Much like all black swans in the history of humankind, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the world we used to know like a ton of bricks. Self-isolation and newly introduced social distancing regulations have already started taking their toll on the economy. From transportation and tourism to manufacturing, entire industries are hemorrhaging which leads to numerous companies closing their doors.
At the same time, however, there are ventures that seem to be doing more than fine these days. Just think of Zoom, Coursera, or Instacart: at the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have identified the new needs of their target audience and quickly adapted to the unprecedented situation by means of intensified digitalization. In other words, they turned the challenge into an opportunity.
To follow in these companies’ footsteps, however, you need much more than an open mind and business acumen. The key to success is the ability to scale your product or service so that it not only boasts currently in-demand features but is also capable of handling the increased popularity. And although it may sound like a considerable challenge in itself, you’ve come to the right place – because, in this article, we're going to guide you through scaling your application for dynamic growth so as to let you succeed against all odds.
How to scale an app for sudden growth
From the very moment you decide to found a company, you become a part of the so-called business life cycle. In practice, it means that whatever stage of the entrepreneurial journey you’re currently at, you’ll be faced with different challenges and opportunities.
The beginnings are most frequently discussed, so let us be brief about them: first, you assess the feasibility of your business idea and canvass it, and set it against market needs. Then, once you’re convinced you’ve found your niche, you launch the startup, build an MVP, and start releasing the next iterations of your validated product.
Let’s stop at this point. Now that you have established a good product-market fit and your business is steadily attracting new customers, it’s time for it to grow even further – in terms of both the capability to handle the increased traffic and the flexibility to implement new functionalities. That’s what scaling is about: future-proofing your digital product by ensuring it adjusts well to the desired capacity and is capable of handling an increasing amount of work.
In general, there are two approaches to preparing an application for future growth: vertical and horizontal scaling. The former, also known as scaling up, involves adding more power to an existing machine, e.g. by increasing RAM or disk capacity. Although vertical scaling is relatively quick and easy to implement, it is subject to hardware limitations. The latter, referred to as scaling out, refers to expanding your resources with more machines. The key advantage here that horizontal scaling provides more endpoints for client connections and distributes the load across nodes more evenly.
Having clarified the terminology, let’s proceed to our recommendations for making your application capable of delivering impeccable performance regardless of the number of requests per minute it receives or the physical distance between the users and resources.
Research shows that with each subsequent second of waiting for the page to load, the percentage of users interested in discovering the content decreases. Nowadays, we want highly interactive and smooth experiences and we want them fast. It’s no wonder, then, that performance optimization is crucial – especially when your business is scaling and your app is growing more complex and interactive.
There are numerous optimization practices that can help you enhance the app’s performance significantly and, as a result, make it more user friendly. The selection of the relevant ones ought to be based on an in-depth performance audit – for now, however, let us give you three examples:
- Asynchronous communication
As opposed to synchronous operations, which require waiting for a response or for a given task to be completed before moving on to another one, asynchronous operations allow for handling tasks in a non-blocking way, without waiting for a certain task to be executed. While this doesn’t guarantee the improved performance of an app in a controlled environment in itself, asynchronous communication may come in handy once your product grows and receives requests from multiple users at once. In this scenario, async shortens the total execution time, thus enhancing performance.
Caching is the method for temporarily storing reusable data so that the requests are served faster and more efficiently. As such, it is one of the most effective ways to speed up your application, regardless of its size. Caching can take place at every level of a content’s way from the server to the browser, which is why we distinguish browser and server caching, among others.
- Optimizing page load
Consider containerization and going cloud
Another way to prepare a digital product for intense growth is to select proper tools and providers in the server infrastructure and configuration area. As is usually the case in software development, the ultimate choice is project-dependent; however, in many cases, moving the development environment to containers and using a cloud solution will do the trick.
Containerization can be carried out with Docker which allows for scaling applications both horizontally and vertically. The former means that you spin up more containers while the latter may involve setting quotas on the amount of CPU or memory the app has access to.
Moving the digital product to the cloud, on the other, hand, will give you the benefit of greater flexibility. As your application is experiencing dynamic growth, it can call for more storage and more power to improve workload but also for adaptability to the occasional decrease in demand for resources. Among top cloud solutions facilitating future-proofing products, you’ll find AWS and Google Cloud Platform.
Give microservices a go
There are two approaches to building server-side applications: monolithic and based on microservices.
The main advantage of monolithic applications is their simplicity: they are easy to develop since they are written in a single language and they are simple to test with both end-to-end and UI tests. The simplicity, which suits most freshly-minted businesses, however, comes at a cost – which, in the case of the monolithic structure, is its immense size.
