What’s the difference between a non-technology company building a customer-facing app and a tech company building and supporting a software-as-a-service (SaaS) product?

One might suggest differences in the target number of customer segments, audience size, scale, business model, or other usage factors. But many businesses deploy large-scale customer-facing apps with e-commerce and subscription revenue models as part of their business offerings.

Are your banking, insurance, or healthcare tools apps or SaaS? We might not be buying this technology, but we certainly expect easy-to-use interfaces, fast performance, high reliability, security best practices, and other quality factors, whether we’re using a SaaS or customer-facing app.

If you’re developing or supporting a customer-facing application, there’s a lot you can learn from the way SaaS providers manage their products, devops, and other best practices.

Target an audience and define a value proposition  

Before building any application, look for a clear specification on the target customer segments and user personas, even if business stakeholders declare that the app is for all customers. Ideally, the product management and devops teams should draft a product vision and target the benefits to a subset of power users who might depend on the app’s functionality and use it more frequently than other targeted users.

Developing horizontal capabilities to support broad audiences isn’t easy, and most businesses developing customer-facing apps are more like vertical SaaS companies that optimize and sell products in a specific industry.

Anmol Bhasin, CTO of ServiceTitan, says, “Vertical SaaS is crystal clear about the value propositions, customer segments, and the markets they are verticalizing for, and it’s critical to sweat the details of the products and offerings for serving a specific segment of the target market. The mass appeal approach of a product doesn’t work for the most part in vertical SaaS, and in turn, doesn’t universally work for consumer product–focused companies either.”

Understand and implement the business model

What parts of the app will be open to all internet users? Which parts require user authentication? What products and services are sold or managed through it? These key questions require a clear strategy before architecting the app and designing the user experience.

Sunil Thomas, cofounder and executive chairman of CleverTap, shares these examples for apps with subscription business models or where revenue depends on ongoing usage. He says, “To build customer-facing applications, you must first address three core concepts around monetization: 1) how to generate recurring revenue, 2) how to allow free or limited access for some duration of time before recurring billing, and 3) how to enable product-led growth.”

Product-led growth is a business methodology in which the product and its capabilities drive user acquisition, expansion, conversion, and retention. One approach is to capture customer feedback, prioritize features, and market a subset of capabilities that increase customer utilization and impact revenue.

Define a developer community and build APIs

Most SaaS products today are developed with API-first development strategies and consider app developers a second but very important customer persona. Businesses should target employees, customers, business partners, and freelancers as potential API customers, then home in on a strategy. Some apps should plug into an ecosystem with tools like Boomi, Mulesoft, PrivOps, SnapLogic, Workato, or Zapier to support integration. Others can use APIs to support hackathons and other business-to-business  collaborations.

Developing APIs is just the start of cultivating a developer community. To grow a base of developers as customers, businesses need to develop their APIs as products, market them, and provide services to the community.

“So many organizations are ignoring the developer experience, while that is increasingly an important decision-maker and customer base,” says Darshan Shivashankar, founder and CTO of APIwiz. “When building a SaaS, you must build a developer experience that embraces delightful design, enforces consistency, and provides organized dashboards that encourage your developer audience to engage.”

Businesses building APIs should select a handful of SaaS in their markets and learn how to develop and market their APIs as products.

Simplify clicks, decisions, and experiences 

One of the difficult issues facing product managers working in the enterprise is design by committee or multiple stakeholders seeking different capabilities. It often creates a confusing user experience, especially when too many inconsistent user journeys are squeezed into one workflow.

“Sometimes less is more,” says Kashyap Deorah, founder and CEO of HyperTrack. “Forcing more buttons or features onto customers can confuse them about why they should care.” Deorah recommends, “Go the extra mile to figure out why the customer should care and then act appropriately. Customer intervention leads to a better customer experience.”

Deorah shares an example where a company can develop efficiencies by automating straightforward decision-making. “A rideshare experience where a new driver is automatically dispatched due to issues with the original driver” illustrates where simplifying decisions drives efficiencies.

Moty Jacob, cofounder and CEO at Surf Security, says, “The key lesson learned from SaaS is ensuring the user experience is sleek and frictionless, similar to familiar tools they are used to.” He recommends using commonly used apps as examples and ensuring new users can start using the app without much learning.

Jacob says, “Companies like Google and Microsoft have spent millions to ensure their browsers provide streamlined functionality with exceptionally easy-to-use interfaces, so anyone can open the browser and start surfing without ever having to read the documentation.”

Plan for success and assume growth

Shifting from dev to ops requires developing a strategy for cloud, automation, and monitoring. This plan requires answering one key question: Are you building an app for ten people, hundreds of people, or tens of thousands of simultaneous users?

Determining an app’s short-term scalability requirements can be tricky, especially when starting small is an easier path.

It’s convenient to delay the question of scalability if devops teams target lightweight proofs of concept without considering growth, or if business leaders only want to invest in apps with proven business impacts. Yes, you can scale the infrastructure on the cloud, but investing in automation, caching, and personalization isn’t trivial when teams don’t know the scale and slope of the growth curve.

Cody De Arkland, director of developer relations at LaunchDarkly, says, “When developing a new application, it’s easy to get into a pattern of building for your current demand, but this can lead to challenges down the line. A common, active concern for SaaS developers is to build a platform that can scale to new users and respond to growth.”

Establish KPIs around usage

One way to avoid the scalability trap is to define success and operating criteria. When the app meets the defined operating key performance indicators, it signals a requirement for devops teams to strategize with architects, infosec experts, and others on what’s needed to scale the app for growth.

Thomas, CleverTap’s CEO, recommends two forms of metrics:

  • Unit economic metrics, such as cost per user acquisition or incidents per active user that relate input costs to output usage metrics
  • Cohort analysis to determine the underlying strength and weaknesses of the consumer business

Other data worth considering is tracking service-level objectives, reviewing agile collaboration metrics, and measuring customer satisfaction.

If you’re building or supporting a customer-facing app, learning to operate like a SaaS company provides a path to improving customer experience and driving sustainable devops practices.