First, a disclaimer. Emma Boulton at Five Simple Steps sent me a copy of A Practical Guide to Web App Success and asked if I would read it and maybe write a review, given that I often write about business issues. I love reading business books, so was very happy to do so. The thoughts below are all my own based on my reading of the book.
As an author, a really hard challenge is to cover and do justice to a wide subject area. Making decisions as to how much to cover a particular part of that subject is tough. When I looked at the table of contents for this book, which can also be seen on the product page for the book, I did wonder how Dan Zambonini was going to do justice to subjects as diverse as market research, colour and typography, web app security, testing and deployment and marketing. Surely each one of these subject could be a book in itself? I was a little worried that the book would end up being a lightweight skim over the surface of all of these things.
From my own experience however, with our product Perch, I know that when you do launch a product there are 101 new things you need to have an overview of. Some of these things you, as the product owner or project manager, may not be doing yourself however understanding what these key aspects are is vital. Therefore I was intrigued by the vast TOC and also the opening paragraph on the back of the book.
Most existing web app books cover a specific stage of the development process, such as the technical build or user interface design. For entrepreneurs or project managers who need a complete overview of the web app development lifecycle, little material currently exists.
The book is in five parts, taking you through the entire lifecycle of an app, from coming up with and testing an idea, right through to marketing the completed product. In part one, Groundwork, I liked the attention to detail of Chapter 4 detailing time-saving tips and productivity ideas. One of the tips in this chapter – before you have even really got started on your app – is to get a Twitter account and start being a good citizen. In our own experience with Perch, Twitter has been the main way we marketed the product. With both Drew and I being long-time Twitter users, it made this far easier, than if we had suddenly just started tweeting as grabaperch, so actually participating in social networks early is definitely a great idea.
Part two, Strategy, contains a really good rundown on pricing models and how to price your app. Pricing is something I have written about on this blog in the past and it is a really tricky subject. I get asked about it quite a lot and the advice I always give is that if you have based your pricing on research and concrete decisions then if people complain about it (and they will!) you are able to defend, and explain it.
The section of this book on Interface was the part I thought might really struggle to be condensed. However what Dan has created is an overview of the design process, what matters and why it matters so that a non-designer founder or project manager can lead and understand that part of the project. It fills in the main details, explains the difficulties of designing for the web, shows why certain techniques work well. For developers who end up designing some or all of their interface there are some excellent rules to live by here. For project managers or founders who have hired a designer this is also worth reading in order to best work with the person or company you have employed.
My favourite section of the book was Part 4 on development. As with the section on design it gives a primer on the fundamentals of web development – useful for the project manager who then has some idea of what his developers are talking about. The bulk of this section however is given over to key issues of security, performance and testing. The explanations are clear and give an overview into the considerations you should be making, without straying into the realm of terrifying people who are not security experts.
The final section of the book, Promotion is full of useful tips on how to market your completed product. This is the part of the book where I have the least experience and I found the section on measuring and monitoring really interesting as this is something I want to do better. There is also a very sensible introduction to sane and modern SEO techniques, explaining how to optimize your site for organic search traffic.
One thing that I thought could have had more coverage, is in regard to supporting your customers. Perch is a bit different to hosted web apps as people download and install it themselves, giving us many a support headache. We have found however that providing excellent technical support has been a really important part of our marketing of Perch. People talk about great support, and recommend us based on that alone. Support can also be a big drain on your resources if not well managed, so this is something that you do need to take into account when launching an app or other digital product.
Dan Zambonini has written a practical book, very obviously grounded in personal experience. He has managed to hit a spot between skimming over subjects and going into too much depth for those who are not experts in that area. Refreshingly there is no “make millions from your app in 4 hours a week” to be found here. It’s a sensible and thorough primer for people selling digital products, and I can happily recommend it.