27 June 2015 ~ 0 Comments

We made an app-less app

This is the story of a little app. An app some friends and I made a year or so ago, and then did nothing with. What a lonely little app! No one, apart from those of us who worked on it have probably ever seen it or downloaded it… and here’s why.

It started with a brainstorming day — my friends Kit, Tim, and I were all working as consultants in various capacities, had worked together in small ways on some projects, and decided to put some time into thinking about how we might work together on more things in the future. During the course of two days in London, we conducted a number of brainstorming and ideation sessions over coffee and teas (non-caffeinated for me, as those who know me will be relieved to hear, as caffeine can be dangerous for those around me). Even when non-caffeinated, there was often too much energy and excitement about these new ideas that needed to be contained – and as we had so many topics that we wanted to go through in those two days, we needed a system of how to manage our time so that we didn’t get carried away on one topic and miss the others.

We had each experimented with the time keeping tool, Pomodoro, and so we decided to try to use a Pomodoro app to manage our brainstorming, For those unfamiliar with the time management tool named after the red tomato timers sometimes found in kitchens, I’ll save you from having to read a book about it and give you the two sentence summary of the idea: “Pomodoros” are 25 minute blocks of time followed by 5 minute breaks. The idea is that, if you break up your work into 25 minute uninterrupted chunks, you will get more done, knowing that the break is forthcoming, and you’ll be more efficient if you limit yourself to completing a task within the allotted time.

We had each used the Pomodoro timer previously in our own solo work, but this was the first time we were trying it in a group brainstorming session. We found that the fixed 25 minute slots weren’t going to work for us and we needed to modify it a bit: for most sessions we’d allocate some period of time, say 15 minutes, to flush out the high level info about the topic we wanted to discuss, then spend about 5 minutes to break that topic into 3-4 key areas we wanted to tackle in that area, and then do about 10 minutes of deep dive into each of those sub-topics.

We left those two days with many ideas for how we might work together – and the timer had nothing to do with it – it was just a tool we’d used in the process. But once Kit and Tim left, I got really excited about the idea of making a programmable timer app. As the over enthusiastic one, I convinced Tim and Kit to get excited about the idea too so we started checking out other timers that existed but none seemed to do exactly what we were looking for: a programmable timer where you could allocate different time amounts for each section of a meeting or work flow along with the title of that section and perhaps instructions or tips for those actions and the timer would automatically flow to the next section when your pre-programmed time slot was complete.

We reached out to an MBA classmate of mine, Saket, who had built a tech team for his new start-up, MealTango (an AirBNB of meals – so when you travel, you can have a local meal in someone’s home, try new types of food, and meet local people). His team had spare capacity at the time, and he agreed to take on the design work.

In the end, we ended up with a beta version of an app that was done more than a year ago… and we did nothing with it. The key feature we had been missing in the other apps we had seen (the ability to programme the amount of time and title/tips for each section) was out of our budget and initial time frame, so we ended up with a beta version that has three fixed timer tools (one being a “15 Minute Meeting Tool” which can be used for the morning huddles I wrote about recently). But it has flaws (the timer stops working when the screen goes to sleep!) and we had it designed only for iPhones/iPads (at the time my phone was too old to add new apps, so I never even used it myself, let alone shared it with anyone else). It was a beta idea that had used up some of our valuable time and money, and it sat there in the “fun-ideas-that-didn’t-go-anywhere” graveyard.

But not any more! I decided that, with this final blog in my “Monthly Resolution Club” goal of reviving my train-of-thought blogging, I would finally explode the on-going guilt I have carried around about this darn app-less app by transforming the experience mentally from a “total waste of people’s time and money” project to a “learning opportunity for myself and, hopefully, others.” So here goes… this is what I learned from making an app we never used:

  • For projects to transform from a fun side project into something real, it needs to have a champion who is really passionate about it. I had put the initial energy into the idea, but I wasn’t passionate enough about it to keep sustaining that momentum. I have seen this time and again in my own work and the projects of other people: something might seem like a fun idea in the moment, but to make anything last past a few initial meetings, someone needs to REALLY care about it. Ideas are a dime a dozen – execution takes time and isn’t always as “fun.” In order to be willing to execute through to the end you have to allocate the time, be willing to prioritize it, and care enough about it to want to do those things. (Images of the chapter of our Leanring Service book I am mid-editing are flashing through my mind right now! I’ll get there on that one though – because I do care about it and I think it does have more social value than a lonely little timer app… but indeed, this too is a case of prioritising and sustaining momentum for something to the end without moving on to the “new” thing… something I am clearly working on!)
  • There is a difference between a “fun idea” and a real “problem to be solved.” In working with dozens of students, and dozens of my own ideas, I have seen this time and again: we often get wrapped up in a fun idea and can sometimes disguise it as a “problem we are solving.” When someone really cares about solving a problem they really learn about that problem, all of the current solutions that are out there, and what the gaps are to solving that problem. This relates to the current research and work I am doing in my job around “apprenticing with a problem” – which I’ll also get into in a future blog. In the case of this app, sure, we did some skimming around for other apps that might solve our problem, but the fun that were exploring was more about “Let’s see what it’s like to make an app.” rather than “Let’s see how we can really solve this problem of having a timer that works for our needs and the needs of other people.” I don’t think it’s a problem to do things for fun, but the important thing is to be honest with ourselves about our goals.
  • Spare capacity can dry up. Since we were doing this as a fun side project, we didn’t put extensive dedicated resources and funding behind it, and instead paid a small amount to an already busy team to play with the idea with us. In the end, when Saket’s company had an investor looking to work with them, that investor rightfully didn’t want to see the staff being pulled off to side projects and our already side-lined side project got moved all the way to the actual line of the side line…. Poor little app – we didn’t give it all the love and time it needed to thrive.
  • It’s ok to play with fun ideas and it’s ok that they don’t all work. But the key part of my reconciliation with this latent app abandoning guilt is to get over myself and remember that it’s OK to play with ideas, try different things, and leave some apps out to dry. It might not be a “poor little app” after all – but rather a little life lesson in the form of an app. It’s in Beta, but hey, aren’t we all? I’m on the same page as Buddha in thinking that we’re all a work in progress…. And this app is therefor no different than you and I – it can certainly be a lot better, but it’s proud to be here as it is right now, sharing the lessons it can! (Sorry I called you a “poor little app”, little app!)

PS – Here’s the link to the free app, if you want to check it out. If you happen to be an app developer, or want to be, and you want the code for this app so you can build upon it and make it better, we’d be happy to give it to you for free so that this little app might gain new wings. Just drop me a note.

PSS – If you do download our free little beta app, you might notice that it’s part of a wider “Free-the-ideas” website we made and never did anything with either…. But that to is a blog post for next month I guess! Yet another idea looking for a happy home….!