How to use the Lean Canvas for App Planning

Lean Canvas

The Lean Canvas via http://www.leanstack.com

The Product Vision Imperative

Imagine a Ferrari with no steering wheel and no tires – no amount of horsepower or torque will win the race if a car has no direction. Increasing resources or efficiency without alignment and traction on a common strategic vision is utterly ineffective.  While agile, scrum, and XP will maximize velocity, it is critical that we ensure the well-formed team has ultra-clear, laser-like focus on the goal.   After all, no increase in velocity or decrease in impediments can supplement a lack of understanding of what to build and why it should be built.  This is why the ability to clearly articulate the product vision of an app is critical to ensuring we don’t just build the right app and build it fast – we build it for the highest possible impact.

There is a natural 3-level taxonomy to an app.  The app Narrative (the entire app) is made up of Epics (major features), Epics are made up of Stories.  Because an app (as we’ve previously defined it) is a relatively small and ultra-intuitive tool with a highly focused outcome, stating the Narrative is the Lean way to succinctly express the workflow being created, who will use it, and why.  It conveniently looks like a massive user story:

  1. The Narrative – A a sales rep, I want to support customers without having to turn my back or leave the room so I can build better rapport as their consultant.
  2. Some Epics – Check inventory, Answer questions, Take payment, Notify inventory team
  3. A User Story – As a sales rep on the sales floor I want to use Apple Pay to accept payment from my customer  (Part of the Epic “Take Payment”)

The simplicity of this description will help align the team on the product vision, but it glosses over the business case that justifies the vision.  This can be done efficiently for multiple apps using the Lean Canvas approach to documenting the business case for an app.


1 – Identify the Problem

Because the scale and scope of any given app MUST be laser-focused we must start with identifying the key problem we want to solve.  Building the right app – A Billion Dollar App – means we don’t build a hammer and start hunting for nails.  We identify the nut, bolt, or screw, take stock of the complex setting in which we find it, and build the right tool for the job at hand.

“Customers care about their problems – not your solution.”

-Dave McClure

This begins with the Problem Statement.  The top three major pains for a single (existing) operations workflow often tie together in one overarching “problem”.  The Billion Dollar App for an enterprise should also have no feasible existing alternatives.  We aren’t reinventing the hammer!  Instead, we want to identify the problems that are unique to the organization, making a custom solution the best approach.  If a SAAS product for a non-core process is available for a client’s pain, we do the right thing and suggest the correct existing solution.


2 – Know the Target User

An appropriately sized and focused app must have a well-defined target user base.  In marketplace consumer apps, this means identifying the target market segments in which an app will compete.  For enterprise apps, this is typically limited to single business function (e.g. sales).  While there may be a subset of users that have customized versions of the same experience, we avoid creating apps that lose focus by combining multiple unrelated workflows.  For example, if managers want a dashboard for their sales rep app, the manager narrative (focused on analytics and the big picture) should be separate from the sales rep narrative (focused on point-of-sale conversion).

This is often accomplished by creating User Personas that describe an imaginary but likely user for the app.  In order to properly determine Minimum Viable Product, it is essential to know the “80/20 rule” for the target user base.  There are three personas that will assist with effective planning discussions:

  • The Early Adopter – Knowing your early adopter is critical.  Whatever initial revenue or increased productivity the app will drive, the early adopter will drive it and provide the initial wave of feedback that can inform a pivot.
  • The Average User80% of people will use 20% of the app.  That first 20% of features will also deliver 80% of the value created.  Prioritize the high-impact feature that the average user will make use of and defer the rest until later. 
  • The Power User – This user is both useful for building out the longest-term set of possible features and for helping define what type of person will likely not get everything they want.

3 – Summarize the Unique Value Proposition

Once we identify the problem at hand and who it impacts, we quantify the value a solution has the potential to generate.  In enterprise process improvement apps we call this “Impact” – the time or cost savings potential or the potential increase in revenue associated with solving the pains we have identified.  A business case is incomplete without this.  It is easy to gloss over this in the excitement of imagining an app solution, which is why the App Roadmap Workshop is specifically designed to maintain this discipline – we need to know the value proposition before determining the solution.