The other approach is microservice app design which is more suitable for complex digital products expecting to experience dynamic growth. The idea is to split your application into many smaller and interconnected apps called services, each of which is responsible for solving one problem only, e.g. logging in, sending emails, managing orders, etc. As you may imagine, this architecture pattern not only facilitates building and deploying respective services in isolation but also leaves much space for scaling up the chosen components.
Leverage cutting-edge solutions and gain a competitive advantage with unique features
Now that we’ve explained the difference between horizontal and vertical scalability and demonstrated ways to prepare your digital product for dynamic growth, it’s also worth noting that scalability can be measured across a couple of dimensions, one of the most prominent of which is functional scalability. The term stands for the app’s potential for further development, e.g. by means of seamlessly enhancing the product with new functionalities which come in handy as the market conditions change.
Understandably, there is no one-size-fits-all solution that can guarantee success, especially in hard times. Nonetheless, observing current tech trends and learning from the success of companies thriving during the COVID-19 pandemic, we can put forth a couple of features that are likely to click if your business is about to or has already started experiencing dynamic growth.
Automation and Management
So far, we’ve talked about growth and scaling as related concepts. While this isn’t entirely wrong, it’s worth taking a moment to clarify how the two terms differ from one another. To set the record straight, let’s take a look at what Mihir Thaker, an Executive Coach and Business Mentor, has to say on this matter:
Growth is all about adding percentages here and there around the business. It’s not concerned with sustainability or who will do the work or how much it will cost to do that work; it’s measured as a single percentage add on to a single measure of your business. (...) Scaling is different. It’s a process-driven approach to growth. No longer is the business concerned with growth for growth’s sake but only with growth which can be managed. Growth that requires a similar amount of resources and effort for a greater return is preferred to growth that requires ever-growing amounts of resources, management, and money. That’s because scalability is the ultimate objective for successful businesses.
In simple words, growth takes place if the amount of resources needed to serve the users increases parallel to the revenue that the digital product is generating, e.g. if you address the increase in traffic by hiring more customer service employees. Scaling, on the other hand, entails reaching an exponential increase in revenue while adding a minimum amount of resources at the same time – as it was the case with Google or Salesforce.
As you may imagine, scaling rather than growing a digital product calls for a major shift in the implemented processes which, in many cases, boils down to automation that increases productivity by means of reducing errors and increasing the speed of work. As McKinsey Global Institute’s report A future that works: Automation, employment, and productivity shows, the value of automation can’t be overestimated, for instance, with regard to data collection and processing which is so prevalent in retail or health care. Here’s a couple of examples of how this form of digitalization can help certain industries flourish:
- Provide impeccable buyer experience with marketing automation
It’s no secret that personalization is a big thing in e-commerce: it makes customers feel valued, increases their attachment to your brand, and drives sales – even if there seems to be little purchase intent at the beginning of a buyer journey. These are not just empty words as numbers support our claim. According to the Econsultancy, personalization of the customer experience has caused 93% of companies to observe improvement in their conversion rates and led almost 50% of customers to an unplanned purchase.
Thus, it’s safe to say that enriching your e-commerce application with a marketing automation solution is one of the most effective ways to bond with your users on all stages of the buyer journey. Let’s take Sendinblue as an example. As its website says, the solution allows you to “keep your growing audience engaged by always sending the perfect message at the right time, in the right place”. From e-mail personalization and chat to behaviorally-triggered and date-based messages, Sendinblue gives you all the tools to make the customers fall in love with your e-commerce app and come back for more. And that’s without significantly growing your customer service team.
- Streamline product information management and distribution
In the times when very few of us have time to do shopping in real life or even browse through the offerings of respective companies, shopping portals like Zalando or Asos are in their prime. And although it’s only natural for brands to cooperate with numerous retailers at a time, the process of managing comprehensive product information and sharing it with multiple parties involved may prove to be arduous – especially when every recipient lays down a different set of requirements.
Fortunately, there are solutions such as BrandSync that serve the automation of this process for both brands and retailers. From the point of view of the former, they allow storing all product info in one place, consolidate digital assets, and significantly simplify the process of content distribution. For the latter’s perspective, such tools shorten product content onboarding as well as facilitate the management of assets. In simple words, make the maintenance of an e-commerce platform painless, regardless of how many different brands it showcases – and, as you probably know, the more well-described products are available in the app, the more satisfied the customers are.
