Who wants to build me an app?
In just five short years, Stronger U had grown from one guy working on a cell phone to a team of nutritional coaches, each with dozens of satisfied members. They were out to improve the way the world eats and become a leader in nutrition. They had all the right ingredients for success. There was only one problem: they were still relying on manual processes like spreadsheets to track member progress and email for coach communications. Without the right technology, they wouldn’t be able to scale efficiently.
They wanted a dedicated platform to bring their community together; a way to empower not only members, but coaches and admins too. They wanted something familiar to most, yet uniquely theirs.
And in a world where people have become accustomed to handheld digital experiences, spreadsheets were not the answer.
Mike Doehla, Founder and CEO of Stronger U, knew they needed a custom app, but didn’t know how to get started. After a few failed attempts and difficult lessons, their most recent effort was closing in on its deadline. However, it remained an unmet promise, leaving thousands of potential users waiting for a solution.
The cost of not knowing.
When Volum8 began working with Stronger U in the fall of 2018, it was to assess the state of their current app. After more than two years in development, it wasn’t complete. So we set out to offer an unbiased opinion on whether we could build off of the existing framework.
For Doehla and his colleagues, it was difficult to translate business needs into requirements for an app. They knew nutrition, not tech. Unfortunately, this latest app, while competently built, was missing key considerations for how the business operated and what it would need in the future. The deeper we dug, the more we realized it could cause irreparable damage if rushed for release.
Our final determination was that we needed to start from scratch.
Mike DoehlaStronger U Founder
Plotting our road map.
When we decided to move forward, it was agreed that no actual development would begin until a clear scope was defined. We believe that the onus of defining project requirements should always fall on the development company. So, we sat down to conduct a thorough discovery.
Diving into competitive analysis.
Our team spared no time in signing up for WeightWatchers, Noom, and other leading competitors. We shed pounds and gained gigabytes, capturing everything from process to app features, always looking for an edge.
Most of these competing programs either replaced the human connection with technology or failed to deliver on critical features where technology could be helpful. And while imitation may be the greatest form of flattery, we found enough room for innovation to avoid flattering anyone. Rather, we discovered ways that SU could rise from the crowd and set new standards.
Data Points & Key Performance Indicators
Analyzed across more than a dozen competitors
Revealing the North Star.
We spent countless hours interviewing, observing and surveying SU stakeholders; walking through their business processes; examining their spreadsheets; studying interactions with coaches, members and admins. Our goal was to learn enough about how the business ran to hypothetically run it ourselves. After all, the software we’d be building would augment how the business operated. We often found ourselves awake at night, thinking of ways to improve existing processes.
Like good students, we listened first. SU had begun to permeate our own culture. Several team members joined their program (and are still on it to this day). We became champions for their brand and mission. What we learned was not only of a technical nature, or how the business operated, but that these guys and gals were genuinely out to improve the way the world eats. They exhibited such passion and drive toward their goals and truly valued the human connection with their members and each other. We knew that whatever we set out to build, it needed to enhance the human connection, not replace it. This became our North Star.
Rounds of Interviews
Conducted with over 80 participants
Constructing blueprints for success.
After SU’s previous app building experiences, we wanted to make damn sure our plan was clear. Our own processes helped as we moved into drafting a structure and making sense of our findings. Our strategy was created by first identifying the “dots,” then connecting them and mapping them out visually.
Our information architecture (IA) studies showed how we would organize data. Our approach to user experience (UX) and user roles dictated who would have access to which data when, where, and how. Our technical strategies outlined which libraries, languages, scripts, and platforms would be used to build each feature in the app; third-party integrations were vetted thoroughly. Several approaches to transitioning members and migrating data were outlined as well. We left no stone unturned.
At the end of our discovery phase, we rendered medium-fidelity wireframes to illustrate how features would work and how information would be organized in the user interface (UI). We then validated our assumptions with multiple rounds of user testing, and wrapped all of our findings into a 62-page strategy to discuss scope, timing, costs and implementation.
More than 400 hours later, by April of 2019, we had a plan. We were ready.
Tech Solutions Vetted
Real-time chat services
Michael AlessiCOO of Stronger U
Creating something that has never been built.
What we were proposing wasn’t going to be easy or inexpensive. There was a lot on the line for everyone involved. We were going to do things that had never been done before and it was a big risk for a rapidly growing company like SU. More than 5,000 active members would have to abandon their spreadsheets, which while archaic, still got the job done.
The only certain thing was that we were going to make mistakes along the way, but if we trusted in each other and truly worked together, it would be a success. So, equipped with our experience, blueprints, and a roadmap to guide us, we rolled up our sleeves and got busy.
Design, build, test. Repeat.
Stronger U slowly began to take over our company meetings, creeping into our free time, even visiting us in our dreams. The unique challenge with Stronger U was building a cooperative hub for three distinct user bases: the member, the coach, and the admin. In essence, we were building three apps, each having to speak to one another.
