The Making of an Smart Phone App–An Interview with Michael O’Boyle

Karol: First off, tell me about your experience with application design.Also, how often is the detailed work of application design glossed over by small and mid-sized businesses aiming for what they have in their mind’s eye?

O’Boyle: First of all, I appreciate this opportunity.  Blogging and interviewing is compelling to me because I’ve learned so much from blogs and interviews myself. I believe a wealth of information is locked away in the minds of professionals who have the potential to accelerate positive change worldwide.

Tapping this resource is hard for a number of reasons. For one, traditional means like apprenticeship have been replaced by consolidate learning in universities where the professionals are professional educators and often not active professionals in the area of interest.

Secondly, and perhaps as a result, professionals are usually encouraged to focus exclusively on their profession. This leaves little time for things like apprenticeship, mentorship and blogging.

This brings me back to my intense interest in blogs and interviews – which I see as bridging the gap and connecting me with actionable professional knowledge.

 O’Boyle: You’d asked about app design. Technology and complexity share the same space in most peoples’ minds.  Karol, as example, has spent decades evolving and fine tuning their order fulfillment operations. It no doubt starts with what the client needs! The trick to effective application design, as in many professions, is determining why, before what, and how.

Determine why you need technology before you decide what kind and how it should work. For instance, you may think that what you need is an iPad app because your competition does.

By that logic, what features should it have? The same as the competition? What the competition has — plus something to make it even cooler?

What if you found out that no one actually uses your competitor’s app after the first time they download it?  What if you found out that people downloading your competitor’s app were really only interested in one thing.  (Like their current account status, or when their next appointment was — and that information was either missing from the app, or so hidden in all the other features that might as well not be there!)

The “why” is often a problem you are trying to solve.  For example, “My customers pay late because they forget when payment is due, or don’t know the amount. But they would pay if they could easily check or be reminded.”

Maybe all your app needs to do is provide customers fast access to one or two bits of information. An app like that costs a lot less and can be available much sooner. Maybe the best solution isn’t an app at all. Maybe email or sms reminders with one or two bits of info are more effective — and you don’t even need an app!

I come back often to a book my friend, Dan Noll, ( gave me about 20 years ago called The Goal, by Eli Goldratt (

More than anything else, this book taught me the value of stepping back far enough from complexity to evaluate and, if needed, correct the trajectory.

KarolI appreciate your careful response about how, why, IF an app is needed.  Just this early morning, I envisioned the clatter of apps in front of us these days. Everyone is on this band wagon, correct?

 In real terms, can you give me one or two app projects that titillated you?

O’Boyle: I’m currently working with a group of inventors who’ve created this tiny box that plugs in where your mechanic typically plugs in his computer. It’s called a Vehicle Health Monitor or VHM for short. It quietly sips information about the health and performance of your car and the safety and fuel efficiency of your driving.

The group that developed this technology is Prova Systems The VHM also cleverly deduces a bunch of additional data from the data it gathers. All of this information can be invaluable toward preventing costly repairs and identifying expensive gas guzzling driving habits.

The challenge with Big Data technologies like this is distilling the dizzying amount of data into snack sized, actionable, information. This is my favorite kind of problem to solve. “Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” I think the saying fits but the breadth and depth of Big Data precludes learning all the necessary fishing skills.

I say “Teach an app to fish” and let the “man” focus on eating and other things computers can’t do.  At Prova Systems, this meant creating a web app that would provide a central storage for all the data and a clean and simple dashboard to separate the needles from the haystack (or is it the fish from the sea?). To further simplify things, we’re also integrating email and sms notifications — so the “fish” find you.

KarolFascinating app projects. How often must you “drill down” (i.e., attempt to simplify the goals of your clients) when making an app?

Every time. If someone doesn’t see value in pausing to identify their ultimate objectives — before investing time and money in a project — then I likely don’t have the skills that they need. I really need to know and share my client’s vision so that I can make it a reality.

Karol: And, overall, where do you see apps going in the near future?

O’boyle: The apps that interest me most right now are those doing their best to disappear, or at least shrink to a size appropriate to their function. The single stripe that Any.DO adds to my Gmail, politely offering to create tasks of items in my email I might want follow up on.

The best design, like Carson the butler, is humble enough to know when to speak up and when to dissolve into the wallpaper. GPS and other sensors are helping apps that find the right moments to interject.

Google Now is a good example, anticipating the best times and places to share different kinds of information. Google Glass will take the invisible assistance to the next level with hands-free, heads-up simplicity. I really think things are just getting started.  It’s hard to imagine what this will all look like when my kids hit college. Exciting times indeed.


Copyright, 2013, Karol Media. Note: This article cannot be reproduced or published without the written permission of Karol Media.  Any requests are to be made to  Karol Media retains the copyright to every re-publication.



