No-one cares about your app
Making any digital product is actually about making two products:
1. The product itself.
2. The reason anyone should care about (1).
Because no-one cares. Of course, no-one cares. There’s too much stuff, so no-one cares just because you’ve made something new.
The problems of digital content discovery are well documented – particularly, if like me, you work for an “old media” publishing firm. You can live entirely inside these problems, along with many other consultants, bloggers and gurus. The supposed solutions - algorithmic, curatorial, iPadalistic - are equally well discussed.
The problem of discovery is particularly well documented when you’re talking about an app. The App Store is a walled garden, dominated by its own rules and algos. Practical guidance to this territory is easy to find, both white-hat and and black-hat (buying downloads, shady free app of the day pyramid schemes and all sorts of things I won’t link to here).
As our current app project – a game, called Split Decision – rolled on, I realized making people care would be one of the biggest issues, right up there with all the technical problems, UX issues and gameplay conundrums. Sure, we’d picked our niche, done our competitor research and run regular user testing, all the while trying to guard against local maximums.
The app is based on the Split Decision card game that sold well, designed by one of the magazines our parent company owns in the US. The magazine also sells well, has plenty of Twitter followers and a website with big numbers. This seemed like a solid foundation to build upon, so we focused on building the app. Every week or so, there’d be a post on Hacker News about boosting downloads, shipping traffic around a network for apps, getting featured by Apple or something similar. Many were useful. Some were faintly depressing.
But they all seemed to miss a step, or to put it better, take a step around something pretty big, which is that first, you need to make people care. All of the posts I’ve seen around actively promoting your app (as opposed to waiting for Apple’s hand) are essentially about better ways to move your message around. They are maps, and like any map, the route never says anything about how you’ll be getting there.
So where do you start on making people care? Plenty of companies outsource it, get in a PR company and try and cook up some ideas to spur a story (not something journalists or readers or anyone really likes). You can buy search terms, which is fine if what you’ve created is a problem-solving thing, or similar to something already popular, and I’m sure if you’re Zynga or someone huge you can do it almost algorithmically – offer the captives of another of your games a bushel of smurf semen or giant sack of addiction in exchange for downloading your new thing.
For everyone else, building an app (or any digital product) is actually about building two products: the thing itself, and the reason for people to care.
We started on the second problem with the same people who worked on the first.
No-one cares? You and your team do. You all care. It’s why you made the thing in the first place. You cared about the code and the pixels, about the UX, about performance, about that button and those dots and what each tap sounds like.
But those are the details, and you only came to care about those because of something else. Something you cared about before all those details existed. Think about Apple - how rarely it sells products on specifications or the details, and how many of its ads (the iPad ones especially) could really have been planned when the product was only a few lines in Jonny Ive’s sketchbook.
How We Got Back
You need to get back. With Split Decision, what we got back to is the fact that the game is all about choosing between nonsense and knowledge – but this is a trivia game where what matters isn’t knowing beforehand, it’s choosing right, right now. It’s a complete inversion of the normality of quizzes. It gives the game a bit of anarchy, gets rid of the sense of predestination and futility that hangs around more conventional games like Trivial Pursuit.
That’s what we wanted to get across, and once we had that idea in mind, the way to do it was pretty clear. Half-way through making Split Decision, we put in a really big whiteboard wall, painting it in Ideapaint. It’s about 10ft wide and 6, 7ft high, and we used it to draw sketches of how the Twitter sharing would work, a ton of user flow diagrams and more.
And then we realized if we could use the whiteboard wall to work out key decisions in the game, we could use it to show the decisions as well, as kind of good angel/bad devils, perched on people’s shoulders. We’d long thought that a gameplay video was going to be tricky, because Split Decision isn’t action packed with 3D killbot graphics: it’s a content game that’s optimized around short game sessions – so drawing out the decisions seemed ideal.
And then when Sally, one of our developers revealed she’d developed a stop motion app for the iPhone a few months previously, everything clicked. I’ve loved stop-motion ever since I saw the video for 33, and combined with hand drawing I felt we got something which really kept the core of what we were trying to get across. Sally produced a special version of the app – higher resolution, and capable of outputting video files, not just animated gifs – and we were ready to film. The video department helped us out with a couple of lights and a tripod, but really, the iPhone 4S is perfect for this kind of work. The resolution is perfectly fine and there are very few settings to tweak.
So we had our camera, our app to film with, our idea and we had the people – everyone you see in the video worked on the app, either as a designer or a developer or a product manager. No, hard as it is to believe, they’re not models. For the drawings we did get help (thx, Rob) and for the music, we turned to Luke Charman, who did the music for the game.
What we ended up with was a really nice, short, simple video – and there’s no real shot of the app in there. Just the logo, right at the end. We put in a few messages, again, direct and simple descriptions of what’s in the game and I think we do have something that shows why we cared about the project. Now, we can put this in lots of places, and try and get the downloads and all that blah. And of course, get back to working on the code and the design for the next version, and the next apps.
So I think the first thing you need to remember when promoting your app is that have two jobs. Creating the thing, and creating the audience. William Wordsworth said it, nearly 200 years ago : “every author, as far as he is great and at the same time original, has had the task of creating the taste by which he is to be enjoyed: so has it been, so will it continue to be.”
I’m not saying that every product manager or team lead needs to make a trailer – that was just our response. But you ought to be able to sketch, or write, or just speak out a sixty second pitch about your product that doesn’t feel like a sell – if you can still say, at the end of months of work, in sixty seconds, just what the product is and why you care about, in a way that’s free of cant – then I think you’ve done a good job. You ought to be able to talk honestly about what you did, and why you think it matters, and hopefully, create that in a way that you can link to and communicate and then, maybe then, other people will start to care.
The app is available now:
 This is a bit of a tangent, but that’s what footnotes are for: this is something I really think Apple has grasped. It’s why they spend so much money on marketing and PR, why the poise and control over “messaging” is so Olympian gymnast grade and why “marketing” is such an elevated function structurally at the company. As John Gruber has written:
“‘Marketing’ at Apple doesn’t mean what ‘marketing’ means at most companies. If you took the “Marketing” out of Schiller’s title and changed it to ‘Senior Vice President of Product’, people would have a better sense of his role.”
 Inversions, reversals, anything counter-intuitive about your product – those are likely the areas where you’ll find the emotional core of something. If you think about, say, the iPhone, it’s really defined by what is left out and how different it is (or was) to what came before.