If only we’d spoken to you earlier…

This is the pained reaction Craig Llewelyn-Williams, founder and principal consultant at The App Lab, often gets from publishers after they’ve called in his team to help steer their new product through to launch. Craig and senior members of his team tell James Evelegh how applying their product management mindset from the get-go can transform outcomes for publishers.

By James Evelegh

If only we’d spoken to you earlier…
Some of the App Lab team (L-R): Craig Llewelyn-Williams, Christine Davey, Ben Tyler and Benn Storey.

Publishers can be impulsive. They’re always in a hurry. New publishing initiatives – be it an app, a paywall or anything else – often develop a momentum of their own before key strategic questions are asked.

Perceived solutions – “we need a new this, that or the other” – too often form the starting point of the process, rather than a fundamental analysis of the customer needs or the problem they have that the new initiative should be solving.

This, says Craig, is for a number of perfectly understandable reasons; sometimes, the new product idea is the brainchild of someone senior and the focus is on delivering it before the idea has been validated, whilst other times, it might be the result of a rush to market for fear of being left behind.

There is also an enduring, albeit erroneous, belief amongst some in the industry that if you build it, they will come.

Whatever the reason, this approach effectively puts the cart before the horse. It fails to ask and answer, at the beginning of the process, the critical questions of who the customer is and what problem are we solving for them. This approach also fails to apply best practice principles of product management to fully appraise the business case and technical feasibility.

Ben Tyler, lead product consultant, goes further, saying that all products, whether new or existing, need to have a balance of three key factors – desirability: do customers want it; viability: does it make commercial sense; and feasibility: can we technically do it.

“It sounds simple,” says Ben, “but so often, we’ll find a misalignment and an overfocus on one of the factors at the expense of the others – how often have we been tempted to build something because we can technically only to find out that it’s not what customers want nor has an impact on business metrics?”

Gartner defines product management as “the process of conceiving, defining, delivering, monitoring and refining products in, and withdrawing products from, a market in order to maximise business results”.

As such, product management has a much broader remit than project or delivery management and is focused on business success – creating value for the business and the customer.

If properly applied, this approach can have a transformative impact, but the process needs to be conducted in a structured and disciplined way, otherwise there is considerable risk of valuable resources being wasted, project-drift and, ultimately, launching a product that does not meet audience expectations and, as a result, under-performs.

“In the past,” says Craig, “we’ve sometimes joined projects half-way through the process when the publisher realises they need extra resource to get it over the line, but ideally, we need to be involved in the early planning stages, because that’s where assumptions can be tested and a programme of testing and learning established. The chances of a successful outcome are significantly improved by having a clear view of what assumptions have been made and how those are going to be tested throughout the project.”

We help publishers take an initiative from initial concept, through launch and ongoing management.

Craig Llewelyn-Williams

Product management as a service

Top class product management skills to deliver these successful outcomes is what The App Lab offers publishers.

“We believe every product should have a product team and we can be that team,” says Craig.

The App Lab was founded in 2013 and, as its name suggests, its early offering centred around creating apps for publishers. Their long list of clients includes Daily Mail Group, BBC Top Gear and News UK along with a growing portfolio of US customers such as MIT Technology Review, This Old House and Reader’s Digest.

They still create and manage apps, but are now more broadly positioned as a “digital product consultancy specialising in content and subscription products”. As a result, the vendor-independent solutions they propose do not necessarily involve apps!

“We help publishers take an initiative from initial concept, through launch and ongoing management,” says Craig.

This more holistic approach helps publishers before, during and after launch, and is designed to minimise risk and maximise the chances of success.

When using The App Lab, says Christine Davey, director – product operations, publishers tap into its deep industry knowledge and understanding. The App Lab is made up of an experienced team of specialists with a broad cross-industry perspective gained from working on projects for a variety of publishers. They are inquisitive, challenging and pride themselves on the quality of their work, she says.

“We do not adopt a cookie-cutter approach,” adds Craig, “but tailor our involvement depending on publisher requirements. This might be to offer extra bandwidth for a hard-pressed CPO or specialist skills where they might be lacking, to help a CMO introduce a product management mindset to their operations, to present a fresh perspective or to provide a publisher with dedicated product management services for a product that currently lacks them.”

Whatever the level of involvement, or nature of the task, The App Lab always deploys an experienced team with proven product management methodologies to ensure a successful outcome.