- Boost online delivery capabilities
Automation comes in handy not only when the company is steadily growing but also when it’s experiencing a sudden uptick in popularity – as is the case with online grocery services these days. According to the recent RBC Research survey, over half of online grocery shoppers claim that the COVID-19 pandemic has boosted their willingness to do the shopping online. What’s more, 40% of the interviewees who've never bought grocery online claim they are going to do so in the next couple of months.
Although the huge demand proves problematic for many companies, technology comes to the rescue with features aiming at increasing delivery capabilities. A good example is that of the “fast & flexible” and “order ahead” options introduced by Instacart. The former is supposed to shorten the waiting time as the users select a range of delivery dates and their orders then get matched with the first available slot. The latter, on the other hand, allows customers to plan more orders ahead, thus ensuring they won’t have to put up with unavailable delivery spots later on.
Instacart’s “fast & flexible” feature
As you can see, if your business is selling necessities online, it’s worth adding similar functionalities to your app to unlock more delivery windows and let the users be on the safe side in these uncertain times.
Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
72% of business executives believe AI to be fundamental to commercial success and name it the business advantage of the future. This isn’t a distant future, however, as Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning are already available to transform and scale digital products, whether we’re talking of e-commerce or MedTech.
- Facilitate communication
Let’s start with an AI-based solution that has already proved its worth across many industries: namely, chatbots. As mentioned by Forbes, 70% of millennials who used them report a positive experience and – even more importantly in the context of scaling a digital product for sudden growth – 57% of CIOs and CTOs interviewed by Accenture Digital agree that chatbots deliver large ROI for minimal effort.
Chatbots drive profit for companies from a wide range of verticals. One example may be that of e-commerce, whereby, in the words of David Cancel, the CEO of Drift and a former CPO at Hubspot, “bots and chat make it easier for people to buy the way they want to, when they want to – and that should be the goal of any business”. Customer satisfaction and increased revenue at the same time? Reems like a win-win situation.
Another, completely different application of this AI-fuelled technology may be that of workforce management as is the case with Sheepblue. In addition to automating workforce planning, the solution includes a chatbot that sends rosters directly to employees’ smartphones, which in turn allows for speeding up shift swaps – all in an intuitive way using natural language.
- Let AI do the talking
Much like chatbots, AI voice assistants like Siri or Alexa are no longer a novelty. According to Statista, in 2019 an estimated 3,25 billion digital voice assistants were in use all around the globe and by 2023, this number is believed to reach over 8 billion, thus exceeding the size of the world’s population. The AI-fuelled speech recognition technology, however, isn’t limited to voice control and can be used by companies which currently make use of Interactive Voice Response.
Take medical helplines as an example. Due to the pandemic outbreak and the limitations it imposed on the number of available slots for in-person doctor appointments, concerned patients are overloading the lines. But what if the call center consultants could be supported by voice bots? Based on AI and NLP, trained with loads of data, they would be – or rather are, as such solutions are already available on the market – capable of mimicking human communication and providing a satisfactory customer experience. An interesting local example is that of Voicetel Communications and its smart-speech technology project Brilliance™ which allows a robot to hold an intelligent human-like conversation on the phone.
- Show me what you like and I’ll tell you what you need
If you’ve ever shopped on Amazon (which we're almost sure you have or at least attempted to), you must have spotted this field:
Why are we mentioning it in this article? Because Amazon’s recommendation system is another great example of how AI can support digital business and make it adapt to dynamic growth.
The Machine Learning-fuelled recommendation engines are the digital equivalent of a very persuasive salesperson who’s leveraging cross- and up-selling to maximize their profit. Feeding off information about both explicit and implicit user interactions, such as past activities, reviews or location, it offers a cherry-picked set of products or services that the user might be interested in. As such, not only does a recommendation system boost revenue, but it primarily improves user experience and retention rates.
ML-based recommendation engines proliferate not only in e-commerce but in numerous other industries as well. One example is that of Netflix. Collecting and analyzing data about “what people watch, what they watch after, what they watch before, what they watched a year ago, what they’ve watched recently and what time of day", the world’s leading streaming service looks at the nuanced threads within the content and suggests which shows may fit our taste best. And it seems to work very well as over 80% of all series and movies watched on Netflix are discovered thanks to the recommendation system.
Another intriguing example might be that of Credit Karma, a FinTech company that analyzes customers’ financial data to provide them with personalized recommendations regarding credit cards, loans, and mortgages. In this case, the system suggests not only services that users might be interested in but also the ones they're eligible for. Since personalization means profit in any business, the AI-fuelled recommendation system may prove highly beneficial if you wish to satisfy the ever-increasing number of users without putting in much extra effort, whichever industry you’re representing.