As designs evolved from wireframes, we placed a strong importance on staying on brand and delivering a quality experience for every user and device, all while keeping the North Star in mind. In short order, the design of the app came to life and the bulk of development was underway.
The Stronger U project was a massive undertaking with many moving parts, from user experience to dependency on third-party integrations. Our team was challenged to wrangle payroll, chat services, CRMs, website forms, payment gateways and on and on. Development of this scale is never easy. No matter how much planning or previous experience, you’re always going to be challenged. Every day, the build forced our team to work closer together, grow, and evolve. It ignited our passion for continuous learning.
Dan HendricksonVolum8 developer
And then along came a pandemic.
The first real hurdle came when Covid-19 flooded the US. While we were no strangers to working remotely, we still valued and relied on in-person meetings. Covid changed everything and threatened both Volum8 and Stronger U as companies. Realizing it was not going away anytime soon, we hunkered down and reimagined our daily meetings and collaborative methods. We didn’t let it stop us, but truth be told, it certainly slowed us down. Deadlines came closer as we drifted further apart.
Say no more, aka The Chatkit Dilemma.
Then we were stopped dead in our tracks. Chatkit, the solution we selected and built for all communications within the app was suddenly being discontinued. Its parent company, Pusher, had fallen on hard times due to the pandemic and we were left out in the cold. Months of work went down the drain leaving us to replace a solution that was deeply embedded in every aspect of the application.
We refocused our efforts, brought on another specialized developer and really banded together. What could have taken months to fix was done in two weeks as we integrated our replacement, Stream Chat. This was a huge success in the face of adversity during an already tumultuous environment. It lifted our spirits and raised our confidence. In hindsight, it prepared us for the worst that was yet to come.
Adjusting to a new normal.
Over the course of many months, what was intended to be three clear phases all blended together into a massive push for a beta release of the app. We were already behind due to ChatKit and the ongoing pandemic. We had scrapped several features outlined in the plan to make room for unforeseen changes and additions. We were doing our best to remain agile.
However, with so many twists and turns, we lost sight of a clear transition strategy. And when the time came for coaches and members to enter the beta, we were admittedly ill-prepared. We became reactive: hunting bugs in the software by day, developing new features by night. Leadership at Stronger U became concerned. They began receiving negative feedback from some of their trusting community and confidence was being tested.
Michael SmithCOO of Volum8
Change is painful.
Our responsibility as a tech company does not stop at simply building an app. Our role is to also be educators for our clients. Stronger U was not a tech company. Their methods had been built on spreadsheets and emails. It was truly up to us to help their company transition to a place where tech became a central focus, an asset.
Throughout the app’s soft launch, we had our boots on the ground answering thousands of support tickets from members while continually training coaches and admins, but it wasn’t enough. We were all burning out from what seemed like an endless barrage of bugs and human resistance. Leadership at Stronger U reached a breaking point.
They were ready to scrap the application and revert to spreadsheets.
We had failed to transition thousands of users from one way of doing something, to another. Yet even in our darkest hour, we refused to believe this narrative.
We were convinced the application was doing more good than harm. Could these simply be growing pains? We had to know for certain before we pulled the plug.
We feverishly reviewed data, administered satisfaction surveys, and held interviews with as many users as possible. As it turned out, only a few select issues were causing the majority of pain. (Go ahead Pareto, laugh it up.) We simply lost sight of something greater. We reminded Stronger U of what we had set out to do in the beginning and showed how, for the majority of their community, it was already a reality!
Every member was in the application. Every coach was able to complete their daily tasks more efficiently than ever before. The app was working. As we shifted the narrative to bring out the positive feedback, it was more clear than ever. We had transitioned! And coaches were raving about the ease-of-use and new insight they had with their members.
Seemingly overnight, the veil was lifted. Stronger U no longer had limits to its scale.
They were ready to scrap the app… we had failed.
Mike DoehlaStronger U Founder
Charlie GrahamVolum8 Founder
Stronger, faster, limitless potential.
Mike DoehlaStronger U founder
Charlie GrahamVolum8 founder
The Stronger U app, dubbed the Daily Nutrition App (DNA), is now in the hands of thousands of members around the World. Over 70 coaches serve their members daily directly through the app. The admin team can assign new members to the proper coaches in seconds. The entire Stronger U team has access to data they never thought possible. And still, the human connection between coach and member remains.
In August 2020, Inc. Magazine ranked Stronger U on their esteemed Fastest Growing Companies in America list.
The achievement was monumental, validating that Stronger U was on the right track (even before an app.) It gave us at Volum8 even more gratitude that Doehla and his team trusted us to help them unlock further potential.
Amidst a global pandemic, protests for racial inequality, lack of social interaction and empathy, financial uncertainty, and a multitude of project challenges, we had built something noteworthy. Despite the innumerable amount of times we could have simply quit, we pressed on. We rose up together as two teams united, supported by a true partnership, and guided by a North Star to enhance the human connection that makes everyone stronger.