Once we know the value proposition we are in a position to move from problem to high-level concept.  This is often easiest to do by drawing from apps familiar to the audience, identifying both similarities and differences that we would expect to see. 


4 – Provide the Solution

With a high-level concept and a quantified value proposition, we are ready to brainstorm the solution.  The goal at this stage is to determine what an app would do for each of the pain points identified.  At this stage, avoid over-thinking whether the solutions are separate apps or features combined in a single app.  Instead, focus on the Narrative that uniquely solves the Problem for each User with an identified pain.


5 – Determine the Product Channels

Determining the Product Channel for each app means determining which devices and operating systems will be supported and how the app will be distributed to users.  For web apps, we need to define the internet browsers that will be supported based on the target demographic or based on insights from IT.  For enterprise iOS apps distributed through a Mobile Device Management (MDM) platform this will require an Apple Enterprise Developer Account that may take several weeks to secure – do not delay this process.  Android, iOS, and Windows consumer apps each have a unique consumer marketplace with their own policies for content and distribution as well as unique marketing requirements (description fields, screenshots, etc).  Regardless of which channel is right for the solution to the problem, add to your to-do list to look through the policies, terms and conditions, and Human Interface Guidelines for that channel.  If your personal device or browser is not the product channel for your target market, be sure to look up a few “Top Ten Best Apps” and “Top Ten Worst Apps” to get a feel for trends in design and performance.


6 – Revenue Streams

The next step in the Lean Canvas method is determining revenue streams for the product.  In the consumer mobile app marketplace this is often referred to as “monetizing” and may be a combination of selling a paid app, using in-app purchases, making space for iAd, sponsored content, or selling data that is collected.  When planning web or mobile apps for the enterprise, the App Roadmap Workshop looks at how much cost or time savings or additional revenue (of the potential identified at the Unique Value Proposition stage) can likely be captured by the business given the possibility.  This is part of an overall Balanced Scorecard that ranks the apps the business has identified in order of Return On App.


7 – Understanding Cost Structure

As part of the App Roadmap scorecard, we work with clients to identify the impact of the cost structure of the business processes we will impact.  This can be done using relative estimation by rating a handful of subjective influences:  switching costs, disruptiveness to employees, cost of waiting, and timeline to capture the value created.  For example, if our goal is to improve the in-store sales process to increase revenue, we need to understand any costs associated with training employees to use the app, costs to change the layout or technology infrastructure of the stores, and the extent to which the change will be disruptive in a way that has a negative impact on revenue as the employees adapt to the new process requirements.

When planning a consumer app, fixed and variable costs associated with the longer-term product strategy are important to identify – an information website, hosting fees, product support, and ongoing development costs should all be taken into consideration.


8 – Identify Key Metrics

Because we identified the numbers associated with the problem we will solve, understand the unique value proposition, and have planned our monetization or impact, agreeing on key metrics should be relatively straightforward.  If an app is tightly focused, there is typical “one number” that we want to move and a few numbers that we are certain contribute to our goal.  Secondary metrics are important because our primary metric is often a trailing indication of success or failure and is therefore difficult to use for short-term planning.  For instance, if the “one number” is increased quarterly revenue, the impact of new features may not be represented for several months.  Secondary metrics like increased traffic conversion, increased items per sale, and increased revenue per sale may provide insights more quickly.  

While the business case metrics identify the how we measure success or failure of the app itself, the Lean Canvas method can be repeated on a per-feature basis to prioritize Epics on the app roadmap.  Key metrics at this point are typically called “analytics” and focus on the impact of any given feature on the user.  This may include a combination of time-to-completion, time per screen, crash-free users, and user-provided subjective ratings (i.e. 1 to 5 stars).


9 – Competitive Advantage

While identifying revenue streams or process impact and establishing the key success metrics for an app allows us to prioritize and understand feasibility, identifying “unfair” or competitive advantage is essential for determining how to sustain long-term margins.  At this stage, a Five Forces or Resource-Based strategic analysis can help determine how barriers to entry can be raised and also identify what quality about the new product or process improvement will be difficult for competitors to copy.

 

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