February 11, 2022

App Lessons from Putting a Man On The Moon

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When we look at creating an app, taking inspiration from the moon landing is not something that first comes to mind. As App developers, we don't have to deal with any life or death situations, just deadlines and budgets. But the two events do share several characteristics, which really struck me when I started thinking about them together.

Here are some things we learnt from putting a man on the moon.

1. Rocket Science....But for Apps!

Understanding what users want to get from a product is a constant battle between going simple and overcomplicating everything. I've seen it on many occasions where founders overload their version one (v1) app with unnecessary features which aren't comprehensively researched or planned prior to development kicking off.

It's unrealistic for many of our clients to invest time in large research studies or testing groups when you are building an idea from the ground up.  However, if there is some research that our clients can do themselves to build consensus among potential users, it helps save time and money later down the line. One way of getting a clear picture for the v1 product which we use for all of our projects is building out an interactive app prototype, that can be tested and showcased to potential users.

Prototyping is how it sounds: building a prototype of the app before any code has been written. A prototype brings the product to life, allowing our clients and team to learn, imagine, create and test. This helps us refine concepts based on feedback and gets users excited about the product we're building. All of which can be done rather inexpensively and quickly!

NASA did something similar when designing the rockets needed for Apollo 11. Engineers had to create a rocket that would carry enough fuel to get their astronauts into space, land on the moon and then return them safely home again. They did all their testing in a wind tunnel to simulate space with air blown past it at speeds reaching 200mph.

The first-ever moon landing was actually delayed by several months because engineers realised they couldn't just send a rocket into space without conducting tests to understand how well it would hold up when exposed to the elements. It turned out that the hull of the rocket would expand under fierce acceleration and heat up to 500 degrees Celsius, so they had to replace 20,000 separate components with something more durable for this first mission.

By focusing on building prototypes first we are able to build the blueprint of 'Rocket Tests' before we even start writing any code!

2. Rocket Launch....But for Apps!

All it takes is a few minutes after checking the server logs to figure out whether the launch of an app has gone off without a hitch. But there's still one question left – how many people are going to use the app? Our development team spends a lot of time writing clean code, bug fixing, testing and optimising the backend before launch, but NASA had something they needed to spend more on – the astronauts themselves. As App developers and Tech founders, we can't really put people in space suits to show off the product, so we have to be tactful with our marketing approach. Collectively we need to think about who our customers are going to be and what kinds of things they care about. Our marketing, feature changes, and product development all need to be geared towards our target consumers.

You see, getting the app up and running is one thing but actually getting customers using your live product is another challenge all together. Our most successful clients have a concise marketing and growth strategy. Similar to when JFK announced that the USA were going to the Moon they built an elaborate plan which span across 9 years and cost in excess of $25 Billion!

I’m not recommending you spend $25 Billion but I am recommending you have an extensive post-launch plan!

3. Rocket Testing...But for Apps!

NASA's rocket launches were far from perfect - over the span of 11 years, they endured 2 explosions, multiple equipment failures and an emergency landing with only seconds worth of fuel remaining. There are bound to be kinks when we're doing something so groundbreaking, so it's crucial that we have our dedicated in-house development team constantly monitoring, innovating and improving. More importantly, it's crucial that users see constant improvement to the product. It's a common struggle we see after launch -  the app is out there, we're working on a new version, but it can be hard to balance creating a bug-free, flawless version and constantly making new feature improvements.

NASA had this same problem when they launched their rockets into space - every time there was an equipment failure engineers would spend days in a dark room pouring over every single circuit board, to understand what could have gone wrong. NASA engineers were blessed with the ability to conduct extensive tests on their rockets from launch pads around the country that allowed them to learn from previous mistakes and make improvements for future missions. Our team aims to do the same thing – iterate fast and test, and then we innovate on our iterations.

4. Rocket failure… but on a much less dangerous scale!

There's an old saying that goes 'If you're not failing then you're not doing anything new', and it really is true of app development - I'm sorry to dampen the mood but 9 out of 10 apps fail within 6 months. One of the most common reasons behind this is the lack of post-launch planning and preparation. Even with all the money in the world at their disposal, NASA had problems updating Apollo missions once spacecraft were already up in orbit around the moon. As an app development team, we always plan ahead for this kind of thing and think about how easily and quickly we can update a product once it's already on the App Store. Our team leverages services like Crashlytics and Sentry to monitor app crashes – even if our apps don't crash themselves, we can still install them to see what kinds of challenges users are having.

If you’re anything like me, your idea is the thing that keeps you up at night. It never leaves your thoughts and it consumes all of your time and energy. There are a number of steps to take before actually launching an app or product but one step, in particular, will shape how successful it becomes – prototyping. The process of taking something from concept to creation has been refined by NASA for decades. They iterate fast and innovate on those iterations until they get what they need to move forward successfully with development. Now we know there’s no such thing as failure when learning, which means marketing just became twice as important!

To The Moon!

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