Running an Effective Mobile Engineering Team, Part 3: Setting Priorities

Credit: The Blue Diamond Gallery

Clear on priorities: When you ask people what is most important and why, they can answer.

Problem: Leadership is often dominated by iOS users, so Android can feel like an afterthought.

If you ask a person on your team what your top priority is as a team, can they tell you?

  • Can they tell you why?
  • Can they talk about how their work fits into it?
  • …or if it doesn’t?
  • Do your actions, and the actions of leadership around you align with that top priority?
  • Do your team priorities align with your company priorities?

The challenge of team priorities is often not deciding what they should be, but deciding what should come first, and being consistent in your actions so that they align with that.

Let’s break it down.

What should your priorities be?

A sustainable product has both growth and retention.

Source: Mobile Marketing Statistics compilation


Because mobile is growing and desktop is declining, your mobile experience (this includes the web, too, not just native) needs to effectively onboard new users.

US App downloads Nomura.png
Source: ReCode

The era of “there’s an app for that” is over. Of course there’s an app for that, but does that app merit the space it takes up on my phone?

The users who install your app on their device and use it every day are your engaged users. They’ve made it past onboarding, they’ve figured out what it’s for – how do you maintain that engagement?

Is there anything broken that might drive people away?

Different products have different priorities, but it’s important to consider both your new user experience and your existing user experience. Over time, to be sustainable, you have to balance both. If you onboard people into a bad experience and drive them away, you’ll never get them back. But you do need to focus on your onboarding experience in order to grow.

There are two apps I’ve abandoned For Cause. Nike Fuel and Duolingo. Note they are both gamification apps. The same thing happened on both of them – they lost my streak. The Nikefuel was a hardware failure, and Duolingo poor saving of state after an unexpected internet disconnection.

Actually another example of that is WordPress, years ago, before I worked at Automattic. I lost a blogpost on my iPad. I was taking notes during a talk, so there was no way to get it back. I stopped using the app to write and switched to the notes app (and later Simplenote).

People complain, a lot. Technology is fallible. But whatever your product, you need to understand what is your UX catastrophe. For a writing app, it’s content loss. For a gamification app, I would say it’s unfair losing.

What should come first?

What comes first is a balance between company, team, and the various possible focuses. New users? Existing users? Money? Or growth?

There can only be one top priority. But, that doesn’t mean that the team only works on one thing. Every team has to balance maintenance and feature work. But you need to carve out the space for your top priority to succeed. You usually can’t say no to everything other than number 1, but you need to say no enough that number 1 happens.

How do you communicate your priorities?

Priorities need to be communicated frequently, and with reasons and progress. You communicate priorities when you say no to things, and you communicate priorities in how you spend your time.

I like to use data to tell a story. If you can measure something, then you can use that measurement as an indicator of success. But since you manage what you measure, you need to be careful that you consider the experience holistically – looking at multiple metrics make it less likely that something will be gamed.

The current top priority of my team is a project we’ll call “Open Sesame”. We communicate why this is a priority using two main pieces of data:

  1. User success rate with this action.
  2. Support volume from users trying to achieve this action.

These two numbers show up every time we discuss it. They show up in our bi-monthly “what are we doing” post. They show up in our “what this project is” posts, and I bring them up every time we talk about this project.

Usertesting videos of users struggling to complete this action round out the numbers, and help engineers empathize with the problem, and the people it affects.

Aligning your actions with priorities

I started managing a designer this year for the first time ever. And like, I have no idea how to manage a designer, so unsurprisingly I screwed up a bit at first. And the way that I screwed up was that I was periodically asking him to weigh in on certain things that I thought were small, as he tried to make progress on the highest priority project for the team.

It turns out, the things I thought were the design equivalent of code review were… a lot more work than I ever imagined. So as I paid attention I realized that the design things that seemed “small” were really much more involved that I had imagined. Also, eventually he told me that this was stressing him out. We aligned his work better and let things that aren’t our top priority wait, for now.

One thing that can be a challenge for mobile teams in particular, is that right now Android is the largest and the growth platform.

Source: The Verge

Depending on what you’re building and your market, Android might not be your biggest platform, but it’s definitely an important one. However tech company leadership is often dominated by iOS users. If you talk about how Android is important, but only file iOS bugs, people will get the message that iOS is more important, whatever it is that you say.

Read the next part, on building connections.

2 replies on “Running an Effective Mobile Engineering Team, Part 3: Setting Priorities”

Comments are closed.