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Native Mobile is Dead

On January 9, 2007 Steve Jobs stood on stage and changed the world. Of course, as with many such moments, nobody really understood the revolution to come.

People today have long forgotten that between June 29, 2007 when the first iPhone shipped and July 10, 2008 there was no App Store. You see, the real innovation in 2007 was, "The full Safari engine is inside of iPhone," as Jobs told the WWDC audience. He even went on to say, “And guess what? There's no SDK that you need!"

The original vision for mobile internet engagement was rich responsive websites rendered by a fully functional browser. Today that vision is roaring back in the form of the Progressive Web Application. What does this mean for the consumer and your business?

A Consumer Point of View

Apple and Google have convinced consumers that they need to have natively installed applications. What are their motivations? Given that the App store generates $15 billion of annual revenue, it is clear that an app ecosystem is a competitive barrier. Indeed, even Microsoft cannot crack the mobile space because they cannot build an ecosystem of applications fast enough to be relevant. Remember Blackberry … not so much these days.

You, the app consumer, are getting ripped off.

Security & Privacy

Let’s be clear that this is not a tinfoil hat moment. Apple and Google are experts in application security. They have expansive teams of seasoned professionals dedicated to ensuring the Safari and Chrome browsers are free from bugs that would allow for nefarious actions on the part of a website you may visit.

Contrast this with a typical app developed in a typical mobile studio where there are no security experts. It is by far the wiser move to count on Apple’s and Google’s massive security teams with your physical device. Any breach is a hit to their reputation and stock price. Contrast that with relying on every individual app developer to do so for their app. Indeed, app developers have no financial incentive to do so. As we seem to learn weekly, many violate your privacy by selling data to Facebook. This is how they provide valuable services (the app) for free. You pay in privacy as a consumer.

It stands to reason that web applications are inherently more secure because they run within a browser made secure by motivated experts.

Pricing

If you pay for an app or subscribe to a service through the app, Apple and Google charge the developer 30% of the sale. Today Apple is proposing to charge publishers 50% of their revenue to be part of its new Premium News Service.

If you are paying for a service, why would you pay for an Apple phone, then pay Apple for other people’s work? The duopoly created by the App and Play Stores stifles innovation and raises prices. This is basic economics.

Mobile app development is tedious and expensive. Maintaining web, iOS and Android versions of the same application is expensive. Make no mistake, in the end, all costs are passed on to the consumer in terms of both dollars and privacy.

Innovation

Apple and Google have convinced consumers they want an app store because that is what is good for Apple and Google. Consider Victory Client Avatar Nutrition. A small company of 10 folks. They have a choice to make: Serve their customers and amazing service that makes a true life-difference, or build three different applications that do the same thing and give ⅓ of their revenue to a multibillion dollar organization that provides little to no value in return to you, the consumer.

Avatar Nutrition made a brave choice. It decided to sunset its current native applications and focus its limited resources on a delightful, mobile optimized web experience for its customers. Consumers see the benefit in new features and benefits arriving to their phones far more rapidly because this small company need only focus on a single platform.

As a Consumer

We, at Victory and Avatar Nutrition are expert consumers of mobile technology. That is a fancy way of saying that, like you, we use mobile apps. The billions of dollars siphoned from companies creating value comes from our pockets. While we are all fans of both Apple and Google, we recognize this part of their business is ripe for disruption.

The Progressive Web App is coming. The Weather Channel, HEB Grocery Curbside Pickup, The Financial Times, Twitter, Starbucks, Uber, and even The Washington Post are huge brands with critical mobile presence. All have are moving towards a better form of delivery for you, the consumer.

Some will say, “It’s just an optimized mobile web site.” They are right. Native mobile is dead, welcome to Mobile 2.0, or maybe it’s Mobile 0.2 all over again.

Pay Attention Startups, Native Mobile is Dead

In early 2019, Victory CTO client Avatar Nutrition took a step toward the bleeding edge of mobile application delivery. Avatar Nutrition killed its native mobile applications on iOS and Android in favor of a Progressive Web Application (PWA).

Avatar Nutrition’s core assumption is that consumers want an intuitive mobile experience with frequent innovation. This leads to the conclusion that consumers do not care if that experience was written in Objective C, React Native or HTML5. The riskiest proposition is that consumers who’ve been brainwashed to believe native mobile apps are somehow superior by companies with a vest interest (Apple, Google).

Why PWA and Why Avatar Nutrition

Avatar Nutrition was in the unique position to take such a future forward step in delivering mobile functionality to its users because of its raving fans. From that starting point, and the following decision criteria the journey began.

