Seven mobile developer success strategies from Web Summit 2012

Executives from Pinterest, Twitter and hundreds of startups share advice at Dublin conference
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Only in Ireland would you see a conference session focus on creating mobile app experiences that are not simply useful or fun, but "magical."

At last week's Web Summit in Dublin, however, several speakers and panel discussions touched on the notion of encouraging developers to think beyond the everyday interactions between users and smartphones and strive for functionality that elicits as much wonder as it does loyalty. With an audience of more than 3,000 people from 45 countries, the Web Summit brought together dozens of experts in mobility, cloud and digital marketing, but developers were a key area of interest as the conference played host to hundreds of startups vying for investor interest.

FierceDeveloper was on the ground during the Web Summit and we compiled the following list of ideas, advice and food for thought for mobile app makers to consider.

What you love should be obvious by your app: Steve Greenwood's mother is a relationship therapist, but as he got older he found he had a difficult time keeping track of all his various personal connections. He even tried to organize them on a series of spreadsheets before he went on to found Brewster, an app that creates a new kind of address book based on the user's friend's name, city, favorite band and a host of other details. Greenwood said his own motivations for a solution to a problem were key to making Brewster successful. "You have to have it come from a place of deep passion to you personally," he said. There are lessons to be learned from Instagram's founder Kevin Systrom, who was an enthusiastic photographer long before he helped create an app that was eventually purchased by Facebook. "The idea that Kevin would make Instagram makes a ton of sense," said Greenwood. "You could feel (his passion) in the product experience itself." If you're just going after a market because it may have some traction, your app might not have the same magic, he added.

First impressions should be about education: Most developers would love to achieve the success of Twitter, but Josh Elman, who is now principal at Greylock Partners, recalled a key lesson from the social media service's debut. In the early days new users were shown a very busy page with tweets and sample profile details. Now it's a stripped-down experience with definitions of a tweet and a "Twitter teacher" that shows by example how the service works. "Most developers just want to get people right into the product. That's actually one of the worst things you can do," he said. It's better to take the time upfront to not only impress consumers with a great design but with detailed information that will make them successful. "The people who are going to drop out are going to drop out anyway."

Set goals for your launch, not just your product: Brenden Mulligan launched five products in the space of a year, including Web services like Morning Pics, which sends e-mails of Instagram photos, as well as mobile apps like TipList, a way of creating do-it-yourself city guides with feedback from friends. He's used all kinds of methods to get the word out, from social media to traditional public relations, but the key is identifying the outcomes from a launch. "Pick three things you want to learn," he suggested. "It may be about launching for users, getting feedback or something else." Other ideas: launching in alpha or beta could be a good way to see how much your servers can handle if an app takes off.

Don't ignore the one-off apps: Tomer Kagan, the co-founder and CEO of Quixey, focuses on a discovery service that helps users find other apps. He told the Web Summit crowd that not all developers need to wrack their brains thinking of ways to get users coming back to an app over and over again once they've installed it. He gave the example of a consumer app created by a grocery store chain, whose goal was to increase sales by 10 percent by offering information and discounts to customers that were already spending money in the store. It worked. Trying to become the Instagram of grocery stores, however, probably would have been more than what the organization could afford to take on. "There are things that are going to just run in the background sometimes," he said, adding that the industry needs to support a wide variety of use cases rather than trying to overtake Angry Birds in the app stores. "I won't want to live in a world that's only about the top 10 apps."

Inexperience can be an advantage: More than 50 percent of Ireland's population is under the age of 30, which made the demographic of Web Summit attendees skew even younger than what might be expected at a developer event. Notwithstanding the success of Mark Zuckerberg and others, youth is still sometimes considered a liability among investors, but that may be changing. Pep Gomez is the co-founder and CEO of Fever, a social discovery app that brings like-minded friends together via connections on Facebook or through its own service. Only 19 years old, he said younger developers should think of themselves as a blank slate. "You're not going to be contaminated by all the work you've done before," he said. A fresh perspective may be key to identifying and capitalizing on new market opportunities.

People will pay for convenience: A last-minute addition to the Web Summit lineup was Pinterest co-founder Paul Sciarra, whose digital scrapbooking product has attracted some of the biggest attention in social media services this year. While the business model around Pinterest may still be up in the air, Sciarra said he was learning a lot by turning to apps like Uber, which describes itself as an "on-demand personal driver" 'which sends sleek black cars to pick up and drop off passengers based on texts from their smartphone and bills directly to credit cards afterwards. "At first I wasn't sure if I wanted to opt for something that might cost me more than a $20 cab ride," he said. "But the ability to just be able to get a car from almost anywhere just with my phone--it was almost magical."

Leave room for non-social behavior: Matt Paul of Schematic Labs talked about Soundtracking, an app that allows users to add music of their choice to a photo on Instagram, a status update on Facebook and so on. "The challenges of being a big lover of music is that it's been hard to share it in a legal manner," he explained. Like many other developers, his firm Schematic Labs is trying to achieve a network effect of getting tons of consumers using their app on social media and going viral. But that's not the only opportunity. "There's an adjacent use case for people who aren't interested in sharing," he said. These might be consumers that want to keep a personal log of their music choices, for example. If you put on your business hat, that's probably not where all the growth is, but it's still an area developers need to consider if they want to satisfy the full spectrum of user needs, he said.