Extended Reality and Live Streaming
As we’ve already mentioned at the beginning of this article, some industries are thriving regardless of the COVID-19 outbreak. Others, on the other hand, are slowly recovering and moving to the new normal. If they wish to stay afloat, however, both types of businesses need to take into consideration the shift from a high-touch to a low-touch economy which, according to the recent report by the Board of Innovation, is here to stay. The answer is touchless technology which can take many forms, including extended reality and video streaming.
- Stir imagination with 3D and AR
As the retail moved online, it quickly became apparent that traditional 2D photography doesn’t do the trick anymore. On the one hand, it limited retailers who could use nothing but words to convey the true value of their offering. On the other hand, it deprived demanding customers of the opportunity to inspect every detail of a given product. Luckily, technology came to the rescue with interactive visualizations which, in the light of current lockdown, are becoming more desirable than ever before.
Let’s take a closer look at how these solutions might work in different areas of e-commerce. As far as home decor is concerned, 3D images allow users to take a closer look at the product from every angle whereas Augmented Reality gives them a chance to visualize products in their homes. That’s how IKEA does it:
Fashion and beauty industries, on the other hand, are leveraging extended reality, in particular AR, to give customers a try-before-you-buy experience at home, without having them put their health at risk. Here’s an example of how cosmetic Sephora is using virtual makeovers to sell makeup product:
As you can see, if an e-commerce app is the core of your business, it might be a good idea to equip it with a virtual catwalk of fitting room features. This way, you’ll let your users make conscious decisions, which will translate into greater profit and lower customer churn.
- Enhance experiences with XR and IoT
As the name suggests, extended reality merges the real and the virtual, thus enabling to go beyond the movement restrictions, regardless of the reasons why they were imposed in the first place. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that the COVID-19 lockdown has caused this technology to thrive.
Think of cultural facilities like museums and art galleries, for example. Although they may not be the first thing that pops to our minds when we think about the limitations that the pandemic imposed on our society,
the arts are needed now more than ever to remind people they are not alone, that we can still dream, escape our current realities and engage our imaginations in building a better world for tomorrow,
says Guy Armitage, the founder of Zealous. The demand for culture is actually increasing in these hard times so, in order to ensure uninterrupted access to the cultural heritage, many facilities are expanding their applications with AR or even VR-fuelled features. One example we can quote here is that of the Cleveland Museum of Art which has adopted its ArtLens App to work from the user’s home as well.
The AR scanning feature of ArtLent App was meant to enrich the onsite experience but now gives access to the galleries from home
The current movement restrictions influence education as well, leading to an uptick in the popularity of online courses and workshops. Once again, AR and VR come to the rescue by providing students with an out-of-the-box learning experience in safe conditions. Speaking of education during the lockdown, it’s also worth mentioning collaborative IoT-based solutions such as U Project, which allow synchronizing teachers’ actions on the whiteboard with students’ tablets.
- Stay separated but closely connected
The spread of COVID-19 has brought about restrictions concerning not only movement but also keeping distance. As a result, numerous large-scale events, private meetings, or even one-on-one appointments were canceled or postponed. The demand for such events, however, did not decline – which leads us to believe that endowing your digital product with streaming and telecommunication features might be just the right thing to do these days, especially if you’re operating in an event or MedTech industry.
According to data gathered by Statista, the in-house media consumption has significantly increased since mid-March when COVID started affecting Europe and the USA on a large scale. During the weekend of March 13 and 14 alone, the time spent video streaming increased by 42% in Spain and 32% in Germany – and the numbers are constantly growing.
Webinars and video conferences are experiencing a similar surge in popularity. Thus, whatever services or products your venture is offering, it might be a good idea to equip your application with a streaming feature. This way, you’ll be able not only to attract new customers but also to keep in touch with the growing number of users in a more engaging way. If your digital product is a MedTech solution, on the other hand, you might want to consider investing in telemedicine functionality. This, of course, calls for full HIPAA compliance, high video quality, and reliability but is likely to prove useful in the upcoming low-touch economy.
Scaling digital products for dynamically-changing conditions: conclusion
However pompous it may sound, the world as we used to know it won’t be back for a long time. Luckily, this doesn’t mean the end but rather the opportunity for us to adapt and prosper in the reality of a low-touch economy. With the users’ behavior changing and the need for new app features arising, ensuring your digital product scales well for dynamic growth will be more essential to keeping a competitive advantage.
Not sure how to scale your business in the new reality? Contact us and let our software consultants help you achieve this goal.