Raving Fans

The substantial mitigating factor for Avatar Nutrition is its raving fans. The office is papered over in transformation stories, before and after pictures and thank you notes. Whether this is the world famous professional wrestler Sheamus Farrelly, a 50 year old desk jockey, or a 35 year old mother of 3 who is rocking her pre-kid wedding dress, Avatar’s consumers are dedicated to the service and reap life changing results. The leadership team was certain its consumers would give this cutting edge technology choice a chance.

Precedent

The technology we are talking about in this article is the progressive web application (PWA). It was the vision Steve Jobs had back in 2007 when the iPhone was released with "The full Safari engine is inside of iPhone.”

Today, some household names are using PWA technology for the mobile experience:

  • The Financial Times
  • Twitter
  • Starbucks
  • Uber
  • The Washington Post
  • The Weather Channel

Leadership at Avatar Nutrition felt this growing list of high profile brands, the backing of Google and Microsoft, and the adoption by Apple was indicative low risk in taking this chance.

All in One

Like many small companies, Avatar Nutrition’s existing web application did certain things for the user while the existing native mobile app did others. While common for startups, such fractured feature sets are a poor user experience. They had a strong desire to fix. The friction preventing addressing achieving web and mobile parity was the need to work in three platforms at the same time with a small tech team.

Expected Payoff

Risk is defined as the size of the consequence multiplied by the likelihood of the event. Given these mitigating factors:

  • Avatar Nutrition’s raving fans,
  • the short time to convert to a PWA
  • the unification of all consumer facing functions to a single platform,

negative consequences were seen as low probability.

This the risk of negative consequences low, the likelihood of gain for taking the PWA risk was considered high for Avatar Nutrition:

  • recover 30% of its mobile subscription revenue. The so-called “Apple Tax.”
  • improve the platform to do a better job of helping their users on their journey towards eating accurately.
  • lower their staff costs in terms of full time and contract help on the technical side so they could dedicate those resources to helping people on the nutrition side (a differentiating factor for the brand)
  • get platform improvements to their consumers to improve their lives faster.

Results

The above are the facts and conjectures that fed the decision by Avatar Nutrition leadership to migrate its mobile presence from native mobile to progressisve web app (PWA). The results have been largely in line with those expectations.

Subscription Cost

The cost to Avatar Nutrition for every mobile subscription has gone from $6.00 per month to $0.00 per month. This will change as the company takes those dollars and invests them in digital marketing and other consumer marketing efforts.

Innovation

Since the move to a PWA, the Avatar Nutrition technical team has been delivering 200% feature velocity with 40% of the staff. Innovation - the ability to execute projects that benefit consumers - is the lifeblood of any web based service. If you’ve read Good to Great, this means the company can focus on its Hedgehog Concept rather than the upkeep of technology for technology’s sake.

Freedom to Maneuver

Part of the 200% increase in feature velocity is the absence of the mobile development process. This is a time consuming technical process of compiling code, updating store marketing materials and gaining approval from the store owner. In some cases this can take days. If a small business gets its wires crossed with Apple’s testers their business can be ruined if they are removed from the store.

All of the time recaptured by the technical team can be put towards improving its craft and putting more features in front of the Avatar Nutrition consumer.

More Control of the Business

By releasing only to a web application the hurdles put up by the store are removed and the risk of being summarily yanked from a store with little to no guidance is zero. Startups move fast. Startups break things. Startups disrupt. Risking a corporation - invested in stability and status quo - rejecting changes to your nimble mobile presence is ill advised when there are alternatives.

As a Business

We at Victory are here to serve the startup community. The billions of dollars siphoned by the App and Play Stores from companies like yours who are creating real consumer value are a drain on innovation. While nearly every tech based start up is somehow a fan of both Apple and Google, Victory and Avatar Nutrition recognize the “Apple Tax” aspect of their business is ripe for disruption.

The Progressive Web App is coming. It is a superior form of value delivery to your consumers. Some will say, “It’s just an optimized mobile web site.” They are right. Native mobile is dead, welcome to Mobile 2.0 - or maybe it’s Mobile 0.2 all over again.

Project Estimation in Small Companies

It is common knowledge that people are bad at estimation. Engineers are particularly poor at it. They don’t account for overhead in their workflow, such as in-person interruptions, meetings, email and chat. When Victory CTO arrives on site to turn around an underperforming team, we must help the team provide accurate and actionable information to the business for both strategic and tactical planning.

Problem Statement

Engineers give estimates in a vacuum. It is the responsibility of Project Managers and Scrum Masters to ask the right questions and report the right information to project stakeholders.

