Think like the competition (or become their inspiration)

Mobile business is such an incredible riddle. At times it is so energizing and inspirational like when you hear about 4 guys in a basement building a photo sharing app that reaches 80 million users. Or when a company has the gall to reinvent the taxi industry focusing on customer service first instead of destination. Or even when a small company helps other small companies accept payments via a mobile device. Inspirational. Yes. Disruptive? Not really. Opportunistic? For sure.

Instagram, Über and Square found the essence of the problem that wasn’t being served by current offerings and kept their offering simple – to begin with.

The hunt for the essence

In 2010 the easiest way to share a photo from an iPhone on multiple platforms was to either plug it into a computer and upload it to your networks or email it to yourself and do the same thing. This was the primary challenge Instagram was tackling when it launched around that time. Instagram made it easier to take a photo and share it everywhere. Filters made the photos look better but, for most of us, the beauty of Instagram was the ability to share photos everywhere.

A cab by any other name

The darling – and inspiration – of the mobile industry has definitely been Uber – the mobile-first cab service that makes it easy to find, order and pay for black car service in cities across North America. The beauty of this service is it attacks our pain points with yellow cabs – calling them, waiting for them and paying for them.

How to make paying fun

Payments are not exciting. Nor is the guts of what square is doing innovative. What is innovative is their approach to democratizing accepting credit card payments. Small businesses and babysitters can now accept plastic where once they couldn’t. Painful doesn’t even do justice the process to go through to apply for a merchant account, let alone qualify for one. That was the acute problem Square tackled on behalf of their customers and they have been handsomely rewarded to date.

The race for simplicity

All three of these companies looked at solving a problem that seemed to be completely accepted as normal – part of every day life. They didn’t do it by enhancing existing services. They didn’t do it by adding features. They didn’t do it by thinking the same way things have always been done. They did it by distilling the essence of what the ideal customer wants to do with the service and by removing all the other features that weren’t necessary to achieve this.

I recently saw Jarod Spool speak at UXCamp Ottawa about this very issue and its consequences. Jarod is the founder of User Interface Engineering – the largest usability organization of its kind in the world and a very sought after speaker and influencer in this UI/UX world. During his presentation he walked through the traditional product development cycle and it went something like this:

Jared Spool

Release 1.0 has three features – often times the features that the developers/engineers/founders feel are the most sought after or demanded features. This is in step with the problem they think they are solving. Their reason for getting into business.

Release 1.5 has more features – based on the success and pick up of release 1.0, most developers will build additional features. Perhaps those features didn’t make it into the first version due to time constraints but they make it in this version.

Release 2.0 has even more features – something typical in engineer-led organizations. Features are easier to add than actually finding a happy balance between those features and the functions that are trying to be provided.

Release 3.0 – 9.0 – This cycle continues until you have a bloated product full of features that barely anyone uses. This ends up being a challenge for the sales team to sell and the development team to continue to support. So what happens?

An upstart, realizing the software that was created, that at one point did serve a purpose, was too complicated and had overshot its value to the customer – it became too complicated for what it was meant to do. So their move is to take the top 3 or 4 features of the product and create a simpler version of it, thus disrupting the incumbent, satisfying the customer and simplifying the sales offering.

The search for simplicity

There are hoards of examples out there of pure complexity in need of simplicity and mobile just may be the way to do it. For a great example of this, President Obama has decreed that government agencies will focus on service delivery through mobile applications in order to cut through complexity – surely if governments can use mobile to reduce complexity, entrepreneurs can as well.

Look around you right now. What gets you frustrated? It could be the way you find babysitters or the way mail is delivered, or the way you book your snow removal service or pay for your lawn to be cut. It could be how you book your haircut, your doctors appointment or even how you pay rent. Whatever it is, there is not just a single way of doing it and, for Instagram, Square and Uber, the results are very clear. Mobile changes everything, provided you are willing to ask the right questions.

About the author

Rob Woodbridge

I'm Rob, the founder of and I've spent 14 years immersed in the mobile and pervasive computing world. During this great time I've helped some of the most innovative companies grow their business through mobile. If you are in need of a mobile business advisor or coach, connect with me here to get things rolling.

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