How to Build an iPhone App: Getting Started the Right Way

October 27, 2010

10:45 am

Many people don’t realize that there’s more to building mobile apps than just designing and developing them. In fact, roughly 30% of an app should focus on aspects outside of these areas. This includes, but is not limited to, doing some initial research about similar apps, understanding key differentiators, and outlining potential functionality. This type of upfront work is encapsulated by the principle, “think first, code later” and with a solid foundation, the actual app design and development will eventually flow much more smoothly.

1. Researching the App Store

The App Store is used to research ideas and discover competitors, identifying their strengths and weaknesses. It’s a gold mine for understanding what customers like or dislike, both explicitly through customer reviews and implicitly by seeing the apps that are ranking well.

Apple requires developers to assign keywords and two categories to their apps. So, search the App Store with two to three words that are relevant to your idea and see what apps get returned. Check to see if these applications are on the “Top Paid” or “Top Free” list for their categories (e.g., Productivity). Read the “Customer Reviews” for these apps and try to determine patterns and what customers consider the pros and cons.

This type of preliminary research helps you understand the app landscape and if there is tough competition or no competition. Both extremes have implications because many similar apps will demand that you do something significantly better (or different) while no or few related apps could indicate that consumers just don’t care about the idea you want to pursue.

2. Stepping Out of the Crowd

Whether there are many or few competitors, don’t try to compete against them. Instead, your goal will be to make them irrelevant. This principle comes from a framework called Blue Ocean Strategy (BOS) and it provides a disciplined approach to differentiate products (in this case, your app).

By applying BOS to the crowded App Store, which consists of 300,000 apps, you’ll identify opportunities for your app to excel. For example, instead of catering only to existing customers, you’ll think about features noncustomers will want in your app. That automatically expands the market your app can reach.

To make this aspect of BOS tangible, a key case study is Smule’s Sonic Lighter. Sonic Lighter was going to be the 19th virtual lighter to launch on the App Store. During its development, however, Smule recognized that a digital lighter only appealed to a small number of customers. So, they expanded the appeal of the app to noncustomers, who didn’t typically care about lighter apps. They did that by including “expressive audio,” which allowed each Sonic Lighter to ignite flames on other iPhones around the world. This transformed their app from a lighter to an experience. After launching Sonic Lighter, it quickly became the #1 app around the world. Looking beyond customers in the market for a lighter app was an important part of that success.

3. “Mocking” Up an App

A major concern for those who are not designers or developers, is how to properly communicate their vision for an app. Thankfully, there are some great tools available that enable even those who are artistically or technically challenged to be able to create a sketch or “mockup.”

Mockups focus only on the app’s features and flow, removing all hints of design. In fact, they are not even done in color and appear as hand drawn, to help keep the attention on the core functions of the app.

Some of the more popular mockup tools include Balsamiq’s Mockups and Endloop’s iMockups for iPad. The common interface elements for iPhone and iPad apps can be dragged and dropped onto the screen, so that just about anyone can draft a basic version of their application. These mockups are informed by the research and analysis of the first two steps mentioned above. Just as important is that they can be used to help contractors provide better estimates while also allowing them to more accurately execute a vision for an app when it comes time to do so.

Concluding Remarks

Of course, these steps do not address all aspects of building an iPhone or iPad app. They will, however, point you in the right direction by planning appropriately. Independent of your background, remember that it’s critical to start any app by thinking first and coding later.

Ken Yarmosh is the proprietor of a boutique mobile agency based in the Washington, D.C. area and the author of App Savvy (O’Reilly). Join him on December 8th for his next Get App Savvy workshop. TECH cocktail readers can take off $100 with promo code TECHCOCKTAIL.

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