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The Best of Mobile Development at SXSW Interactive 2015

This year was a packed year for mobile tech at SXSW Interactive. It was a who’s-who of those dominating and innovating in the mobile tech space – from Yo to Facebook. Aside from a Dong Nguyen cameo, hardly any big name mobile success went unrepresented.

I came away from the event with lots of new ideas and connections, and was amazed with the way Austin completely transforms to accommodate the influx of people for two weeks in March. At the same time, I do think there was a noticeable gap in quality among the ~20 sessions I attended.

Here are a few speakers that stood out to me in particular, all of whom have incredible ideas, delivery and insight in the mobile field.

1. Challenges of Free to Play: No Money, No Problem

By Cory Butler (EA), Gary Gattis (Spacetime Studios), Matthew Hemby (Boss Fight Entertainment), Jeff Petry (Spacetime Studios)

This session was my first session of the entire event. Primacy aside, these guys killed it. I often look to mobile games for inspiration for ways to make other genres of mobile apps more fun. It was eye-opening to hear industry experts’ take on the mechanics of what makes games fun, how they construct compulsion loops in their products and how they retain users. Here are a few of my main takeaways.

100% of those who quit your app don’t become paying users.

The panel agreed on a few big picture items. First – money isn’t something that should be brought up in the first few days at all. During the first few days with your user (especially their first session) is when you have your chance to hook your user into making a habit of your app. Don’t bring up money in the tutorial; instead focus all your energy on grabbing the user’s attention.

The key to the compulsion loop is that moment the player makes a choice that sets “their world” in motion. That moment where the player internalizes the rules of the game, and they get the feeling they have command of their own game world.

Cory, Gary and team also hit on the truism that 100% of those who quit your app don’t become paying users. It’s crucial to optimize your onboarding and give users a first taste of victory as early as possible. If you can’t retain your users for more than a few minutes, why would you think you can get them to pay you?

Paywalls are terrible UX.

In general it’s a bad idea to force users to stop using your app unless they pay. The mechanism that works best in free-to-play games is letting someone pay to make the game easier, or pay to prevent having to wait. Some of your users will have more time than money, and others will have more money than time. Design your monetization strategy with both types of users in mind.

2. Rapid Mobile Iteration

by Mariya Yao, Founder, Xanadu Mobile

Focus on MVE, not MVP.

As technologists, it’s natural for us to jump straight from idea to interface. We start asking ourselves questions about UI without really taking the time to step back and look at the overall experience the product is trying to deliver. More often than not, that experience is something that can be simulated entirely without technology, or with technology that already exists.

The goal in the beginning is to validate that users want to experience the solution for the problem you’re trying to fix. Validating that your interface is something users can understand will come soon enough.

Mariya also focused on the importance of copy when delivering a message. When in doubt, prioritize clarity over brevity (and definitely over being clever).

3. Secrets of Growth Hacking: From Zero to $50M

by Sean Ellis, Founder, Qualaroo

Ask your users how they would feel if they could never use your product again.

When you have more than 40% of users say they would be “extremely disappointed” to not be able to use your product going forward, that means you’re ready to scale.

In the meantime, ask “Are people having an experience with my app that brings value to them?” Let your user feel the core value of your app as early as possible. Even if you’re having trouble retaining users, find those few users that you did retain and go talk to them. Why did they like your product? If you’re struggling with a bloated product that doesn’t have an obvious single core experience, try positioning yourself around the things that your biggest (or only) fans really love.

4. An American Coder in Paris

by Scott Chacon, CIO, Github

Imposter Syndrome

Scott gave us a taste of what it is like working as Github’s CIO in Paris, when his headquarters are in California.

When you’re remote, it’s easy to feel like you’re not doing a good job because there aren’t as many touch points for positive reinforcement. If you’re a manager, be sure to remember to appreciate your team and give them specific examples of things you think they’ve been doing well. It’s important to give or ask for feedback even more than normal when your team is working remotely, because it’s tougher to pick up on one another’s non-verbal cues.

Having separate spaces for home and work is another age-old trick that works wonders for productivity. Even if you can do all your work from your bed, having separate spaces helps your mind compartmentalize when it’s supposed to be working versus when it’s meant to be relaxing. If you’re working from home, it can also be a good idea to give yourself an artificial commute (a walk around the block, or morning exercise routine) to get yourself in the zone of starting work.

Make work processes lock-free.

When working remotely (especially when you’re in different time zones), needing to ask for approval or needing someone else to do something to move forward in your workflow, is a big problem. Minimize the amount of these block points. Look for ways to advance work without needing synchronous communication (meetings).

In the case you do have a meeting, make sure that what you talk about is documented or the meeting is recorded for future reference. The goal here is minimizing subjectivity, which is naturally a common breakpoint when it comes to working remotely.

Online face time is important.

This one speaks for itself. Use Skype or Google Hangouts to get your face time in! Don’t feel bad scheduling hang out time over video chat with your coworkers to keep rapport up and morale good.

The Real SXSW Interactive

I think what surprised me most about SXSW Interactive was how the best events (by far) weren’t from the biggest name speakers, and weren’t the events in the huge auditorium room at the Austin Convention Center. They were the more intimate sessions (if 100-200 people can be called intimate, haha), and they were the talks by folk who had taken the time to prepare a sound idea and presentation. Lots of the bigger name speakers seemed to either a) just be winging it, or b) be too far removed from day to day work to give tangible, actionable mobile insight.

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