Anthony_portraitAnthony Ilukwe’s iOS School Locator app solves a problem faced by home buyers and realtors – how to find schools in your neighbourhood, that correspond to the district school boundary. So imagine our surprise when his answer to “Does Your App Really Solve a Problem” was essentially, “that’s not the right question”.

In his talk, Anthony showed that:

•  Solving a problem doesn’t always make your app worth building
•  Solving a problem isn’t even required for an app to be successful

Shifting to the positive, the Technical Product Specialist from LookBookHQ and formerly BlackBerry presented a framework for evaluating ideas before you sink a lot of time into building them. He pointed to Instagram as an example of a hugely successful app that doesn’t really solve a problem. If Instagram hadn’t been created, we wouldn’t face a shortage of ways to share mobile photos online. But because it delivers value – something users want to do, in a way that users enjoy – lack of a problem isn’t a problem for Instagram.

And sometimes, he pointed out, the problem we think we are solving isn’t the one our customers most want solved. Anthony cited the example of Wander, an app that was built to help people around the world learn English by talking to people in other countries. At first, it didn’t take off. Users didn’t care. But then, users discovered a different use for Wander. They began using it to talk to others around the world, not to learn English but to share experiences and make a cross-cultural connection. The app evolved to fit that use case and now it’s a hit.

With this foundation, Anthony proceeded to outline essential questions that are second nature to a product person but not always obvious to developers. He showed the audience how to consider things such as:

  • Is there a market? What size?
  • Is there sufficient demand?
  • Do you have a secret weapon vs. competitors?
  • Is there economy of scale?
  • Do you have enough time to build for market advantage?
  • Are you likely to get eaten by a giant?

That last one, fortunately, doesn’t involve actual giants or eating. Anthony explained how even the most innovative idea won’t get you far if it is quickly replicated by a big player who has more resources and an established customer base, so it’s important to consider this from the outset.

Anthony_landscapeFailure to understand the business before building is a common cause of app failure. “People often build before understanding the business,” Anthony pointed out, and this wastes time.

On the other hand, he noted, a crowded market can be a very good thing. It means there is a market that understands and wants what you’re building, so if you can do it better than those already in the market, you can do well.

Anthony walked the audience through basic approaches to these product evaluation steps and emphasized that the market is more important than the problem you’re solving. Most of his failed projects, he noted in the Q&A, were ones where he went through the evaluation process after building.

To sum it all up, Anthony displayed the words of Linus Pauling on the screen:

“The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas, and throw the bad ones away.”

And after this talk, the audience is equipped with a framework for throwing the bad ones away.

Anthony Ilukwe presented Does Your App Really Solve a Problem? at SCREENS 2013. Above photos courtesy of N. Maxwell Lander. 

Sandi Jones

Sandi Jones is a technical marketer, product developer, geek and unconventional entrepreneur. Currently, she is Founder and President of Unconventional Wisdom, a boutique business and technical consulting company, and Head of Product at SqueezeCMM, a marketing analytics startup that recently joined Extreme Startups.