The psychology of application development: "How does that make you feel?"

Frank Zinghini

Founder & CEO

Developing a successful commercial application starts with the psychology of your customers, you, and your developers. If the psychology of application development is “off,” the application will never reach its full commercial potential.

The study of psychology relies heavily on base motivations. It is not so much an issue of “what did you do?” but “why did you do it?” Motivations play a major factor in the success of commercial applications. If the base motivation is to solve a recognized, common problem, the application has an automatic head start over those applications whose developers were motivated by a desire to exploit some new technological advancement. The technology certainly plays a major role – if it is not possible technically, there will be no application – but if the application doesn’t solve a common problem, there will be no sales. Unfortunately this “no sales” reality is often the commercial equivalent of a 2×4 to the side of the head, after all of the development and marketing/sales costs have been sunk into a product that will never pay for itself.

This is not a situation that you will want to find yourself in. It is very unpleasant.

Let’s assume that you have an idea for a product that solves a common problem, and you believe you have an elegant solution. Unfortunately this is not enough to avoid the dreaded 2×4. You have to go one step further: You have to involve the intended customer in the development process. Why? Because customers always surprise even the most seasoned developers, with small but essential product requirements or preferences. They, too, have their own psychological motivations, not to mention a set of expectations about how applications are supposed to work.

Developers and the business managers supporting them are often – no, I should say “always”- blind to some aspect of the customer’s preference. It is far less expensive and painful to find out what these preferences are early in the development process. It is also a relatively painless exercise, once we dismiss our egos from the situation. There are now some wonderful tools available that allow us to mockup an application and show the mockup to prospective customers.

Proper customer testing involves more than just testing the user interface (UI). The UI is the look and feel, the layout, and the basic navigational conventions. That is what appears on the screen. What the user does with the content on the screen – the user experience (UX) – is where the rubber meets the road. This is where you and the user run the program through its intended paces, and see where the customer gets confused, distracted, or irritated. These tests can be done easily and remotely, using a shared screen and recording the user’s stream-of-consciousness conversation as the user interacts with the program.

There are also things you can do before you even develop an application that will help assure its commercial success.

Hire a strong product manager, and pay attention to his/her input.

The best product managers become very knowledgeable about both the product category and the intended users. It is this person’s  job to help guide the marriage of these two entities.

Strengthen your empathy.

Practice looking, listening, and empathizing. Those of us in management are in the (enviable?) position of saying things like, “I know that’s how you feel, but we need to do it this way.” And, “Make it so.” These are not empathetic behaviors. Because customers can make or break your business, no matter how smart you are, strengthening your empathy and then applying it to customers always pays off. Find ways to watch, listen to, and talk with prospective customers. Ask to watch the UI/UX test recordings. Ask your product manager to introduce you to prospective (or even current/similar) customers, and interview them. Find out what their motivations are. As a result, every decision you make about product strategy, development, and marketing will be significantly more on target.

Strongly support UI/UX testing, early and often.

Make it a required part of the development process. Taking an extra week for testing will ensure that all the weeks that follow will be devoted to a product that will actually sell.

Be willing to throw some babies overboard.

If you are firmly aware of what your customers want, when your developers say, “But it has to have [some function]!” you will be able to make the right decision. How much of a difference does this make to the customer? Does it support their motivations and goals, or not? If not, save it for “Version 2.” Today’s smartest developers get a “good enough” product (what enlightened developers call the “minimum viable product,” or MP) out into the market and assume that they will continue to constantly improve it, with the help of customer feedback. Trying to make it perfect before the initial launch can turn a commercial dream into a financial nightmare.

Know the “standards” and the “must haves.”

Every product category has a set of standard expectations associated with it – such as the ability to scroll with one finger or swipe to see options. Every product category also has a set of “must haves,” functions that the users assume will be there – or they won’t even consider it. You can assume you know what these are, or you can do the work be certain. Obviously, the former is asking for trouble and the latter is a good way to avoid it.

The psychology of application development focuses on two things: your customer’s needs, and your ego. The more you involve your customer in the development process, and the less you involve your ego (as in, “we know what they want,” or even “we know what’s good for them”), the better off you will be when it’s time to take your application to market.

For more information on selecting and working with developers for your upcoming app project, please download a guide for CEOs about creating great software from Applied Visions today.