How I Went From Idea to App Concept in 1 Hour
I had never made a mobile app before — until I did.
This post is meant as a how-to guide for a total newbie (like me) to attack an app project. I’m not a designer, nor am I a programmer — but I have a notion of each.
Apart from my app idea, a notion of the technology is all I had going into the project.
You don’t need more than that to get a good app out into the marketplace.
With my limited knowledge, I went from idea to full app concept within one hour — or probably much less. With my limited knowledge, I created QuestionUp, an app that helps people brainstorm by answering tough questions. With my limited knowledge, I barreled through the creation of the app itself and launched the app successfully.
I’ll show you how.
An Idea Is Born
The idea for the app came from a group brainstorming session, but (for me personally) the biggest inspiration for the app came from my favorite big-name bloggers. Over the past year or so, I’ve downloaded and read numerous eBooks that include workbooks. Each of these workbooks has a list of questions that I was required to fill out — all to help me gain better insight on the eBook’s topic.
From Michael Port’s Book Yourself Solid to Danielle LaPorte’s Your Big Beautiful Book Plan, I became fast friends with workbooks.
And it hit me. What if anyone could access a useful workbook — from their phone?
After that, the ball started rolling pretty quickly. Here’s how:
1. I had an idea for an app. My best friend always tells me that what sets us apart from others is how often we ask ourselves why?. I agree with her, and I wished that I could help people ask themselves more tough questions (like the questions found in the eBook workbooks). A good question — and having the guts to answer it truthfully — can truly change your life. Just try asking yourself this one: What would I do if I knew I would not fail?
2. I knew the market. Most people who might potentially download my app would be entrepreneurs and early-adopter techies. This meant that one of the features I had considered would be a great fit — synchronization with Evernote. I also considered entrepreneurs to be an open, questioning kind of crowd.
3. I asked a few friends. I didn’t do extensive testing, but I asked friends what they thought of the concept. The friends who I could imagine downloading (and needing) the app were very excited about the concept. Those who I suspected weren’t my target market were completely confused. (My mom still doesn’t get it. Yay!)
Putting It Down On Paper
Ideas that don’t come to life are worthless. That’s why I put so little emphasis on the importance of ideas. Everyone has ideas, but what matters is executing them. You’ve heard this before, right? I had heard it, too, so I put the idea to work instantly.
I knew that if I didn’t write this down, I risked the app idea ballooning away into oblivion. In the words of Francis Bacon, Sr.:
“Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come unsought for are commonly the most valuable.”
I’m no artist, nor am I a designer, but a piece of paper and a pen is all I needed to jot down the basic concept I wanted to create in the the app. I drew various screens in succession, from the Settings screen to the mear of the app, the Questions screens.
Drawing out the flow of the app helped me limit its features, and it also helped me understand that any app idea (no matter how simple it may seem) includes a series of screens and concepts to take into consideration. (Usually, it includes more than you think it will.)
I wanted the app to do just one thing, but, in reality, that resulted in a long flow of screens.
Moving It From Paper to the Screen
After my initial (terrible) drawings on paper, I pulled out my favorite resource — the handy dandy Balsamiq Mockups.
What Balsamiq allows me to do is create a better drawing of the app without having to actually draw anything. It brings all of these iPhone designs inside the program, and all I do is drag and drop them together to make it look like an app.
Below, you can see what a Facebook iPhone app might look like — drawn with Balsamiq. The drawing is a lot more clear than anything I could draw on paper.
With Balsamiq, I drew out every single screen that I wanted to include and immediately sent it off to a friend of mine who has developed iPhone apps in the past. I had been wanting to work with him for months, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity.
Viewing my Balsamiq mockups, my developer let me know:
- his thoughts on the concept — and its name (which he suggested we change to avoid trademark issues)
- how long it might take to create (for which I recommend doubling and then adding a few extra weeks)
- if it followed Apple’s guidelines closely enough to avoid being rejected from the App Store
- how much it would cost to develop, without taking into consideration future updates
Trusting My Gut
Initially, not having a clue about mobile app programming scared me — but it didn’t scare me enough to stop the project from happening. Fear is a great indicator of exactly what I should do full force. In the words of Babe Ruth,
“Don’t let fear of striking out hold you back.”
If Babe Ruth wasn’t afraid (and was able to become The Man), maybe I should follow suit?
Instead of listening to fear, I trusted my gut with the following:
1. Past experience helped. I’ve used iPhone apps thousands of times. Having used so many apps before, I was comfortable knowing the difference between a good and bad app. Especially when it comes to the user experience.
2. Design is for professionals. A good app is simple, but also incredibly sleek. To pull off the look I wanted, I relied on the designer I’d been working with for months. I knew I was in good hands. Most of all, I knew my concept was in good hands.
3. Questions are better than answers. Some friends were confused why the app would only produce questions, not answers. I stood my ground, completely sure that the questions themselves are meant to make people think for themselves. No easy answers in this app!
Keeping It Light
My mentor, the ultra-awesome Xavier Navarro, first told me about the programmer’s nightmare: scope creep.
When I was coming up with QuestionUp, I kept his words fresh in my mind, and actively attempted to keep the app as feature-free as possible. By limiting the sharing features and the number of screens, the app stays simple. Sure, there are other features that some users might enjoy — but I didn’t want to risk investing time and money enabling features that may or may not stick.
While we were developing the app, there was a definite pull toward adding more features.
Whenever I told someone about the idea, they’d say, “That’s really interesting! Can you do ____ in the app?” Everyone wanted more features, more options, more more more. Despite the temptation, I refused each and every time.
Now that I know what people want most, I can dedicate our effort specifically to those features. No fluff, no waste, no nothin’.
I Gave It The Best Shot Possible — Sort Of
Over the past few months, I’ve told friends and family about the app — but the rest of the sales have been pretty much organic. Except…
The single attempt I made to promote the app increased my sales by 872% in one month.
When QuestionUp was successfully submitted to the App Store, I noticed that the App Store had a section called Promo Codes. Just in passing, I downloaded one promo code (out of the fifty Apple provides) and sent it to a blogger friend of mine, just because I thought he might find it interesting. With the promo code, he downloaded the app for free — and apparently he did enjoy it.
A few months later, he mentioned the app in The Next Web in an article called “10 workflow iOS apps to enhance your productivity” — and sales skyrocketed.
I’m thinking I should send out more promo codes, huh? Definitely top of my to-do list for 2013.
The exposure felt like a rush of energy (and validation), but its not what this project is about. All I hope for is that the people who download QuestionUp are satisfied and creatively inspired by it. My hope is to help people accomplish their dreams — their own versions of bliss. I hope I did enough.
I’m still on the fence about whether or not I want to push an update to the app, but I have a feeling that I will soon. The meat of the app are the questions, and I want to provide more of that good stuff to whoever is ready for some serious brainstorming.
It’d be fun if you all helped me come with up questions. If you are interested in helping me out, drop me a line in the comments.
At the end of it all, it was a great experience — even it meant a lot of learning very quickly. I’m now developing apps for international clients, so it did serve me well to pick up this new skill.
If you were to take on the App Store with your own app idea, what would it be? More importantly, what’s holding you back from doing it? (Leave your take on this in the comments.)