Custom App Development: 7 Risks to Avoid

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Custom apps can drive huge business value across a broad range of applications, from B2B web platforms, to internal tools, to B2C mobile apps. Across all of these categories, enterprises are eager to explore how new apps can be tailored to their business objectives. 

So what’s the problem? Risk is inherent to the software development process. And concern over this inherent risk can prevent investments in custom applications capable of driving real ROI. 

This risk, however, is avoidable with careful planning, attention to best practices, and great communication. 

At Distillery, time and experience have helped us develop insight into these risks and how to avoid them. In this article, we provide an overview of key risks to understand when embarking on a custom application development project. 

The best practices outlined here share a common thread: investing in a high-quality development process carries a small upfront cost in time and resources that is negligible compared to fixing unanticipated problems further along in the development process. 

Cutting corners on planning, testing, and knowledge gathering can introduce all sorts of problems down the line. That’s why “test early, test often” should be a mantra for enterprise-quality app development projects. Even a relatively small feature weeded out through early user testing, for instance, can mean hundreds of development-hours saved. Or, pinpointing a faulty API can ensure that integration issues don’t delay crucial rollouts at the last minute. 

The earlier meaningful feedback can be incorporated, the better. Proactive steps like early rollouts for select clients or user groups are a great example of small investments that can save substantial time and money down the line. In many cases, the best practices needed to de-risk a custom development project can also generate long-term ROI. Planning-phase user testing may even suggest a feature that ends up driving more revenue than the app’s original intended function.  

Here are seven of the most significant risks to custom app development. We will examine each one in detail in the article below.

Seven Custom App Development Risks

  1. Going too big right out of the gate. 
  2. Misunderstanding success.
  3. Spending insufficient time on product strategy.
  4. Picking the wrong platform.
  5. Miscommunication leads to misfires. 
  6. Neglecting a plan for post-launch ROI.
  7. Inadequate development or management resources.
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App Development Risk #1: Going Too Big Right Out of the Gate

What’s the Problem? App Development Prematurely Reaches Beyond Core Goals

You have an idea for an amazing custom app. Your creative juices are flowing, you come up with all sorts of ideas for features and functionalities you want to include. You ask your development team to build all these features because you assume your users will want them.

The problem is that you don’t yet know what your users really want. And each added feature comes with more development time and cost. Creating custom software can be an expensive and time-consuming endeavor, and it’s crucial to invest your development efforts where they’re most likely to provide tangible ROI.

How Do I Avoid It? Focus on Minimal Viable Product

Prioritization matters: an initial focus on the most crucial functionality can help generate ROI sooner rather than later.

Your initial development should center on the most focused possible vision of a solution for the problems your app is trying to solve. This realistic V1 of your app is called your minimum viable product, or MVP. 

Focusing on launching a MVP gets a product in your users’ hands, allowing them to provide ground-level feedback on which features are needed and which aren’t. Ongoing development can be iterated and adjusted dynamically based on real user-feedback, allowing ongoing development work to be focused where it delivers the most ROI.

To be clear, the “minimum” in MVP doesn’t always mean a small project, simply a project that is primarily focused on its core goal. The MVP always needs to be ambitious enough to actually solve users’ problems. But by starting with the most focused solution possible, you can de-risk the development process by using user feedback to prevent spending on extraneous features. 

The MVP approach also helps reduce the broader operational risks associated with business-critical applications: even if development of the full product is delayed, you have a workable solution in the field. 

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App Development Risk #2: Misunderstanding What Success Looks Like

What’s the Problem? Unrealistic Goals for App Development

You want your custom app to be perfect right away, generate a ton of revenue, win over thousands of users, and provide optimum value to those users right after launch.

Does this all sound too good to be true? That’s because it is. Setting unrealistic goals for your app sets you up for failure. 

That’s why it’s important to step back and think about what you want most from V1 of your app. That way, you can create realistic goals that are genuinely within reach. If V1 is a success, you can quickly move on to accomplishing further objectives.

How Do I Avoid It? Setting Attainable App Development Goals

Begin by working with your development team or partner to agree on what success looks like. In this context, success means goals that are realistic and attainable for the app you’re building and the timeframe you’re building it in.

Example Definitions of Custom App Development Success:

  • A streamlined internal process that improves operational efficiency. 
  • Acquiring a large user base as quickly as possible.
  • Immediate, launch-day monetization potential.

Each one of these goals is perfectly achievable for a new custom app with the right development and launch strategy. But pursuing all three at once right out of the gate makes the entire project far more risky. Premature monetization, for instance, can drive away potential customers before a product is mature. 

Once a focused definition for success is in place, your development team or partner has an excellent foundation for MVP development.

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App Development Risk #3: Spending Insufficient Time on Product Strategy

What’s the Problem? An App Development Vision Without a Plan

You’ve got a strong vision for your app. You feel ready to start building.

