Designing an app? Bring your user allies to the table—now

One of the key steps in developing an app is understanding its users. We all know that's essential, but knowing how to go about meeting your user is a different matter.

You can send out mass surveys, and sure, that aggregate information is useful. But what if instead of extracting information from users, you really got to know them? It's a time commitment, but the upside can make the difference between a "pretty good" app, and an app that users really love because it was designed just for them.

Enter: user allies. This should be a small group of users—maybe a few friends and colleagues—who are willing to work with you through the process. By engaging a small group, you have a much more personal, real relationship with each individual user. You can have in-depth conversations about the functionality of the app, the pains each user is hoping the app will solve, the personalities of your audience. You get to see users as real people.

What does a user ally do that you don't get from quantitative research and testing? A few critical things:

They get invested.

Any user is willing to rip you to shreds over something that doesn't work the way they want it to. The invested user explains why, and brings a suggestion to the table. It's the difference between friends and strangers: Friends will tell you when you have a gob of spinach in your teeth; strangers will laugh.

They play it out.

Users with whom you have a relationships will talk hypotheticals with you. This takes your minimum viable product back a step further and saves you time. You don't have to get into mock-ups for A/B testing until your user allies have exchanged thoughts on the idea itself.

Think about it: Your app will have bugs. It will be missing features. You will find problems you didn't even consider, even when you take your app through QA. There will be discrepancies in the way you intended people to use your product and the way they actually do...and because you have user allies, that's okay.

They do less damage.

It's much better to let a few users in on the process to help you than it is to see poor reviews in the app store. User allies help you work out problems on the smallest scale possible, so you have the opportunity to fail early and often. Your user allies see all the bugs and unseemly edges, and despite that, they are still rooting for you.

They save you from yourself.

It's easy to get tunnel vision in the development process—you want to tie up loose ends and get to market before you forget why you started developing it in the first place. If you can curb your impatience and bring your users into the fold, your final product will be much more successful for it.

User allies can become our most is trusted advisors. They help us to validate ideas, test prototypes, and market the final product. Through them, you learn how to help your user before you ever go to market—what could be better than that?

How have you engaged users early in the development process?