A few weeks ago, Duncan told me a short story that I think is helpful for anyone trying to navigate an industry they’re unfamiliar with.

Years ago, Duncan wanted to get a better handle on the reports and data that his clients generated.

He read a book called Finance for Non-Financial Managers. It pulled the curtain back on how to read, understand and interpret financial reports in business.

Basically, what the finance pros don’t want you to know, the author explained, is that at the end of the day, it’s just math.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen a lot of development agencies pop up that sell themselves as “mobile development shops,” with the idea being that there’s something so mystical about mobile development that only they understand.

What they don’t want you to know is that at the end of the day, it’s just software.

Focusing On The Wrong Thing####

I’m not disparaging all mobile developers, and I’m sure that there are some great mobile shops out there.

But I’ve been seeing a growing trend among the apps coming out of many mobile agencies: a focus on technology rather than outcomes.

Companies that define themselves by the technologies they create (e.g., mobile apps) rather than the outcomes that they deliver have blinders on.

They’re so focused on a few specific technical methods that they lose sight of the product development and problem-solving strategies that help you build a solution to a very specific business problem, and not just a product.

Simply put, if you ask for an iPhone app, and a mobile shop promises you an iPhone app, then that’s exactly what you’ll get: an iPhone app.

In reality, when people want an iPhone app, they often want more users, more engagement, more revenue, more subscriptions...but rarely is the app itself actually the desired outcome.

But what I’ve been seeing is that mobile agencies often lack the resources and skills to find creative solutions. For example, what if you don’t need an iPhone app to accomplish your goal? What if an improved website or web app will likely make a bigger impact?

Many clients get sold apps they don’t need, and that are built with the goal of delivering an app, rather than an outcome.

Sometimes, those clients end up approaching us when their apps aren’t producing the desired outcome. Sometimes, they’ll go to other development agencies -- several of whom I know deal with the same phenomenon -- for help. Often, sadly, they’ll simply be stuck with an app that doesn’t accomplish the goal they were trying to achieve when they started.

Outcomes, Not Products####

Again, I want to make it very clear that this is not an indictment of all mobile agencies. But it is something I’ve seen happening quite a lot lately, and it worries me.

Clients are (or need to be) concerned with outcomes, not products. The right product is simply a path to an outcome.

If you choose a mobile development shop, you’re putting a big bet on knowing what the right path is before you start.

On the other hand, by working with a full-service software agency with experience and expertise in product development and solving business challenges via a wide range of paths, you stand a far better chance of achieving the outcome you really want.

How To Tell What Your Agency Is Really Focused On####

In the past, I’ve shared my thoughts on the questions that anyone should ask before hiring an agency. If you want to be able to tell, specifically, whether your agency is focused on your product rather than your outcome, then ask them:

  1. What does my product do? They should deeply understand your product, and not just on a superficial level. They should understand the problem you’re trying to solve, and the wants, fears and objections of your users. Only then can they build a product that people will actually want to use.

  2. How would you change my vision for the product? A good agency should be able to give you insightful feedback on how they might do things a bit differently; even if you don’t agree, you’ll get a glimpse of how they approach product development and problem-solving, which will tell you a lot about the people who you’re trusting with your business.

  3. What do you think is the number one reason my product could fail? An agency that’s a true partner (and not just a product builder) will challenge your beliefs about why your product will succeed, and pinpoint any potential weaknesses in your plan. They won’t just suggest clever UI interactions, they’ll help you overcome big strategic challenges that could hold your product back.

  4. Who, specifically, is going to be working on my product? If your account team consists solely of mobile (or other) developers, run. An agency with your business success in mind will include product managers and people with the expertise to know what to build, and not just how to build it.

  5. What results have your clients achieved? Apps are not results. Have they been able to deliver real, business results for their clients? Ask for numbers.

It can be intimidating, especially if you’re not technical, to try and find the right agency to entrust your project to.

But by understanding that it’s simply software, and by knowing the right questions to ask to tell whether a shop has your best business interest in mind, you’ll end up with the outcome you want, rather than a product you may not necessarily need.

~ Nick Kishfy @kishfy