant nonetheless despite its final sequence. Also, there is some singing and dancing, but not that much for a musical. When clients ask us to help with a startup, their ideas are usually like this synopsis. The gist is there, and we all completely agree that it’s a great idea - we will give it a watch, for sure. Next however, we will start to ask some insightful questions to develop the story.
  • How do they meet?
  • What draws them to each other?
  • Why is Seb so damn miserable?
  • Why can’t Mia find a job?
  • What is going to drive a wedge between them?
  • What is Seb’s huge romantic gesture?
All of a sudden our universe has expanded. We now have the traffic jam opening sequence; the coffee shop scene; Seb’s financial woes; betrayal and broken relationships as well as the pianist’s anguish at having to play Christmas set-lists and pop party favourites. We have more story boxes to fill: Mia’s rejection from audition after audition and the dismal reception of her one-woman play. We have that big moment when Seb drives his ridiculous old maroon convertible (what doesn’t Ryan Gosling look good in?) halfway across America to get Mia back to Hollywood for the audition of her life.

How is this like your app?

With apps too, you start to ask the right questions and all of a sudden the concept opens up and the richness of the project is exposed to the light of day. For Example (this is not an exhaustive list):
  • What is the core app concept?
  • What are the key user journeys?
  • Where do your visitors come from?
  • How do you plan to convert new visitors while continuing to engage existing users?
  • How do users manage their profiles, membership, payments, relationships and privacy?
  • How will users interact with one another?
  • How will users discover one another?
  • How will they discover the content or features that are most relevant to them?
  • Do you have any existing technical infrastructure to integrate with?
  • Do you have an effective CRM strategy for ongoing marketing?
  • How much data will users generate, and have you anticipated the storage costs?
Now you can see the elements that need to be introduced to make this concept a coherent reality - the supporting actors as it were - necessary to the success of the project but seldom considered at the concept stage. All of this richness and depth has become apparent already. Now we need a script. The script… this is the daddy. Some films go through the tortuous process of rewrite after rewrite. Sometimes the script makes it through to production and is rejected at editing and occasionally even re-shot with some rewrites. This is not ideal, but this is the reality of processing ideas from paper to the screen and test audiences etc. Similarly, our app, as it develops will take shape and be exposed to several instances of user acceptance testing. Some initial assumptions may prove to be untrue. Sometimes the market changes beneath us and you need to adapt to new realities. Nevertheless, there is a lot of rich detail to be added as the app takes shape - the dialogue as it were - the basic ins and outs of how the app functions and executes each of the many tasks that have been identified. Sometimes it will be perfectly okay to use stock libraries. Sometimes each function will need to be bespoke; sculpted to provide the optimal user experience. Image of different web applications This process is necessary and sometimes it feels like feature creep. Occasionally it can be but the reality is that each new app idea has a life of its own. Once you begin a world of possibility opens. However, real discipline is needed to keep projects like this on track. Most often the restraints come in the form of budgets: unyielding firmly fixed numeric entities that crush dreams and thwart some of the more lofty ambitions. For all their narrative banality, the spectacular special effects of an Avengers movie cost many millions to produce and similarly, some of the more ambitious ideas for your app could be prohibitively expensive and require rationalisation to make production reality. Choreography is another element of the film that introduces enormous complexity. Choreographers plan each and every movement an actor or dancer take on the stage so that each and every body part on each and every individual is exactly where it needs to be when it needs to be there. In the software industry, we contrive to automate and guide user behaviour and processes. In automating a journey, from point A to point B. In any app, there are dozens or hundreds of A to B type journeys. Now, just like a movie dance sequence, the set is jammed full of people trying to make their own A to B journeys, sometimes those journeys conflict, sometimes the only way for one user to get from A to B is via C and D. We can visualise that by drawing a stage with all the dancers and tracing each of their moves, mapping some moves over them, then adding in complications like two performers trying to be in the same place at the same time and how we accommodate them. When you watch the sequence, it all looks seamless and dancers pass by one another gracefully and effortlessly. In software often two users need to access the exact same space concurrently. This logically causes problems, like what goes into the database and when? What happens if a connection is unexpectedly terminated? How do we handle sessions in this case? This sounds perplexing but these are the problems that project managers and developers will be solving for you as the project develops. The exact nature of all of these requirements cannot be foreseen in advance, however, a good agency should be able to help you set your budgetary expectations in advance. Agencies are able to call on the experience of delivering similar or related projects with similar ambitions. They will know an expensive idea from a cheap one and you would hope, have the wisdom and innovative capacity to find the Goldilocks solution that fits just right: neither too costly nor too mundane.

The Cast and Crew

You know at the end of the movie, you can probably only remember about ten members of the cast, but when the credits roll there are about fifty names in the cast, which comes as something of a surprise. You may leave your seat at that point when the cast credits come to an end. What you will be walking out on, are the real stars: the crew; the skilled men and women who make movie magic a reality. Even the most modest of Hollywood productions these days have hundreds of support crew from best boy grip to third assistant wardrobe technician and so many visual effects bods in India and South Korea. Admittedly, the agency set up is nothing quite so grand but there will be many hands on your project as it passes through the stages of planning, design, development, testing, approval, launch, marketing and maintenance. Each of these phases requires its own specific skill set. Usually, you will have one or two consistent faces to carry you along with the project and many of the part-players you will never meet, although they contributed to the successful completion of your project. The good news is that stories get written, movies get made - some are good, some are bad and some are great. The key to making this happen is getting the right people together, having frank discussions about what can be achieved with the money available - where wings will need to be clipped and where dreams can be allowed to soar. With the right agency partner, your idea can come to fruition. We will help you get features ironed out and established as clearly as possible on paper before we begin developing. A good rule of thumb is that an hour planning saves three hours coding. Saving on the pre-production phase can work out and it is possible to end up with a fine result at the end but it will almost invariably be a more expensive and more time-consuming process. We also want to consider iteration and the upgrade path - how we will learn from and adapt to real-world user behaviour and feedback. That handily segues us to arguably the most important aspect of any new app project - selling it.

A movie is only as good as its audience

It is vital to get the right bums on the right seats to make a movie successful. Films are some of the earliest examples of viral marketing. Posters, trailers, etc., will catch the eye of some viewers and indeed, opening weekend numbers are hugely important. But it’s the word-of-mouth recommendations that really make a movie take off. That’s sort of how digital marketing works too. You advertise and promote to create awareness and generate an audience using hard currency - hopefully spending it wisely and investing in good content to build both paid and organic presence in search engines. This approach is really a seed campaign. If your app is going to be successful, it will need to have an element of virality. Your agency will be able to help you plan hooks and incentives that capture people's imagination and encourage them to recommend or share the app with their networks.

Big Ending

In the La La Land we are transported to the endpoint. Seb and Mia are successful, living their long-held dreams - sadly apart but happy or at least contented. We are given an alternate ending too. One where the characters stay together. It is bittersweet - only the stoniest soul could sit unmoved by that sequence. It parallels projects too, particularly at startup or product development. Things may not go according to plan; assumptions can prove untrue. Your software project will take place in the real world - you sadly cannot musical montage through the months and years of hard work, joys and travails of growing a new business, winning traffic, converting users, losing and retaining them, dealing with unexpected hurdles, both technical and human. Sometimes you can end up with a project that is a success but doesn't look like what you originally set out to create. Our goal as an agency is to help you successfully produce, implement and market your application. We help you cast aside distractions of non core features to enable you to keep your project on time, within budget and ultimately to make it a smash hit.

Insights by Matthew Jensen

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