Few app developers can lay claim to winning praise from Steve Jobs. Ashish Toshniwal is one of them--he received an email from the man himself. In 2010 the CEO of Y Media Labs helped launch the handwriting app Montessorium, which impressed Jobs so much he gushed, "I love what you are doing. Thank You."

Back then, Montessorium stood out for its simplicity and grasp of iPad touchscreen technology, which few companies had harnessed. Flash forward four years later, and Y Media Labs is helping the likes of Apple, PayPal, and American Express to build their singular, user-friendly apps. Inc. asked Toshniwal, a startup veteran who sold Shopping.com to eBay in 2005, to explain how he builds those killer apps--and what keeps users returning. 

Know Your User

Often clients will focus on features without giving a second to thought as to what the user experience will look like. That's why in brainstorming sessions with clients Toshniwal urges them to name their use cases, or why a customer opens an app in the first place. "One or two use cases are [at play] 80 percent of the time among popular apps," he explains. So even though Yelp offers reviews, for example, customers mainly use it to find local services. 

Track the Data 

"We're a big fan of tracking every action so the developers know which feature is popular and how users are using it, and how to increase engagment," says Toshniwal, who swears by Google Analytics, Flurry, and Mix Panel. You want to know the actions users are taking to come back "over and over again," he says. "That's the main metric we focus on."  

Just be sure to focus on the main use case. For instance, cloud computing startup EMC tracks how people use the app to access documents. "There are a lot of other features, like creating files," says Toshniwal, "but this use case is probably their biggest, so they want to make sure that the experience of finding and accessing the files is seamless." 

Think 'Mobile First' 

"A lot of interactive agencies think 'Web first,' but we look at mobile as being the primary device and desktop comes second," Toshniwal says. "Our belief is that's where the industry's trending." He's right: According to comScore, in 2013 mobile devices like smartphones and tablets surpassed desktops to become the leading platform in terms of time spent online. 

Cater to Power Users 

Power users engage with apps most, so it pays to cater to them. And since so much of mobile is a "touch interface," says Toshniwal, "we try to design things that are gesture-based so that it really improves their experience." Some actions, like swiping motions, may take longer for regular users to grasp, but once they catch on, they stick because they're just so convenient. Flicking a picture up speeds album viewing on Facebook, while EMC lets users press and hold to browse through their folders. 

Keep it Simple 

"You should go to the market with fewer features and evolve with users by adding more features on top" over time, says Toshniwal, who swears by the mantra "launch fast, and fail faster." "Software clients get excited about their features, but going to market with 100 features may take a whole seven to eight months, and in that time the industry will change in a really big way," he says. "If you launch faster and earlier, you'll know when the user is looking for something else." 

Published on: Aug 5, 2014