Our disciplined product-led approach significantly increases your chances and manages risk effectively.

Christine Davey

How they work

“Whilst there is no silver bullet for new product development success, we’ve found that our disciplined product-led approach significantly increases your chances and manages risk effectively,” says Christine.

“Broadly speaking, we group the activities under three core areas: ‘Discover’, ‘Design’ and ‘Deliver’ which are a constant cycle as we test and learn, hand picking appropriate frameworks and methodologies, looping our findings back into the process, thereby refining and improving the product over time.”

Part of the company’s philosophy is to leave their publishing clients with a structure for the successful ongoing management of a product.

“We fill in the gaps in their current resourcing and plan for future resourcing,” says Craig. Building capability is an important part of The App Lab’s approach.

Products need to have a balance of three key factors: desirability, viability and feasibility.

Ben Tyler

Launched then forgotten

Whilst their service now includes full lifecycle product management – from conception to launch and beyond – The App Lab continues to develop and deliver apps as well as offering ongoing product management services for existing apps.

“In the early days after the launch of the iPhone and iPad, apps were all the rage and we launched hundreds of them for publishers. Then a few years ago, they seemed to drop down the strategic priority list, as publishers shifted their attention elsewhere. Many app teams were disbanded and responsibility for them spread across the organisation. Part of the problem was a strategic disconnect – apps were not aligned to digital publishing strategies focused on building audiences to support advertising models,” says Craig.

“However, with many publishers’ focus now on developing direct to consumer revenues and experimenting with pay and datawalls, apps are now perfectly aligned. With their access and entitlement controls along with efficient print-to-digital workflows, two core components required for paywall implementations, there is a lot of valuable experience and transferable knowledge. Further to that, the premium user experience they offer, makes them a valuable part of a publisher’s subscription or membership offering.”

The recent legal ruling in the ‘Epic Games vs Apple’ court case, that Apple will no longer be allowed to prohibit developers from providing links that direct users away from Apple in-app purchases is another development that aligns apps with direct subscription propositions for publishers.

The challenge many publishers now face is that their apps have been neglected in recent years and no one seems to have direct responsibility for their ongoing management. Although many publishers are now waking up to their potential again, resources are stretched and there is often no budget for dedicated product management resource, which is what these apps need.

“There are a lot of unloved products out there,” says Craig; “the bottom line is that apps are products and if you’ve got one, you’ve got to manage it. Otherwise, your strategy is one of gradual decline.”

“We often come across apps that have been left to gather dust; they were not upgraded for the latest versions of iOS or Android, they started to look dated, bits stopped working, poor reviews ensued and it became a downward spiral of decline. But apps need to be attended to. They need to be loved!”

On one level, proper management of the app, which The App Lab can provide as an outsourced service, will keep these basic hygiene issues under control. But, more excitingly, as part of the service, The App Lab will conduct a strategic review and will constantly monitor functionality, user experience and performance instigating a programme of iterative improvements to the app.

Benn Storey, senior UX consultant, adds: “What has crystallised in the last five or six years is a baseline of quality that end-users have come to expect from the technology they choose to have on their personal digital devices. If your app or digital product doesn’t meet that minimum standard, it not only creates a barrier between you and your customer but can also be damaging to the user’s perception of the quality of your content and, moreover, your brand as a whole.”

Part of The App Lab’s involvement will be to assess a publisher’s app strategy in the round, to bring the app in from the cold, to work out where it sits within the publishing portfolio and to make sure all parts of the publishing strategy are tightly aligned.

There is a baseline of quality that end-users have come to expect.

Benn Storey

Starting a conversation

I put it to Craig that there will be publishers out there who need their services, but don’t yet know it. What did they advise?

“I would suggest publishers ask themselves the following questions,” says Craig:

  • Are our apps underperforming and don’t feel part of our overall digital proposition?
  • Is there anything more we could do to give our apps the best possible chance to succeed?
  • Do we have live products that are not being managed proactively?
  • Could we benefit from applying best-practice product management principles to our new product ideas?
  • Could our new product development programme benefit from validation by external experts, with cross-industry experience, who know what questions to ask?

“If your answer to any of those questions is ‘yes’, then we need to talk! Do get in touch. From past experience, the sooner we start the conversation, the better the eventual outcome.”

The App Lab

Craig Llewelyn-Williams, Founder & Principal Consultant


Tel: 0845 835 8828