Engaging the next generation of business leaders

How thoughtbot designed and built a user-validated mobile app for the Harvard Business Review

Woman in business clothes walking through an airport looking at her phone and holding a jacket.

"This product is polished and complete, it sets a high design standard."

– Marta Kusztra, Director of UX and Product Design, Harvard Business Review

The Challenge

"I know we need to engage an increasingly global and youthful audience. We want our mobile platform to provide a brand-worthy experience.”

– Jim Bodor, Vice President, Product Management, Harvard Business Publishing

Man in a suit sitting on a chair reading a magazine with a suitcase beside him.

How does a publishing company with a 100-year pedigree engage an increasingly global and youthful audience with a brand-worthy mobile experience?

Research on growing Harvard Business Review’s subscription base indicated that its younger audience is increasingly mobile-focused. These aspiring leaders expect a premium mobile app, fully integrated with the HBR experience. But HBR’s existing app was disconnected from the rest of the brand’s architecture.

The globally trusted management publisher recognized how thoughtbot emphasized working collaboratively and quickly. As an added bonus, both teams value smart design.

“We were a great fit,” says Andrew Spencer, a senior product designer who led thoughtbot’s design team. “Their designers had extensive experience molding the HBR web experience but were unfamiliar with what goes into a successful mobile app, so we could lean into each other’s strengths.  Over time we gradually transferred knowledge between the two design teams to the point that we all felt ownership of the entire experience.”

A grid of screenshots of the Harvard Business Review app.

What We Did

We led a Discovery Sprint, testing, and user feedback, all of which pointed the way to bringing HBR’s mobile app in-house. Our team could see that building a new React Native mobile app would create a more coherent user experience while doing justice to HBR’s world-class content.

We were so impressed by how collaborative and organized thoughtbot’s cross-functional team was. They were able to work through unexpected challenges with strategic focus. That remained consistent throughout our nine-month engagement.”

A headshot of Anne Bartholomew

Anne Bartholomew
Director of Product Management, Harvard Business Review

Onboarding and personalization were critical components of the application that we spent significant time researching, testing, and iterating on.
The tip of the day module allows the user to engage with a summary before reading an entire article.


“thoughtbot’s product managers partnered closely with HBR’s product lead to provide a blend of mobile product strategy and process optimization. Our goal was to keep all teams aligned on the key MVP features through ruthless prioritization as well as establishing lean processes that help development and design teams to deliver at a rapid pace.”

– Danny Kim, Senior Product Manager, thoughtbot


“The product-focused thoughtbot designers collaborated daily with the more editorially-focused HBR design team to create an MVP product that didn’t look or feel like an MVP. Together, with lots of user testing, we defined a beautiful vision for the app. Then the thoughtbot designers who can code implemented that vision in React Native.”

– Andrew Spencer, Senior Product Designer, thoughtbot


"Our challenge was to develop an app that would link with their website to unify the payment and subscription service. That required close collaboration with the HBR team and their vendors. We chose React Native because it costs less, can be developed quickly, and is easier for the client to maintain.”

– Stephen Hanson, Director of Mobile Software Development, thoughtbot

The Result

"We rapidly shifted focus from planning to building, thanks to thoughtbot. We learned much more in the process of building than we were able to learn in the process of planning, and we also got to see real results more quickly.”

– Anne Bartholomew, Director of Product Management, Harvard Business Review

Looking over the shoulder of a person holding and looking at their phone. They are reading an article from Harvard Business Review titled "Five Pillars of Democratizing Data at Your Organization"

thoughbot team members love to build beautiful products, of course. But we’re even happier when clients tell us that they learned and grew through the course of the project.

Having worked closely with the HBR team, we know they will truly own the product moving forward, and they know that they have the tools to make it succeed.

“thoughtbot was much more than a great development team. They helped us coach each other to do our best work. This is how I want to coach my teams going forward,” says Anne Bartholomew, HBR’s director of product management.

“We ended up with a product that is better than I thought we would be able to deliver in this amount of time. When I look at the product now, I see how we made things happen,” says Marta Kusztra, UX & product design director at HBR. “Our final product is so much more polished and complete than I had imagined."

Try it out for yourself

Download the new HBR app today.

iOS App
Android App

"The thoughtbot team felt like our partners, not just people who deliver work and go. A lot of companies promise to work very closely with the client, but thoughtbot really delivered on that."

– Marta Kusztra, Director of UX & Product Design, HBR

What does success look like for your project?