The problem is that even a well-conceived and built app can fail to generate ROI if, for instance, it’s not well suited for market conditions, has competitive deficiencies, or isn’t marketed to relevant users. 

Before you build, you need to do the work to translate your vision into a well-thought-out product strategy.

How Do I Avoid It? Aligning App Development with a Product Roadmap

Your product strategy creates a framework for not only deploying a custom application, but successfully following up with the workflows that help ensure long term success. 

Work with your development team to create a strategy that encompasses everything you need to do to build and launch a successful application. The details of a product strategy can vary widely depending on context, but we highlight a few prototypical examples below. 

Product Strategy Examples for Custom App Development Projects:

  • Defining a proposed product roadmap that describes your goals, growth plan (including defining your target market), and the development path you’ll take to make it all happen.
  • Deciding how you’ll prioritize your investments in developing features (which features to build and when).
  • Developing a plan for performing competitive research.
  • Assessing how market conditions or changing customer behavior may impact your product.
  • Making a plan for how you’ll obtain user feedback.
  • Developing a marketing plan to reach your app’s target users.
  • Planning for ongoing improvement and maintenance (software is never “done”).
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App Development Risk #4: Picking the Wrong Platform

What’s the Problem? Arbitrary Platform Selection

Native, responsive, cross-platform, or progressive? What’s the right choice for your custom app? Choosing a platform can be tricky, and there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. All platforms have pros and cons depending on the task at hand. 

Picking the right platform(s) for your app, business, and target users can make the difference between success and failure. And the right choice can depend on a cluster of factors including user group management needs, integration requirements, and security.  

Poor platforms are usually chosen due to a lack of planning: a platform was what a company had always used in the past, for instance, or simply what an internal manager happened to be familiar with. To avoid arbitrary decisions, the key here is internalizing platform selection to the planning process. 

How Do I Avoid It? Make Platform Selection Part of Planning

Platform selection is another area where careful planning is key. A platform is most likely to cause problems when it is selected arbitrarily, or just because it’s what a company has always used in the past.

Platform selection should be carefully tailored to the task at hand. For instance, if an app is being built for largely one-time users, a web-app may be preferable: requiring a download may reduce user uptake. But if an app relies on integration with location services, for instance, mobile may be essential. As long as these concerns are carefully planned for early in the process, risks associated with poor platform selection can be largely sidestepped. 

Working in tandem with your development team, put some serious thought into which platform(s) you’re building for. Your development team can help you understand the technical advantages and limitations of each platform. Considering users’ platform preferences is also crucial: this is another area where user interviews and/or research is far preferable to making arbitrary assumptions.

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App Development Risk #5: Miscommunication That Leads to Misfires

What’s the Problem? Irregular Communication with the Development Team

Based on the development plan you’ve outlined, you assume that certain things are being built. If you don’t communicate with your team regularly, how will you know what they’re really building?

Too often, stakeholders fall out of the communication loop. Unless you’re checking in regularly, this lack of regular check-ins is bound to cause issues. To stay on track and avoid wasted efforts in the wrong directions, your development team needs frequent input and feedback. 

How Do I Avoid It? Formalized, Frequent Check-Ins

Communicate consistently and frequently, checking in regularly to review progress and resolve any issues. If at all possible, attend your development team’s daily stand-ups. If that’s too much, ensure a minimum of at least one touchpoint every two weeks. For example, if your development team uses Agile/Scrum processes, you should participate in sprint reviews (generally every two weeks). The ultimate goal is regularized project tracking so that no issues come as a surprise to stakeholders outside the development team. 

Other key contributors outside the development team should be included as often as possible. Including a designer, for instance, helps keep ongoing development aligned with design concerns. And ongoing work with key supporting groups like marketing will help ensure a smooth rollout. 

When working with a vendor, establishing a technical liaison with dedicated time for managing an outsourced project can help ensure frequent communication and rapid issue resolution. Even simple assistance like pointing the way to the right code repository can help prevent a project from becoming bogged down. For a deeper look at solving the unique communication issues associated with working with an outside development team, see our blog here.

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App Development Risk #6: Neglecting to Make a Plan That Generates Post-Launch ROI

What’s the Problem? Impactful Apps Require Post-Launch Execution

You’re certain your app will be awesome. Surely, after you launch it, users will find it and love it. All that remains is fixing a few bugs and adding a few new features. Right? Wrong.

Launch is just the beginning. When you launch your app, you need to plan for its big picture. That means thinking about your custom app as a holistic experience — as a business in and of itself. It means pre-launch planning for post-launch sustainability.

If you don’t plan adequately for post-launch, you’ll get crickets. Nobody wants crickets. What you want is ROI.