Michael O’Boyle of O’Boyle + Associates runs a boutique consulting firm with practices in application design and development. Located in Scranton Pennsylvania, O’Boyle’s website is

Karol provides storage, packaging, distribution fulfillment business solutions to e-commerce, other business, non-profits, and associations for over 37 years. Email:

Start-Up or Start-Down (Just No Smack-Down Please)

Looking over the 1976 tax return for Karol Fulfillment, there were sales of $818.00 dollars.   That was the first year in business and was the up side.  Now the down side: a loss of $10,458.  Only good thing about the year was no tax was required and the company CPA prepared the return for free.

And yes, this business was started in a basement and its first client, National Geographic, allowed Karol to grow the next year, open distribution libraries, and gave me a real summer job while in college.  Today I still defer to experienced business people, publications and the Small Business Administration for how-to and updates—because every day is either a start-up or start-down.  Keeping it from being a smack-down, and in business, is a matter of diligence and continual adaptation.

Not long ago I had a discussion regarding on-line retailing and the advice was clear: if you cannot control the technology and have not been in retail, back away.  And for sure, ‘build it and they will come’ has nothing to do with on-line retailing.  If you don’t know enough, you’ll be walking through cornfields.  With very tall stalks!

Currently, we encounter numerous on-line start-ups and too often is the case they lack marketing and/or retail experience.  They come from all walks of life and profession, but not marketing and retail.  Many are able to handle technology but just don’t know how to direct it and have it funnel back from respective markets.   Many are smart enough to keep their existing job until fate be known.

We’ve learned too that many successful on-line retailers have multiple e-commerce sites.  Some stores do better than others yet each has a link strategy.  It’s both a way to compete (keeping it in the family as it were) as well as test.  Test results will improve all sites in some way, but if one site is for exploring search words, product copy, etc., the loss is minimized until what works is determined.

A parting thought if you’re about to start up: research the requirements of retail marketing—both technology and budgets.  Once there’s a feel for it, then decide.

Getting Out of It (or from Under It)

Looking at reasons to outsource fulfillment has everything to do with growth without commitments.  Generally, one can save costs doing it yourself; the problem though is managing an operation that may have little to do with your purposes or product sales.

How do you know?  For sure, knowing all expenses related to real estate will factor greatly.  Purchase or Lease?  Taxes.  Utilities. Upkeep. Insurance.  Keep those costs in mind when considering to handle it yourself or an outsourced service provider.  And then there’s equipment—the minimum likely is one fork lift and one hand jack.

Location too will be part of the decision.  If your involvement includes USPS, options are greater.  However, if UPS and FedEx are contracted for the bulk of shipments, the geographic should reflect customer bases.  This is essential to provide for lower ground service costs.  Karol Fulfillmentis within zone 3 for 90,000,000 million US households.  About 70,000,000 in zone 2.

Objective reviews are related to actual value. So it goes then, you’ll want to have a little extra help when you need it.  And you should be able to get a staff person on the line immediately.  If you can’t, perhaps the staff depth at the service provider is too shallow.  Regardless of the questions, answers ultimately means you do have a fulfillment solution without the commitments associated with the related operations.

Is the Cart Before The Horse?

We all know e-commerce is evolving; and at paces that can seem unreal.  An attempt to define e-commerce will usually, today, end with ‘anything to do with making money’ in association with the internet.  That’s a fair answer.

Selling products via the internet requires basics that include marketing as we know, let alone merchandising the product once the information is seen on screen.  And as shopping cart software develops, so does the fusion between product presentation and shopping experience tighten.  The customer service experience begins with, actually, the receipt and review of the product.  Not the cart experience; though what merchant or retailer wants to make that less than a good yet preferably excellent.

Same holds true with regard to transactions that are not sold products but items necessary to fulfill an offer such as a premium or for internal-use sales and marketing, materials.  Simple shopping cart solutions to aid an individual promised a premium or an employee who simply needs the marketing materials immediately need satisfaction as well.  (Sometimes, the order-to-receipt turnaround for ‘free’ items has a more demanding requirement.   Last minute orders for trade show materials?  You may know what’s being discussed here because your job may be on the line.)

Regardless of the circumstance: the receipt of the order determines customer satisfaction and the definition of customer only is, and always will be, the intended recipient.  All shopping carts then should facilitate the process to initiate the delivery–even if that means ‘manual entry’ along the way.  File uploads don’t always match to OMS if separated, yet ‘in the hands’ is what is going to prove the better fulfillment solution.

Warehousing Ideas & Shipping Products

You may recognize how internet marketing as well as customer service and fulfillment has evolved.  Yet online marketing evolves so fast one might ‘stay put’ if not let it go.  Fact is, it moves as fast as the cloud and applications are developed and upgraded.  Forget about ‘big data’ for a moment.

