Building a mobile app? Here are 6 tips for you

Kevin Systrom - CEO, Instagram at Mobilize 2011

At Mobilize 2011 this week, we had a wealth of founders and executives of mobile companies onstage who not only talked up their products but also the things they’ve learned as they’ve built their apps and mobile services. We’ve picked out some of the best advice they had to offer for young mobile companies just starting out. Here are six great tips from Pandora, Flipboard, Instagram, Hipmunk, Formspring and Grey Area:

1. Don’t feel that you have to pick sides in HTML5 vs. native

Pandora  is taking a hybrid approach to its rapidly growing music streaming service’s web site and its apps, and its not alone. Pandora launched an HTML5-powered website last week, and CTO Tom Conrad said that he could see the company developing a hybrid HTML5-native app. It’s the best way to get the best of both worlds with the technology that’s available right now, said Conrad. “That gives you integration with the OS and really, really high performance and really fluid user experiences. But integrated with some HTML5 content, whose strong suit is uniform platform dynamics, and rapid turns on user interface development.”

2. Do smaller releases quickly

It took Instagram (which went from essentially zero to 10 million users in the space of a year) a while between the release of their photo app and the first major update last week. But CEO Kevin Systrom wouldn’t recommend that. “Do fewer things more quickly,” he said, rather than waiting a long time between big releases as Instagram did. “It’s not a mistake, it just took us a long time to do v 2.0. But I’d like to move us into smaller iterations more quickly because I think that if you get into a rhythm of releases you end up making more progress in the long run.”

3. Prototype early and often

Danilo Campos, head of mobile at travel-search startup Hipmunk, offered his best advice on how not to waste your developers’ time: “Prototyping is going to save you from shipping crap. It allows you to touch the application in front of you without having to invest a deep amount of resources in it. It’s something you build in an afternoon’s time rather than over the course of weeks and [then] realizing it’s not good at all.”

4. Human intervention is good

Pandora learned you can’t automate everything. “One of the key observations that [founder] Tim [Westergren] made when he started the company was that part of what we love about music is how it sounds,” said Conrad. “So to make a service that really introduces you to new artists, the best way to do that is to have a catalog of the musical fingerprints or underlying musicological attributes. The state of the art in computer listening is insufficient to tease out those hundreds of details, so we have human beings that come in and put on headphones and categorize those 400 attributes.”

5. Throw out your own expectations

This dawned on the Formspring team when they were figuring out how to translate their Q&A site into a mobile app, which they released earlier this month. At first they felt pressured to recreate their site, but they realized that wasn’t realistic for the phone’s small screen. “Some expectations are yours that you need to throw out,” said Tom Wang head of product at Formspring. Your website may look “radically different” than your app, and that’s OK if it gives the best user experience. “You really need to rethink what you’re presenting and how you’re presenting it.”

Grey Area, the company behind the hit mobile location-based massively multiplayer online game Shadow Cities also had their expectations of user behavior turned upside down early on. Co-founder and CEO Ville Vesterinen said they assumed those who played mobile games were casual gamers, meaning they engaged in brief play sessions while in transit. In reality, Vesterinen said, users play their mobile games in places they are most often, meaning they play for longer sessions. That realization made Grey Area rethink engagement and in-game experiences.

6. Compete with yourself

“A great company thinks about competing with itself,” Flipboard Editorial Director Josh Quittner said. “That’s really in the end who they compete with. They don’t think about what everybody else is doing because if you start thinking about what everybody else is doing, you end up following them.”

Keith Rabois of mobile payments startup Square echoed that. “We look at ourselves in the mirror everyday….it doesn’t really matter what other people do. We really strictly believe that. Insofar as a lot of companies start with the premise of, I have to worry about this feature, and they send around emails (asking), ‘Do we have that?’ We try to take ourselves out of that. It’s our job to build amazing products and we either succeed or fail depending on how amazing they are.”

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