How to make an app like Facebook

We recently had the opportunity to listen to Mick Johnson, former start-up founder and Sydney Uni alumni, who’s now Mobile Product Development Manager at Facebook, provide his thoughts on where the opportunities lie and the challenges of running the most engaged mobile app of them all.

facebook-app-icon

Mick provided some great thoughts on how to think about your mobile app, emphasising the importance of finding something users will want to use everyday, ideally something they’ll use 10% of the time they’re on the device – whether iPhone, iPad or Android running.

Insights into Facebook’s app strategy

Facebook very publicly dropped their original HTML5 mobile strategy last year, and switched to native apps, so it wasn’t surprising to hear Mick emphasise the important of choosing the right tech stack – as he put it, in the context of the Facebook app, their 4 priorities are – update all the time, quick scroll, not crash and contain beautiful high resolution images – all 4 remain allusive (although we’d say they’re getting mighty close), but you can achieve 3 of the 4.

Mick shared some fascinating insights into how Facebook make their app, with a monthly iterate and ship to Apple strategy.  This contrasts to Android, where they run both  beta and alpha versions, shipping to the beta version on a nightly basis.  The alpha version being updated on Android monthly, in line with the Apple deploys.  He stressed the importance of testing and monitoring the performance of the app, being sure to understand how the client is behaving within it and the occurrence and cause of crashes.

The similarities between Facebook’s product approach and those of Google were in evidence, with Mick talking about the need to test hypothesis on actual users, by running experiments and analysing the subsequent data.  Whilst this has been practical on the web for a long time, and indeed is a critical component of web development, it’s considered hard to replicate on mobile, due to the Apple approval process through the App Store.  Facebook’s solution to this then, appears to be it’s beta group on Android, which is a great insight and something other consumer facing apps should consider replicating once they start to scale.

A fascinating contrast was provided when Mick talked about the team now working on mobile products at Facebook, between the scale of it and that of it’s courted bolt on, Snapchat.  When Snapchat secured it’s most recent funding round, the company had 17 employees which they’re now expanding to 64 or so.  Contrast this with Facebook, where the  Apple apps alone are supported by a team of 300, with Android also enjoying the support of a separate team of 300 – so 600 in total, with presumably a similar size team on the web product.

facebook-app-screenshot

The size of these human resource teams behind the mobile products, clearly demonstrate the importance of mobile to Facebook and that Zuckerberg has restructured the strategy of the company towards it.

Insights into Mobile Startups

Prior to joining Facebook, Mick had been involved in a number of start-ups, so was able to provide some useful insights to other founders.

First up for Mick, was the choice of co-founder, which he stressed was the single most critical factor in determining whether the start-up will succeed or not.

He stressed not to immediately disregard HTML5 when choosing a platform, saying that some aspects of Facebook’s own app remain better in the hybrid version, but that the technology can’t support the need for fast scrolling or large picture files.  He believes that if web browsers become capable of storing large amounts of data, then web apps will become much more viable.

He had an original and great insight into how a start-up can acquire customers – ‘buy them, or buy them” – be it either by spending money on ads, or investing it in building an awesome product.  Our take on that, is that money invested in the product is lasting, but money for an ad is only fleeting – so focus on getting the former right first, once you’ve proven a concept hypothesis with an MVP or user experience testing.

It was reassuring to hear him state that every trend Facebook are seeing, across both the developed and developing world, supports our own hypothesis that mobile is eating the web alive.  That’s why AppInstruct’s Course is mobile focused – this is the platform opportunity of this decade!  People use their smartphones about 100 times a day on average!

On product management he highlighted 3 critical skills required to be successful:

(1)  logical analysis;
(2)  design critic; and
(3)  visionary – ability to predict what the world will be in 10 years.

and stressed the need to always ask questions suggested by your instinct, such as why is it slow!

Was great of Mick to share the benefits of his experience and insights, and we hope you take inspiration from this and consider learning more, both about making apps and building businesses, by starting a free trial of AppInstruct’s Course today.

Nicholas Wright wrote on

Nicholas is a co-founder and CEO of AppInstruct. Nic is actively involved in the start-up space, mentoring other founders with mobile, fundraising and legal advice. Nic's favorite app is WhatsApp, which allows him to remain in contact with family in America and England.