By Benjamin Augustin & Carl-Gustaf Harroch 

Businesses have gone through the fastest pace of evolution we’ve ever seen over the last 25 years. Before the 2000s, brick-and-mortar was the most common business model – then came the first digital transformation.

The most successful businesses in the last two decades were the ones that went all in on their digital investment early, developing teams of engineers to deliver an exceptional web experience. At the same time, plenty of businesses created basic websites and employed a handful of engineers, then wondered why they weren’t able to compete. Now, we’re seeing a similar thing happening in the mobile landscape.

Businesses are seeing higher proportions of their customers moving to mobile, putting more demand on their mobile capabilities. Organisations are identifying the need to be mobile-centric and yet, often mobile is an isolated team and it’s not uncommon to see a team of 250 engineers where less than 10 per cent will be mobile developers. 

If you’re serious about competing in the mobile space and scaling fast, first you need to be prepared to invest in the right people – and hire enough of them. Then, mobile growth is about structuring your organisation in a way that enables your team of talented mobile engineers to work together efficiently and effectively.

Invest heavily in your mobile engineering team

We almost always see an imbalance in organisations moving from a web-centric to a mobile-first structure. Usually, they’re organised around web technologies, with full-stack engineers across teams that can work on the back end and the front end. Their mobile engineers, however, tend to just do the front-end work on Android or iOS, and end up on the sidelines. This differs from mobile-native businesses, which won’t usually have this division of frontend or backend because the only entry point for customers is mobile.

The most significant investment your organisation will make in mobile will be hiring, organising and structuring your teams. Ideally, they’ll be fully-fledged feature teams where mobile is wholly integrated – not added into operations as a silo. Ultimately, becoming mobile-led means moving to a more agile working environment where multifunctional teams with mixed skill sets are able to lean on each other and focus on what the end customer needs.

The companies with the most advanced mobile capabilities today are the ones that started with mobile growth in mind and prepared for this from the start. Whereas, those that started with a purely web-centric focus have found that adding in mobile operations has gone against the grain of their company structure. Before you put any major investment into mobile, this operational risk needs to be mitigated by assessing and reorganising how you operate. Otherwise, you’ll bring mobile in as an experiment or add-on and it will stay on the sidelines. 

The key way in which mobile differs from the web is that you’re shipping a single-built artefact on a centralised platform which is all built in one place. This monolithic technology can reinforce a structure where a single team is in charge. So, if you want to effectively distribute your tech stack and organise your teams, you need to think outside of the box – finding a way to overcome this tension with the technology and creating a distributed way of working.

Understand exactly what you need from your mobile capabilities

There’s no way around it – building fully-fledged mobile capabilities into your organisation is a huge investment. The main advantage of having an app is that it places you on the main screen of a customer’s device, making it easy to send notifications and keep your users coming back. You have a captive audience, with the potential to become part of a person’s daily digital habits. 

The key questions to ask yourself to determine whether you actually need a native app at this stage of your business are:

  • Who is our target audience?
  • How do they engage with us? 
  • Am I losing out to the competition by not having an app?
  • Will a mobile app actually drastically change my customer engagement?

If anyone comes to us without a pre-existing product, we usually advise that they start with a mobile web solution and test it with users until they can clearly see the benefit of developing their own app. Building an app is the biggest technological investment you will make for your business, you don’t start there unless you can make a large investment – it’s best to wait until you have proof of concept and it becomes a necessity. 

If you offer a service in the realm of travel, health, finance or leisure, you’ll also want to look at what your competition is doing. For example, Lloyds Bank didn’t have a mobile engineering team until 2017. Then, Monzo came along with a team of 200 mobile engineers, ready to cater to a whole segment of younger, mobile-led users.

Lloyds had a basic app, and up until this point, if you had a Lloyds account then you probably weren’t going to switch banks based on the user experience of an app. However as consumers’ needs and preferences shifted, Monzo was there to meet demand with an app experience that was significantly better than most other banks. 

