By Steven Zunich
The internet is an amazing tool which provides us the ability to conduct instant research on any number of topics while we keep up with the latest news, gossip, sports and weather. It also allows us to observe the trials and tribulations, the triumphs and tragedies of our friends, and of complete strangers. We also get to hear about how this person or that person made an instant fortune using the internet. It is only human nature, then, that the thought has probably crossed everyone’s mind at one point or another, “How can I get rich using today’s technology?”
One opportunity many of us consider as we dream about how to take advantage of the 4.8 billion people who use the “world wide web” every day is building an app. An initial peak at the internet unveils a sea of websites that paint a picture of a world where app building is easy, almost free, and does not require “coding”, the practice of writing computer programs. I found one website that says that an app can be built in 12 “easy” steps. That certainly seemed promising enough. However, as I began reading through the steps, I realized that anything that requires 12 steps really isn’t easy, especially when you are not an expert in coding.
So whether you’re a dreamer who’s looking to strike app “gold” or a business owner who believes it is time to build an app version of your website, let’s look at what it takes to actually make it happen. To help me “unlock the code” of designing, planning, testing and launching an app, I have enlisted two colleagues from our sister company, UrbanLink Media (ULM), to help guide me (and you) through the process of how to get this done. Zach Ahrendsen and Tyler Morrison comprise ULM’s design and development team. Based on my attempt to execute the previously mentioned twelve-step program, and following by Zach and Tyler’s tutelage, I discovered that building an app is not that easy. What is easy is to make key errors that cause your app to work poorly, or, even worse, not at all.
Incorporating some good old fashioned internet research combined with a series of conversations between Zach, Tyler and myself, here are 7 essential steps you should expect to encounter as you start building the app of your dreams. Remember to keep your expectations in check and your hopes realistic while you keep your eye on the prize.
1. The Idea Phase
Coming up with a great idea for your app is crucial. So, what makes a great idea? One key aspect to a great app idea is that it solves a problem or makes life a little easier. Ask yourself the question, “Would this function well as a life ‘hack’ for consumers?” A second very important facet is to research whether people will buy it. A lot of people believe that merely coming up with a good idea in and of itself will translate into sales. There is a fantasy that often comes to mind along the lines of “as soon as people hear about THIS, they will absolutely buy it.” Well, anyone who has ever run a business knows that’s not the way it works. At the idea stage, you need to thoroughly lay out your idea. Do this for yourself now so you can tell the world about your app in detail later. How do you do this? Start by spelling it out, on paper! Answer the following questions about your app idea.
- What will the app do?
- Why would anyone want it?
- What problem will it solve?
- How will it simplify life for customers?
- How should it look?
- How will the world find out about it?
A wonderful example of how exhaustive the idea phase needs to be was conveyed during part one of a recent UrbanLink Podcast interview. Troy D’Ambrosio, the Executive Director of the Lassonde Entrepreneurial Institute for students at the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City, related just this process very well.
One recent team of student entrepreneurs had an idea for an app watch that would help people know the time when they were skiing, a common problem on the slopes for people because most people don’t take their cell phones with them when they ski (so they don’t get wet). The team presented their idea to D’Ambrosio and asked him if they could build a prototype. He advised them to go to their social media first to find out if other people liked the idea. About 500 people liked it. They were excited and felt ready to build the prototype but D’Ambrosio suggested they should go back to social media and find out what those who liked the idea would pay for it. The price came in at just under $50 per download. One more time they said they were ready to build the app but, once again, D’Ambrosio proposed another step. He advised them to open a Shopify account and see how many orders they could get. They got 200 orders before they even built a prototype. At this point they knew they had a great idea.
2. Hiring an Experienced App Developer
Those internet promises of an easy app building process fall apart very quickly as you move past the idea stage. We have learned how developing a good idea is a time intensive, multi-step process. As the idea person, the recommendation here is as you are developing the idea, you should engage an experienced app designer. Murphy’s Law definitely applies to the app building process and even if everything goes well, there can be a lot of MATH involved in the coding process. Leave it to the professional you’ve hired to build your app. Besides, you will have a lot to do while your app designer/builder is working on the technical side of creating your app.
3. Lay Out the App Features
It is imperative to communicate the features you think you want and need for your app to your design partner. Having your designer onboard this early in the process provides you a professional to bounce off your ideas. Because of their experience, he or she can anticipate what will (and won’t) work, and how your ideas might be best implemented. Your designer will also help you here with app functionality features, usability and mobile device compatibility, which must be planned for if your app is going to succeed. He or she will also make certain that your UX and UI (user experience and user interface) are optimized for performance and aesthetics.
A wireframe is basically the road map or storyboard for your app. While there are dozens of websites that offer novices assistance with the wireframe step, these sites are not really that simple if you have never built an app before. Even if you do figure out how to construct a wireframe blueprint, Zach pointed out to me that there will likely be integration and formatting issues that will come up as you move forward in the process. The wireframe construction process is pretty cool to observe. It will be interesting to have your designer show you a little of how it’s done, but it’s best to have them use their time to wireframe your app. You have other things to do.
While your designer is executing the wireframe construction with your wish list of app features, you should be checking out your competition. Yes, your idea is great and unique and better than anything else ever created in the history of mankind. Everyone thinks that way at first, which is great! It’s good to be confident. But let’s get real. There will be competition. If not, you might want to re-evaluate if your idea is truly marketable. It is very important that you identify your competitors and give their apps a test ride. What did you like about them? What could your app do better? Make sure you take your findings back to your designer in case you want any tweaks, changes or improvements made.
6. Building the App & Creating a Marketing Plan
As your designer is setting up the databases, servers, API (application programming interface), and coding, it’s time for you to start constructing a marketing plan for your app. If you already have sales from your Shopify test (Idea phase, Lassonde example above), let your buyers know that their product is being built. This can create word-of-mouth (social media) marketing in and of itself. Your existing customers are always your best market. Now would also be a good time to expand your promotion of the product on Shopify, and other distribution outlets. Re-engage with your social media where you got your initial feedback and provide progress updates there as well. These avenues are your “no-brainer” marketing vehicles. Then move on to forums that you think would have interest in your app if you haven’t already. As your designer is setting up your app in iTunes and Google Play, remember that these stores allow their customers (you) to input content, photos, and videos to help sell your app. Take advantage of this win/win now that you have these two huge entities as partners.
It will probably take your designer about 3 to 9 months to get your app up and running so use this time to develop more traditional marketing avenues, as well. If you have raised start-up capital, make sure you earmark a healthy percentage to go toward your marketing campaign. If you have not raised money ahead of time, now is the time to do so. If you don’t think you need additional capital, then be prepared to grow your business by rolling over a percentage of your income from sales into a marketing campaign.
7. The Launch
When your app is working (finally), you are ready to prepare for launch. While there will have been preliminary app product tests during the app building process, there will be some final testing conducted at this point to fine tune and finalize. Once this final testing is completed, it is time to launch your product. An effective and successful launch will involve an official launch kick-off campaign which will, hopefully, take your app into a successful sales orbit!
We have all daydreamed about building an app, whether because we see an opportunity to build or expand our business, or because we think we might be able to monetize a great idea. A quick google search might lead one to believe that the process of building an app is as easy as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. The reality is that, to do it right, it will take time, planning, testing and an experienced team to help you succeed.
*Zach Ahrendsen is the Web & Video Developer for UrbanLink Media. Tyler Morrison is UrbanLink’s Graphic Designer.