You may be ‘warehousing ideas’ as to how to go about the business of selling your products (or fund raising) and need some inside information.  Interestingly, fulfillment service providers are a good source of information—they see success or failure every day.  While there will be different opinions, we recognize success based on what is unique in the market place (the product itself, its price and importantly, its description).  Generally, there are specific product features that appeal to a buyer’s sense of well being.  That in some way the customer:

  • Will be safer
  • Healthier
  • Happier

I recently read two blog posts in Practical eCommerce as to why not start up a e-commerce business and I confess, these surprised me.  Yet the information was genuine insomuch to eliminate any delutions.  So, if you have any considerations based on your particular experience, read these posts to quickly qualify yourself.   Last, if possible and as applicable, do not manufacture anything until fully understanding what will be involved in selling over the internet.   (Of course Marketing 101 includes introducing a new product to an existing customer.)

Because You Need to Know How

Generally, the information for this blog is to connect readers on to the closer source of e-commerce related topics and success as well as some bounce-off-business-thinking.  Further, professionals who range in marketing areas (social media and stores, blogging, AdWords and the like) get to the point quicker and are clearer on how to obtain the desired results of your efforts and/or staff or agency.

Recently, I found two exceptional blogs with content that is rich with both clarity and how to information.  Copyblogger and the Kissmetrics blog are great resources.  Amazingly, between these two blogs and the archives (as well as services and/or tutorials), you can come away with so much in a short period of time.  In fact, thanks to Copyblogger, I learned and confirmed the two most important words for blogs: You and Because.  Moreover, the writers there are so good, I’ve improved my content strategy which will lead to more focused, understandable and helpful copy for folks in the e-commerce business.  But I still will have links as much with internet marketing experience out there that exceeds my own.

As e-commerce goes, we all need to keep up with all the internet provides for sales.  And surely, one way or the other, you will recognize when you are lagging behind.  There’s no real formula for how much time or money to put where, yet I can rely on advertising or direct mail budgets from days gone by to help curb what must be.  However, you need not think of cash in all instances to obtain publicity and organic search results with good copy writing; let alone good copy writing for product merchandising or what have you.

The range of information for internet marketing and merchandising between these two outfits is perfect for those assigned the jobs of getting the most site visits but as importantly, converting visits to sales.  You may not agree that these two sites are tops for help, yet if you are unaware, do yourself a favor and investigate.  Their content is mature to the point of making some things a scientific art.  Sometimes a classroom helps clear the mind of other distractions and one can absorb what has been mastered and tried and true; then eventually, the education well applied, converts to desired results with your own vision at the lead.

37 is A Very Primary Number

As anyone can tell you, order fulfillment is not of great interest in the business world.  And when I discuss advertising for ourselves, often we are told, order fulfillment is not ‘sexy’.  Well, maybe so; yet I’ve been told too, if you’re going to do it, do it right.  And thirty seven years later, Karol Fulfillment continues to fulfill orders for many clients that require accurate, accountable and accessible service.  Whether it’s e-commerce and ongoing, or projects–if it has to do with order or item fulfillment we can help.

Incorporated in 1976 after being contracted by National Geographic educational products, Karol got started with library service (out and back) fulfillment (film previews for purchase consideration) as well as rentals.  Gradually as film became Beta II, then VHS, Karol began duplication and fulfillment, then CD and DVD duplication, printing, packaging and fulfillment.  Today, we can still handle print, duplication, packaging, mailing as well as our core service of product order or item fulfillment.  Today we are building shopping carts.  Whatever is next, we’ll take it on.

Our primary product is service.  What value we have is helping clients sleep at night.  That’s right.  They don’t worry about the nitty-gritty, inventory security, data storage, sick days, payroll, building rent & maintenance and the like.  They don’t worry about manifests, forklifts, bills of lading, ladders and boxes.  They simply focus on selling more.

Our staff today has averaged 20 years (since our move to Wilkes-Barre PA in 1989).  And while I have been affiliated with Karol for 37 years and employed since 1982, our Vice President of Operations, Rob Costello, is the senior employee starting in 1978; and our Head CSR, Sue Davenport, since 1989.  So not only do all of us here do well by the client, the company has what is necessary to make good for employees.  It’s a simple ‘to serve’ formula all the way around actually.

We look forward to the fourth decade knowing that it is based on what we do today; not yesterday or tomorrow.  From customer service through order consignment to carriers, we have probably shipped or mailed, over 4,500,000 packages with many days exceeding 5,000.  That does not include handling returns, letter size flat and lumpy mail (we never kept count) or LTL shipments.

Our primary objective, to be sure, is to satisfy clients by satisfying their customers.  Meeting that objective is what makes Karol possible.  Being even is great too as we look forward to next year.