Victory must deliver a repeatable methodology for clients to follow.

Anatomy of an Effective Estimate

Victory’s CTO Practice often serves companies between 5 and 25 employees. These clients are usually in a difficult situation with key staff leaving, system failure and/or the inability to deliver meaningful customer value.

In over 80% of engagements, we find there is no process for setting strategic priorities and managing project based work. Often, work is not kept in an easily referenced form, but instead passes from person to person orally, via email, or in chat.

For clients to set technical team priorities, they need two key pieces of information:

What? - The aspirations for the customer experience and the impact on sales and retention.

How long? - A composite metric for dollars and opportunity cost.

What?

In formal settings, “what” is referred to as “requirements.” This word “requirement” carries weight in its expectation of both precision and unchangeable nature. This is too much weight for most small businesses to bear. Instead, Victory asks stakeholders to write down their aspirations for the outcomes of a project, using as many pictures as they can manage.

How Long?

Victory’s CTO practice works with engineering teams to create estimates in half-day increments that include development and testing time. We assume no automated software testing exists since this is the norm in 80% of engagements.

Further, Victory works with engineering teams to break a project down into smaller deliverables so that...

  1. Our client’s customers receive value more frequently
  2. Marketing has more reason to make exciting statements about features and fixes to client’s customers.
  3. Deadline risk is minimized
  4. If the aspiration is not a fit with the market, the project can be stopped and time recovered for the next priority.

Capturing Aspirations

Victory’s clients often have no project management capability within their own organization. Given we show up after trouble has started, we do not have the time - or the budget - to implement and train on formal project management concepts.

That is not to say we do not value formal project management, we simply value the client meeting their key goals more.

For this reason, we frame “what” is needed from a technical team as a desired outcome for a customer. This may look like a traditional Agile “User Story” but we don’t care how it is written, only that it is written down in a collaborative way. Google Docs and Office 365 are perfect tools for such collaboration.

The more pictures the better. Clever clients have:

  1. Drawn wireframes on a whiteboard. Annotated them in color. Taken pictures and put them in a doc.
  2. A minimal way to communicate intent and experience
  3. Written mathematics formulas on paper, take a picture and put it in a doc.
  4. A minimal way to express hard science without the weight of equation editors
  5. Used spreadsheets to generate example data for customer actions.
  6. A minimal way to communicate data dictionaries, test cases and future intentions for data without understanding data design and modeling.

The “clever” above boils down to getting a large amount of information written down in a collaborative way without having to master complex design, graphics, math and data tools. A picture really is worth 1000 words and those words have huge value to getting the estimates you need.

Victory helps business stakeholders communicate their aspirations to technical teams. In this way, technical teams return the favor by providing a more accurate time estimates for accomplishing the aspirations. Client’s executive teams are better equipped to plan strategically, and marketing teams can more effectively drive interest in the new features in the pipeline.

Estimates Provide Agility

In regards to strategic planning, Victory teaches teams to deliver the number of development-days and the number of testing-days. For tactical execution, we further break down the project into smaller, deliverable tasks with the same two metrics of “what” and “how long.” Stakeholders have more tactical control over the project and more strategic control over resource deployment.

Strategic Estimation

Strategic estimation is done quickly and usually in service of annual planning. It is meant to guide the business in setting its strategic priorities for a given time frame.

From our premise, engineers are bad at estimating how long a task will take. To account for this we do three things:

  1. We only estimate on the ½ day
  2. We use a multiplying factor based on the number of tasks.
  3. We account for lack of automated testing with a multiplying factor.

Estimating a major initiative at the strategic level should take about two hours. Remember, this is for high level planning. Engineers will want to go down bunny holes around implementation details. Victory works to keep the conversation much more fluid by introducing quick activities like Estimation Poker if details begin to overwhelm the higher level objective.

Strategic Work Breakdown

                *developmentTime=dayCount * (1.2+0.1*taskCount)*

Given a few pages of aspirations for a system, developers are tasked with breaking it down into deliverable pieces. These are then estimated in ½ day increments.

To account for poor human estimation skills, we then multiply the number of days (dayCount) by 1.2 plus 10% of the number of tasks (taskCount) that were identified.

So, if a project breaks down into 6 tasks, and the team estimates delivery in a total of 5.5 days. We would then multiply a dayCount of 5.5 by 1.8 in order to report delivery in 10 days. We always round up in deference to the adage, “Underpromise and over deliver.”

Known-Unknowns - Research Tasks

Known-unknowns are tasks the team knows must be done but does not know how to do. Examples might include upgrading a language or using a new cloud service for data storage.