How Do I Avoid It? A Robust Post-Launch Product Plan

A post-launch plan is a holistic accounting of the supporting workflows needed to ensure a successful product. In addition to further development, this includes functions like marketing, sales, customer service, and other operational needs. 

The details of post-launch execution can vary substantially between marketing a new consumer app and rolling out a productivity tool to internal business units. But succeeding in this execution virtually always involves promoting cooperation across the many different business units needed for a successful application launch. 

Example Post-Launch Plans for Custom App Development Projects:

  • Adding new features in Agile development.
  • Creating a marketing plan to help people learn about your custom app.
  • Increasing usability through testing or user feedback. Options include surveys, user prompts, app store reviews (when available), and even incentivized feedback.  
  • Hiring an outside customer service or sales team, or formulating a plan that enables you to manage those functions yourself.
  • Monitoring general application performance.

Keeping all the parties needed to support these priorities involved in the development process is a great step toward minimizing post-launch risks. Your plan should be focused on driving regular, tangible progress that delivers measurable ROI and keeps your app moving forward after its initial launch. 

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App Development Risk #7: Inadequate Development or Management Resources

What’s the Problem? Lacking Development Resources Complicates Planning and Delivery

In the worst version of the problem, your team realizes halfway through the project that it doesn’t have everyone it needs to properly execute the planned application. This situation is sure to result in a product that’s late and over-budget. 

But related issues can rear their heads much earlier in the process as well: if your organization doesn’t have management-level expertise with the relevant technology, planning itself can be a serious hurdle.

Bringing in the right talent from outside is a vital option to consider. As we explore below, this outsourcing can range from bolstering your team across key technologies to bringing in a partner to take on day-to-day management of your custom development project. 

How Do I Avoid It? Development Outsourcing and Staff Augmentation

The initial planning phase of any development project should include a detailed evaluation of the developers needed to execute–coupled with an understanding of how project staffing will affect overall timelines. 

If the required skills aren’t available internally, outsourcing presents a useful option that limits risk by ensuring flexibility. The right vendor will have enough resources on hand to bolster your team with added talent as needed. Resource planning doesn’t have to be perfect at a project’s outset, and hiring delays can be sidestepped almost entirely. This flexibility can be immensely valuable, which is why some of the most successful companies around make extensive use of outsourcing. 

If specific developers are needed over an indeterminate amount of time (like the length of a development project), they can be provided through a staff augmentation model. If you need an outsourced team to take on overall responsibility for managing the execution of your custom app development project, they can be engaged as a full project-based managed team. We provide a much more detailed breakdown of the different types of outsourcing and what they mean for your business in our article here. 

Planning Custom App Development Projects:

Planning isn’t perfect. App development is a hugely complicated endeavor, and it’s difficult to foresee every contingency. But planning and testing as much and as early as possible is still the best way to manage risk. 

As an example of the sort of planning that any development team, internal or external, should conduct, we provide an overview below of some of the factors Distillery considers when managing a custom application development project. 

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it helps illustrate how thorough planning and proactive preparation of supporting infrastructure sets up a project for success. 

The earlier a delay, issue, or opportunity can be detected, the more levers are available to be pulled: proactive planning allows your team to alter development details dynamically to ensure that core goals are achieved. If, for instance, you recognize a 2-week delay 2-months into an 8-month development project, you can decide to add a developer, sacrifice a non-essential feature, or push out release. But if this delay is only recognized with a month to go, the team’s options will be substantially constrained.

At Distillery, we kick off new projects with a discovery phase that includes key tasks like:

  • Development Planning: We work to identify a project’s goals (both for an MVP and along a potential longer timeline), determine the scope of development work required, set achievable release points, and build a sitemap. Factoring in non-functional requirements, like browser compatibility, is also essential. 
  • Asset and Knowledge Gathering: Reaching out to stakeholders for all relevant files, style guides, component libraries, access points, and login information. Ensuring the required information is accessible at the beginning of a project helps avoid costly delays down the road. Even seemingly insignificant assets, for example a font library held by the marketing team, have the potential to delay work for days, costing you time and money. These delays are easily avoidable but can add up to a costly problem without careful preventative planning. 
  • Early Testing: The earlier testing can be incorporated in a custom development project, the better. Indeed, testing doesn’t even need to wait for a complete build. User-testing can be conducted using a clickable prototype, for instance. Remote user-testing tools allow for testing early in the development process, long before the application has been launched to its final target users. 
  • Post-Launch Planning: Establishing a post-launch plan helps ensure that an app’s launch is not only successful, but on time. As discussed above, this can include anything from integrating user feedback to sending out launch emails. In industries with more rigorous regulatory requirements, like finance or healthcare, planning for compliance takes on a much more prominent role.  

Distillery helps businesses decrease development risks while expediting delivery of their mission-critical projects. To find out if we’re the right development partner for your custom app project, request a free consultation!

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