Plodding the Course and Hold Fast

As it goes, learning the means to market product and/or soliciting sales in today’s e-commerce environment is daunting.  Those merchants and e-retailers that are new to internet product sales may be overwhelmed and/or under budgeted for the outside services to provide access to all the internet has to offer for marketing.   Some thoughts to increase results without an outside agency:

1.)    Blog first so as to reach other retailers with wholesale pricing (if possible)

2.)    Blog as much as possible; research your competitors activity and be where they are

3.)    Blog for publicity

4.)    Blog for innovation development and product result (how the product idea came about)

5.)    Publicity for any milestone (anniversary, unit sales, buyer profiles, etc.)

6.)    Publicity regarding clients who bought

7.)    Publicity to include product reviews

8.)    Google+ circles (appropriate)

9.)    Stumble Upon (appropriate categories)

10.) Facebook and/or Yahoo stores

Consider these in the order presented as a suggested path to internet marketing and sales promotion activity.  These can be done internally if not by ownership.  If there is a strategy to use paid internet advertising try concentrating locally at first.  A simple self made demographic will do: age, region, income, etc. will help make the best decisions for testing results.

Remember, unless your product is already known, directing interested consumers to your web site has less to do with product name than subject and product benefits.  Keep mindful of the search word list as you write any copy for blog and publicity.  No need to be shy about product attributes but don’t belittle competitor products or pricing.

Having budgeted for PPC, etc., my advice is to use what’s available at no significant cost other than time.  Worry not about as to who will respond or likes your product.  Moreover, read comments good and bad, respond with courtesy and direct your efforts for sales probability not certainty.

Always remember, Columbus sailed for the West Indies, not the Americas.  Yet he sailed nonetheless testing every nerve to realize all of his sailing skills, holding fast, and onto a surprise like no other.

Customer Service—On Site or Social Media? And What About Pricing as a Customer Service?

Order fulfillment and e-commerce are synonymous.  Yet what makes the difference between success and failure is, and always will be, customer satisfaction through service and relationships.  Progressively social media is helping to keep a brand in touch yet an e-commerce web site is the best place to deliver the best customer service.

While physical shopping can provide an live-smile experience, some up-and-comer bricks and mortar retailers are using ‘robots’ to bring clothing to you.  If that doesn’t beat all.  From auto manufacturing does come the store associate.  Interaction with such automation likely is an experience in and of itself; yet how much of an experience does the customer actually have?  Remains to be determined fully.

And what interaction with a merchant won’t necessarily include ‘haggling’?  Since a purchase is personal, interaction is required and can be kept private more so on the internet than in a store.  And a web site serves best to include the customer in the process.  If this sounds strange, I ask myself the difference between an auction and negotiating?  Depending on the circumstances, buyers always want to believe they got a deal—that’s customer satisfaction as much as receiving the purchased item on time via e-commerce.

If a merchant sells ‘one shot’ purchases, it’s possible to stand ground on prices.  But if priced properly, there may be room.  Conversely in my experience, if it’s a revolving selection of items, then repeat customers are the objective for sure as we know.  Branding is a wonderful concept and obviously effective for any retailer; but once branded, the retailer had better deliver excellent customer service for it to mean anything.

If it’s your store, if anything goes, it will be profits without customer determined pricing as well—a key element to customer satisfaction in my book.  Any successful business knows how low they can go to satisfy their customer.

Think of Us as a Trout (Yeah, the Fish)

Much is learned by what the last step requires to successfully fulfill order shipments.  And that’s checking before packing an order and at last, manifesting the order.  I refer to it as ‘downstream wisdom.’  It’s where the worm of success is eaten.  While no step in the order process is to be ignored, tracking an order up stream ultimately finds the problem.

While not known with the likes of Henry Ford, for instance, W. Edwards Deming’s principles were the basis of Japan’s ability to master manufacturing.  While culturally Mr. Deming was an American, Japan on the other hand was culturally ready to leap into cost effective and quality manufacturing to spur the country’s growth after WWII.  American business at the time did not embrace his principles.

Basically, when management manages from the floor and not the corner office, processes will improve and greater success ensues.  A manager ensures that ‘downstream wisdom’ is being applied throughout the order cycle.  For me, that’s it.  Basically, managers at Karol are physically part of the process.  The information obtained is used to configure the best of work environments to satisfy 98.99 percent of client customer order—and we ‘catch’ client errors as well.  (If the percentage is higher, the variables our clients want us to handle are fewer.)

Deming’s principles are applied to product and kit-to-ship assemblies as well.  Order fulfillment is logistics by any other name and as much to keep fees down to satisfy margins for e-commerce and multi-channel clients.  None of it is rocket science but science it is to complete assembly and when necessary, packaging (paperboard, shrink wrapping, etc.) successfully.

I never did like referring to our operation as the back end, but rather the ‘downstream’ and never, never the outback.