Unknowns are the biggest risk to a timeline. As part of the breakdown process, Victory helps the team enumerate all of those which are known. For each such known-unknown, we include a research task as a deliverable. This increases the task count, thus increases the estimate appropriate to the number of unknowns.

Unknown-Unknowns - Why 1.2 as a multiplier

Unknown-unknowns are significant tasks that were not known to the team when the estimation happened. These often crop up in the middle of a project.

Example: A cool UI feature with dials showing a needle in a range of values. The team believes the existing graphics library will support this, in which case it can be replaced without significant delay in estimated delivery. However, no such library exists and an extra day of coding is necessary in order to create one.

This is the reason for the 1.2 base multiplier. For small projects, the likelihood of a major unknown being discovered along the way is low, so the 0.2 extra will be very small. The larger the project, the more likely discovering new unknowns happens and the 0.2 will result in more days accordingly.

When we work with inexperienced teams we increase the multiplier. Junior developers don’t know as much about their ecosystems, so more is unknown to them. Senior developers lower this risk, thus the likelihood of a huge unknown cropping up is lower. Adjust this number by tracking estimate accuracy and the number of discovered unknowns after a project starts.

                      *testingTime = developmentTime * 0.2*

Finally, we must consider testing. Most Victory clients do not utilize automated testing methods. Therefore, we must rely on manual stakeholder testing. These stakeholders are busy, and we must account for delays in them getting to their testing duties, time to do the testing, and rework resulting from the testing. For this reason, Victory anticipates testing to add 20% to the overall project time. For example, our 9.9 day project is anticipated to take 9.9 * 0.2 or 1.98 days, of additional time for testing.

Since most of our clients have relatively simple software platforms, we use the 20% number. The more complex the system or platform, the higher the testing multiplier should be. Automated testing lowers the multiplier. Victory recommends no less than 10% testing time for stakeholder acceptance in any situation.

Reporting to the Business

In our example above, we would report to the business that the development team expects to take 10 days to complete the entire project and that we expect the business to spend 2 days testing for acceptance.

The business is able to take this information about the projects it expects from the engineering team and prioritize work, discuss its commitments to testing and provide direction to the company as a whole.

Tactical Execution Benefits

In small companies it is common for stakeholders to aspire to a project that has many valuable features to the customer. Some features are more valuable than others.

During the Strategic Estimation process described above, developers are asked to break down features into deliverables. Even though our project is going to take a total of 12 days, we want to deliver value to the end user sooner. There are beneficial side effects to executing these “value drops,” which we will discuss below.

Before project kickoff, stakeholders are asked to rank features from most important to least important. Work begins on the most important feature. It is tested and then put into production. Let’s say this took 2.5 days in our example above.

The benefits to the business

Victory clients have new value to message the user about in 2.5 days instead of 12. Marketing has a reason to talk to customers through social media channels more frequently

Most Important: The business is getting market feedback on its aspiration before it has invested the other 9.5 days into the project.

Market Fit

Now, let’s assume that the client has announced the above new feature in its Facebook group. Users are generally excited, and we can see from platform metrics they are using it. Stakeholders now know the next feature of the aspiration is likely to be a hit as well, and the development team can start. Morale on all teams is high because there is an expectation of success set by the consumer!

Two days later, in our 12 day project, the second feature goes to market. Feedback this time is lukewarm. Consumers tell stakeholders in the Facebook group that it’s just not that big a deal. However, this too, is a huge success!

The following features (and 7.5 days of work) are predicated on the adoption of the second feature. Before clearly wasting that time and money, there are three basic paths to explore:

  1. Stakeholders can re-evaluate the implementation of the second feature and have it reworked to improve consumer engagement. This leads to success.
  2. Stakeholders can determine that the following features in the existing project will make the second feature more relevant and continue as planned. This leads to success.
  3. Stakeholders can kill the project because logically it need not continue based on market feedback. Victory’s client has recovered 7.5 days of time for the next strategic priority. This is also a success.

Stepping Back

If you are thinking to yourself, “This is the Agile Software Development Methodology,” then you are exactly right. Victory has simply put some guardrails in place around estimation and work breakdown. We initially removed much of the ceremony associated with Agile implementations like Scrum.

By assisting with creating stakeholder aspirations and engineering estimates, Victory provides critical strategic value to its clients through simple math. Our partner companies benefit from significant tactical advantages that allow them to place their resources of people, time and money on the right projects and delight their customers.

If you’d like two hours of complimentary consultation of your small business and its technical team, please contact Angela Miller.