John Moore

Building a Productivity App

Mobile productivity apps abound, which means the name of the development game is differentiation.

One of these apps, SugarSync, is a free service that syncs a user's documents, photos and other files across computers and mobile devices. It supports a range of mobile platforms. SugarSync recently captured a MobileTrax 2012 Mobility Award in the mobile productivity category. Drew Garcia, SugarSync's vice president of product management, recently shared his views on developing in the productivity space.

Approximately 10,000 productivity apps currently exist for the iPhone and iPad. How does a company stand out in that kind of crowd?

Drew Garcia: It's more than just having a great mobile app. Our service is designed to get all of a user's data into the SugarSync cloud. We have apps for all of the user's devices, making it easy to sync data from computers to the cloud and to mobile devices. Mobile is critical to our overall solution, but it is one of many touchpoints for our users.

We invest heavily in our mobile app development; we're constantly refining the experience and adding new functionality. Much of our development is a direct response to the users that rate our mobile apps on the various app stores, which has allowed us to maintain high ratings.

Is the source of inspiration for an app like SugarSync as simple as deciding, "Something like this should exist?" Or does it stem from user outreach and research?

D.G.: SugarSync was initially developed to solve the problems that arise from having important data scattered across multiple devices and computers. The growth of smartphones and tablets has made this a bigger challenge, but also a bigger opportunity.

After our initial launch, we spent a lot of time testing the service with real users and gathering their feedback through all available channels. The service evolved largely based on the direct feedback from users. We also monitor technical tends, which present new ways of solving old problems -- the rise of the tablet is a perfect example. Tablets quickly grew from consumption devices to content creation devices for both consumers and professionals. SugarSync makes it easy to access and sync important files to the tablet, which allows users to be truly productive when they're away from their computers.

What are the major challenges a developer will face in the productivity space?

D.G.: Keeping up with each platform is a big challenge. Mountain Lion and Windows 8 will both launch soon, which means we need to update our apps to make the most of each new OS. It's an even greater challenge with the mobile platforms. We support iPhone/iPad, Android, BlackBerry, Symbian and Windows Mobile, and we're working on our Windows Phone 7 app. Each platform quickly changes, and we're constantly looking for ways to improve our mobile experience.

What suggestions do you have for developers entering the productivity area? Do you find that techniques such as wireframing, usability testing and iterative development pay off here?

D.G.: Our advice is to make sure that you are solving a real problem. This means direct feedback and validation from users. Scrappy user testing helps, but be aware that your friends might tell you what you want to hear, not what they really think. Try to bring in real prospective users to test out your product. Also explore low-cost testing options such as and Agile development methodology will help you quickly respond to insights you gain from your testing. Once you know you're solving a real problem, the challenge will move to the marketing of your solution -- a topic for another article.