Suddenly, organisations that hadn’t been threatened by not having a dedicated mobile offering found themselves in a situation where it was essential to compete in the market. Consumers had begun expecting to be able to quickly check their bank accounts on their mobile devices – and not being able to do so was significantly impacting their consumer experience. 

Understand that mobile success is much more than just an app

When we talk about mobile capabilities, we don’t just mean your app. If you want to be a mobile-led business, you need to think about a far bigger picture. Not only will you need engineering to build the application, but you’ll also need product expertise, an in-depth understanding of user engagement and how consumers interact, integration of multiple technologies, and a full understanding of the user’s mobile journey. The app is just one part of your tech stack. 

When we talk about mobile investment, we mean your mobile capabilities as a whole – because this is the core difference between a business that wants to be mobile-centric and one that simply wants an app. 

If you’re serious about mobile growth, just one year of employing a senior team of developers, designers, and product owners with the capabilities you need will be a huge investment in itself. For any company that’s not ready to invest in that, our advice is to focus on an exceptional mobile website. 

Cross-platform isn’t necessarily cheaper

We speak to many tech leaders who look at cross-platform technologies as a way to reduce costs – but this isn’t necessarily true. 

We’ve worked with plenty of clients who told us that they’re fed up with having separate iOS and Android teams because they’re maintaining two code bases that need aligning in terms of feature sets, dedicated skills and training, and code that needs to be re-written twice when changes are made. From a CTO perspective, it’s easy to see how the ideal solution feels like having one front-end technology. But unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Tech leaders are attracted to React Native or Flutter because they see that they can have one team that’s not split between iOS and Android. They tell us that their Android team doesn’t even talk with their iOS team, let alone talk with their back-end team, and they just want to get to a place where they aren’t having to explain and implement everything twice.

But with these cross-platform tools, there’s still a lot of consideration and cost, including maintenance, investment in the technology, learning, training, recruitment, and the ability to talk that language. If your teams don’t talk to each other and you’re looking at cross-platform as the answer, then you’re applying the wrong solution to the problem. Bringing in any cross-platform tool requires a lot of coordination, and it’s definitely not going to be feasible if your teams aren’t coordinating effectively already. 

While cross-platform might save costs or speed things up when you’re a small start-up, as you scale and the complexity of maintenance increases, it’s unlikely that cross-platform will continue to deliver the same benefit. At this stage, you will still require native platform skills within your teams, but you’ll also require the skills to manage the cross-platform solution you’ve implemented. 

In our experience of working with large, mobile-centric organisations, once you reach a certain size it doesn’t matter whether you have a cross-platform solution or native teams – you’ll pretty much always end up with the same amount of engineers dedicated to maintaining the framework and having to do additional work on top. Big businesses have complex code bases, and complex code bases come with their own sets of problems – unfortunately, there is no one-size fits all solution. At that scale, cross-platform or native is no longer a cost or efficiency decision but becomes a resource and organisational one.

Set yourself up to experiment and take risks on mobile

A key part of being a mobile-led business is leading your product development through mobile experimentation. If you aren’t prepared to experiment on mobile – which is often more complex than experimenting on web – then you’ll continue to experiment on web. Then, when you translate the features to mobile, you’ll simply end up with a version of your web experience there – which defeats the object. 

When you experiment on mobile there is a lot more work involved compared to web. You need to build it, deploy it, and maintain versioning. And if your experimenting leads to a crash, it creates a bad user experience which you can’t fix until you deploy another update. It’s not like on web, where you can simply roll back a change, refresh and continue. 

You need to invest in an environment that enables experimental practices for mobile, ensuring you’re in a position to be able to run experiments and drive your product from a mobile perspective.

Invest in experts to get the best from your mobile team

Ultimately, there is no low-cost, low-risk way to invest in mobile. And it’s far too complex and unique to each organisation to put a price tag on it. Getting the right technology, product thinking and engineering in place to deliver what you need to scale your unique product is a balancing act – and it pays to get the right expertise to set you up for success. 

If you’re serious about scaling your mobile capabilities efficiently – talk to us. Our goal is to ingrain the mobile-first practices, processes and mindsets you need as a business to scale quickly and efficiently, starting with our mobile team efficiency audit

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