While mobile apps may feel ubiquitous to consumers at this point, it’s tough to imagine our lives without them. It’s even tougher to imagine the people who made the first mobile apps — but that’s exactly what Greg Raiz, founder and CEO of renowned mobile agency Raizlabs, did back in the mid-2000s after the launch of the first iPhone.

Ever since their first app rose to the top of the App Store charts, there’s been no turning back for Raizlabs. The agency works with the biggest companies in the world to build visionary mobile and web experiences for brands like Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Six Flags, and AAA, among others.

Beyond creating killer apps for top consumer brands, Greg has a deeper vision to help improve the lives of everyday people through design and technology. He and his team lead the way and build technologies that are functional and accessible for all users, whether or not they have impairments. Whether families are searching for discounts on the Costco app or locating bus stops via the BlindWays app, Raizlabs seeks to make a difference with each product they build.

We recently caught up with Greg to discuss the role of research in developing mobile applications, what makes Raizlabs so unique, the state of VR, and so much more. Check out the full Q&A below to learn more, and make sure to take a look at Raizlabs’ impressive portfolio of work and learn about why they were the first domestic agency to become Google Certified.

Tell us about your background and your role at Raizlabs.

Greg Raiz: I’m the Founder and CEO of Raizlabs, which I started in 2003 and my background is in engineering with a twist in design. I studied Computer Science at Tufts and spent time in design classes, and working on the college newspaper, where I learned about typography and how to use tools like Photoshop. Later in my career, I went on to work as a Product Manager at Microsoft, where I utilized both my design and technical background before starting Raizlabs.

Raizlabs founder Greg Raiz

What role does research play in the products and applications that you develop? Is this a step that you feel is often overlooked by brands who build and manage products and applications themselves? What challenges would not performing research create?

GR: There are a lot of companies that leap before they look. We spend a lot of time thinking about the products we’re building, the competitors, existing products, and the effect on data and customers. We spend the time creating prototypes and testing for usability. Based on the outcome of the tests and the research, we know that the products will be successful. Without researching and testing with the prototypes, we run the risk of not knowing whether or not the products will be successful when they are released to market. As we’ve grown as a company, research has become more and more crucial to our product process.

How important do you feel personalization is when it comes to mobile app experience design? How should brands be thinking about research in terms of product and application design in this age of personalization?

GR: “Personalization” is a word that is thrown around a lot. It’s something many companies are trying to do without impacting the user experience.

True personalization is tweaking the product to the person. It’s important to have a base product that works well for your target customers and to use elements of data to improve user experience.

personalization maturity curve

Too often, what brands are passing off as “personalized” tends to be a wishy-washy experience, and customers don’t always know if something has been personalized. For example, I’m sure Facebook is personalized to me, but it doesn’t feel personalized because the product stays the same, but the data changes. In reality, many companies disguise data science and call it personalization. True personalization adapts the user experience to different parts of the customer journey and uses data-science to guide and inform those personalizations.

Where in this research process does accessibility come into play? Has this been increasing in importance when it comes to mobile product and application design? What have you learned by working with organizations like Perkins School for the Blind that you feel all marketers and mobile-minded leaders should be aware of?

GR: Accessibility has always played a role for us, but it’s increased over the last few years. Products that are accessible don’t only serve the visually impaired, but all users. Thinking about things like font, type size, and legibility affects everyone who uses an app. Whether it’s people who wear glasses or have color-blindness or have different sized phones, thinking about accessibility really ensures that your product can be used by a broad set of people.

Working with organizations that service the visually impaired community, like Perkins School for the Blind, we were able to better understand how people use accessibility functions and features in a natural way with speed and dexterity. Depending on the impairment, we’ve noticed a difference in abilities between users when it comes to things like memorization and spatial orientation skills which have been important to consider when creating products.

Product designers should be thinking about accessibility, not because they need ADA 508 compliance, but because it makes for a better product.

Today, mobile is viewed as being much more than the apps that populate our phones – and much bigger than the phones themselves. With the burgeoning IoT market, AI and VR, what does “mobile” really mean these days?

GR: The use of the word “mobile” has for many years not represented the phone and when we explored our work on the iPad or Apple TV, we had a similar realization. Mobility is designing for an ever-growing population that expects their information, data, and functionality to be ubiquitous in their life. People move from place to place and control their environment through their devices and devices around them.

How does this shift in how we define mobile mean businesses need to change in how they approach managing “mobile” – what trends in organizational design, operational management, and strategy are you advising your clients to pay attention to or seeing take shape in leading organizations?

GR: We have seen in some organizations there are separate teams for Product & Project Management, and mobile projects are approached as a separate entity. For us, we like to think holistically about the product we are building and the business it’s being built for.

Our Product Managers are in charge of successfully shipping releases, learning from that process, and informing the product roadmap. Pay attention to how siloed an organization’s tech seems. The best products come from a process that keeps the bigger picture in mind.

Where do you expect to see organizations finding success in early adoption of artificial intelligence specifically as it relates to mobile?

GR: Organizations will find success when they can anticipate a user’s needs and present them with the right information before they ask for it. AI can offer this in regards to customer service in the areas of service and convenience or when it comes to helping customers make decisions based on historical activity.

Companies are already playing with this type of information and trying to find a balance. There’s a fine line between incredibly convenient and creepy and annoying. Once that line is identified though, artificial intelligence can help to create an incredible experience that empowers users to find the solutions to problems at their fingertips.

VR is having a significant resurgence in terms of visibility. What is different today from the days of Google Glass that is spurring this renewed energy and promise in the applications that VR has for brands in multiple categories?

GR: VR is going through its fourth or fifth reincarnation. VR and 3D has had a couple revolutions from before Google Glass, like VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language), that tried to get 3D on the web in the 90s.

virtual reality

Today, tech has advanced to enable this functionality in your phone, which makes the tech much more affordable and accessible. While people have seen demos of these types of products, the majority of US-based consumers haven’t used VR for a functional purpose or even for entertainment. The typical person doesn’t necessarily have a VR experience, so in that sense we’re still waiting for the breakthrough moment for the tech.

This is in part the cause for the renewed energy and Raizlabs has been inspired to create innovative experiences with VR. We’re building prototypes that demonstrate how VR can be applied to different experiences, from retail to gaming.

If you could change the way marketers think about mobile user experience and creative in one way, what would that be?

GR: Lots of marketers try to think of a clever app to help tell the story of their brand. Instead, they should use technology to service the customer and ensure a quality user experience.

There’s no substitute for a great customer experience, and we love working with companies that view marketing as an integrated part of the product or service experience.

What was the initial challenge you set out to solve by creating Raizlabs? How has that challenge evolved since 2003 when the organization was founded?

GR: I started the company in a coffee shop and people would ask what I was working on. I told them that I wanted software to be better. Not just the functionality but the look and feel, the usability, the essence of the product. We set out to build products that inspire delight and improve people’s lives which I think makes a big difference. As we’ve grown as a company, we’ve been able to incorporate more specialists in technology, product management, and design. The knowledge of our team has helped to increase usability of the products and help to shape the organization’s product experience.