Role:

Co-founder, Concept lead, Product Manager, UX lead

UX Design:

Wireframing, Wireflows, UX research, UI design

Platforms:

iPhone, iPad, Android, Desktop

Tools:

Laravel, Azure, XCode, Eclipse, Invision, Balsamiq, Lucid charts

Initial concept and vision

In 2010 the market for apps had just begun to hot up. While in conversation over lunch at a restaurant, I realised the restaurant menu resembled a Table view in an iPhone app very similar to some of the features in the Enterprise apps we were building at the time. I pitched the germ of an idea to my partner and company CTO that we could create templates of features which a user would be able to switch on or off in the cloud, SMEs could potentially be able to create an app customised just for them. We could then build apps by scale instead of individually and generate revenue through a SaaS model instead of services based model. The solution solved very real pain points for SMEs at the time with an ability to create apps that they could leverage for their business very easily and affordably and being able to bypass the need to send an app for approval everytime the features of the app were updated.

I designed a few prototype screens as conversation starters about the features that SMEs would find useful. I christened the startup ‘App La Carte’ as the business was initially aimed at the hospitality sector and was a play of ‘A La Carte’ which was synonymous with helping yourself. The domain name ‘www.applacarte.com’ was available as well which was important to us as we planned to target a global audience. Thus was born NZ’s frst ‘Drag and drop app building’ solution. Over time more features and platforms were added to make this a truly multi-platform solution. The biggest challenge was understanding the evolution of technology and market trends and the changing nature of our customers as the dynamic nature of both the landscape and competitors was evolving all the time.

The research

Many SMEs wanted to have an app to be able to compete with much larger enterprises that had launched native apps of their own. It was clear that they could neither afford the development costs nor had the prerequisite technical knowledge about the process. There was a growing disparity in businesses that needed apps and those being able to afford it. The concept was backed by the work done at Moa Creative, our mobile app development agency. Market trend analysis looked positive, iOS devices were just beginning to get critical mass, we had more work than we could handle the app store was turning out to be almost as revolutionary as the internet itself while the costs of developing bespoke apps were prohibitively expensive. We spoke to a few early clients who loved the idea of being able to have a ready to use mobile app that they could customise themselves in the cloud. Backed with this early research we began to work on a prototype.

The solution architecture

The challenge was to make the solution easy enough for anyone to build their own apps with drag and drop ease while allowing it to be flexible enough to allow for a strong branding. The solution was conceived to be a cloud-based model. Users could select features for their apps and build and change their apps in real time across all platforms. At the heart of the solution was an online Content management system (CMS) that controlled everything across all platforms from iOS devices to later addition of full websites as well. Everything from the switching of features to controlling the entire user interface and the branding on the native apps and a website was designed to be controlled by the CMS. The CMS had to be designed to be able to control every aspect of a native mobile application and desktop interface using APIs. The CMS also doubled as a content repository for through which the app would populate the content. Features within an app could be switched on and off through a CMS in the cloud. The connected app would also be able to have it’s branding switched from within the CMS in real time.

There were multiple challenges in building this solution including choosing our hosting environments to make it easy to scale, ongoing subscription payments and updating the mobile apps in real time without it needing to be resubmitted for approval to the app store. The solution evolved as two distinct entities, the CMS that controlled the apps and the build of the platform powered the mobile apps. Many features were added to the platform over time that allowed it to be used by more verticals.

The value proposition

Communicating the value proposition was a challenge. There were a few precedents and with apps being relatively new conceptually, the ability to use a DIY platform to create your own apps presented a bigger challenge.

To present the concept we created a front facing website that illustrated the value proposition with early customer case studies. These studies illustrated how easy it was to build a powerful app without needing any coding. I worked with our UI designer to define the branding, tone and voice for App La Carte and later designed the website and wrote content the demonstrated how different verticals and SMEs from retail through to tourism and hospitality were using the platform to create their own app platforms.

The revenue model

SaaS was our preferred model that would give us and our customers the best of both worlds. It would give customers the ability to tap into the latest technologies without having to make costly investments while it would give us sufficient money to improve the platform over time.

The revenue model had to factor in the cost of submissions to the app store. We introduced a one time payment to cover the manual costs of submission and managing responses from the iTunes store. We built our own subscription engine as subscription payment models weren’t available at the time.

We experimented with a number of pricing strategies before having a tier based pricing that offering a different number of features depending on what tier you were in. With the launch of our more powerful shopping features, we experimented with a store based pricing that allowed a much bigger revenue pipeline over our pure subscription-based model.

Feature design

Features were incrementally added over months that allowed the platform to become increasingly powerful. As a MVP it began as a single data viewing app with essential features that were common to most apps. There was a standard menu, contact, and location screen and with demand increasingly powerful features including coupons that could be redeemed once shared over Facebook through to full shopping carts and booking engines. As the demand for features became more complex our process to design them got more formalised around good design practices.

We designed wireflows and diagrams that allowed us to explore the nature of the features and how a feature could be potentially used by multiple verticals. Once desktop support was added these features had to be designed for the desktop counterparts as well.

Strategy

When first launched App La Carte was bootstrapped as a 4 man team that allowed the operation to remain small and have minimal overheads. This gave us the opportunity to explore the commercial landscape without overspending while yet being able to spot niche opportunities that we could tap into through our unique model. With the addition of more features, the platform became even more powerful and flexible. We began to acquire clients from multiple domains and verticals who found the ease of use very appealing.

With time, well-backed competitors with similar models began popping around the globe. We had decided strategically it would be an apt time to get off bootstrapping and accelerate opportunities to scale by seeking funding. This would allow new features to be developed on the platform that would allow the platform to expand from only native app through to desktops and the addition of more powerful mCommerce and integrations with third-party API integrations with external platforms.

This led the company to be acquired by Spark and rebranded to Putti apps. Putti apps subsequently launched different products that began as an addition to the platform before being spun into it’s own product including Putti forms. A powerful DIY forms product with a range of different applications.

Product design methods and approaches

Designing for Putti apps gave me the freedom to try different approaches and tools with our design team including the use of Design sprints, Value proposition canvas and a greater degree of exploration of different UX methodologies. We began user testing of our existing platform and making reports of the result of the usability tests to compile as reports that were pitched in design meetings.  Ideas were tested in just one week before any development effort was put in. We went from problem definition to a fully testable solution at the end of a week. Some of the ideas that were tested were the creation of a small business mall in an effort to reduce the friction for small businesses that struggled with technology to be easily onboarded without the need for domain names where they could experiment with the platform prior to creating their own store.

Metrics

We measured our metrics through Hotjar, Google analytics. We tracked traffic to our website, onboarding funnel tracking and churn to get a full picture of conversions and Customer lifetime value.