A beginner’s guide to mobile app development
Today, there are over 3 billion smartphone users around the world. And where there are smartphones, there are mobile applications, or “apps.” People interact with apps almost constantly. According to research conducted by consumer analytics firm Dscout, smartphone users touch their phones on average 2,617 times a day, using all manner of smartphone apps for shopping, entertainment, and more.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Since the explosion of smart wearable devices and Internet-connected merchandise — from toasters to picture frames — apps now play a part in every corner of the average home.
If you have a message or product to sell, it makes a whole lot of sense to build your own app. You’ll literally be in your customers’ pockets, in a perfect position to create brand awareness, acquire new customers, and increase revenue.
But how do you create your own app? People usually assume that making an app requires extensive technical and programming knowledge, as well as a huge investment of time and money.
But we’ve got good news for you: making an app isn’t some rare kind of techno-magic. It does, however, require some careful planning. You’ll need a solid understanding of how apps work, what kind best fits your needs, and how to manage the development process.
From idea to execution throughout this guide, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about the app-making process.
Follow these 12 steps to create your own app
- Step 1. Define your goals
- Step 2. Come up with a good app idea
- Step 3. Research and validate your app idea
- Step 4. Analyze your app idea’s market fit
- Step 5. Decide which app type is best for your business
- Step 6. Create a wireframe
- Step 7. Find an app developer
- Step 8. Create an MVP – minimum viable product
- Step 9. Mobile app quality assurance
- Step 10. Deploy
- Step 11. Market your app
- Step 12. Gather feedback and make improvements
Step 1. Define your goals
First, define your goals. What exactly do you hope to achieve with your app? What is its core purpose? What does success look like? Will it be a set number of downloads by a certain date? A number of email subscribers? An amount of sales revenue acquired through the app?
Apps can be easily taken in many directions. Setting your goals at the outset will keep you on track. Then, you can continuously check-in to ensure that all of your actions are working towards your goals.
A great framework to guide your goal-setting is “SMART“:
- S: Specific
- M: Measurable
- A: Achievable
- R: Realistic
- T: Timely
Every goal you set should check all of the above boxes. Here’s an example:
Non-SMART goal: Gain a lot of users.
SMART goal: Get 1,000 app downloads in the first 30 days.
In the non-SMART goal, “a lot” is not clearly defined. As a result, you won’t know when you’ve reached it. By defining the specific number you want to reach within a given time frame, you can measure key performance indicators (in this case, downloads), to determine where you are in relation to your goal.
Step 2. Come up with a good app idea
Once you decide you want to create an app, then comes the challenge of coming up with the main concept. It can be hard as there are so many apps out there already. You need one that will solve a big problem, be downloaded and used by a large pool of users, and stand out amongst the rest. So how do you find “the big idea?” It can take some time. However, if you’re feeling a bit stuck or lost, here are some strategies you can use to get inspired.
Browse the app store
A good place to start when trying to think up a good app idea is to look at what’s already working well. You can find out by looking in the App Store or Google Play Store. Right on the App Store’s home page, you’ll find the top free apps and games along with the top paid apps and games. Similarly, the Google Play Store lists the top apps and games right on the home page.
You can also browse apps by category and can view the top apps for each category, both paid and free. Further, if you’re interested in browsing a specific type of app that isn’t listed, you can search for it in the search bar to see which apps come up first. By checking out the top featured apps, you’ll have good examples of what’s already successful which may spark an idea of your own.
Research other problem solvers
Aside from the App Store, you can also look for inspiration by studying ideas from:
- The projects on crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and WeFunder.
- Startups on Angie’s List, Shark Tank, or CrunchBase.
- Common questions and answers on Quora and Reddit.
Browsing how other people are solving problems can help to get you in the mindset of solving one with your app. One way to hear about the latest startups and what they are up to is to search as a job hunter or to check postings on sites like Product Hunt. If you stay tuned to the latest projects and startups, it’ll likely only be a matter of time before ideas start coming to you.
Step away from it
Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to take a pause. You never know when inspiration might strike, and often, it’s when you’re not sitting there trying to come up with an idea. So step away from your desk and take some time off. As you go about your day and normal activities, think about how an app might improve the daily life around you. When you run into something inefficient or frustrating, that could just be the problem your app solves.
For example, people naturally make mistakes when writing whether those are misspellings or grammar errors. Grammarly is currently a top free app that plugs into the Safari browser and checks all of your writing in real time. If you make an error, a red underline appears and you are given suggestions to correct it. Another example? People forget things. Especially as we get older and have more and more responsibilities, it can be hard to keep everything straight. Enter iLove Sticky Notes, the popular memo assistant app that lets you add sticky notes on your desktop.
Your app should similarly start with a problem and then work to solve it. It’s best if it’s a problem you know well, so you can really resonate with and understand your future users. So as you go about your normal routine, get in the practice of observing life and taking note of problems you may be able to solve with an app.
While coming up with an app idea can be intimidating at first, the best approach is to jump in with both feet. Use the above strategies to get inspiration and then start writing down any ideas that come to you. Even if they seem bad at first, write them down. Then, you can go through your list and narrow down the ones that seem best.
Step 3. Research and validate your app idea
The first challenge of building an app is coming up with a good idea, and it can take quite a while to find one worth pursuing. However, once you do, it can be very exciting. But before you go investing much time or money into it, you’ll want to do a bit of research. Think for a second that the App Store sees tens of thousands of apps added each month and the cost to build them can range from around $50k up to half a million. Here are a few steps you can take to help ensure your app will be worth the investment and competitive amongst the rest.
Find out if it exists
First, you’ll want to see if anyone else has had the same bright idea. Now, don’t be discouraged if other apps exist to solve the same problem. You can still move ahead with yours but you will need to ensure it offers something that the rest don’t.
- If you find competitors, you can perform a bit of research on them. With CrunchBase, you can find out if they raised funding to build the app. If they did, that means investors thought the idea was good enough to put their money into it. That’s a good thing.
- Next, you can check an app that tracks app performance to see how it’s doing in terms of downloads, earnings, and rankings. If it’s popular, earning features, and ranking well, that’s further validation.
- You can also look into the app’s website and social profiles to see how they look to be doing. Find out if the company is growing and if it has employees. The more social proof it has, the more likely it’s seeing some success.
While competition can be intimidating, it also proves there’s a demand for a solution that can function as idea validation.
Pick your keywords
Next, researching the search traffic for select keywords can give you insight into the interest level surrounding a topic. Choose five or so keywords related to your app and write them down. For example, if your idea is to create an app that monitors and compares pricing for you so you can get the best deal, you might add the following keywords:
- price comparison app
- price comparison
- best price app
- price comparison bot
- sale comparison app
With your keywords in hand, you’ll want to use a tool that reports on the average monthly searches and competition level of a keyword (like Google Keyword Planner). Once you type in the word and search, it will tell you how many people search it per month and how competitive the ad placement is for that term. The more searches and higher the competition, the more interest a topic has which can help to validate the idea.
Ask the audience
Lastly, get in touch with your potential users. Identify who they will be and ask them what they think. How? Well, you can do it all online using various websites and social platforms where potential users hang out. For example, you could go on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and/or TikTok to share your app idea and ask for feedback. If you don’t have a following, you could look for groups with users in your target audience. For example, a productivity app may be appealing to a group full of small business owners. You could also run paid campaigns targeting your potential users to gain feedback.
Some platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn also have a poll feature, making it easier to gauge feedback with little effort from the users. You can ask people to rate their interest level in the app, ask how much they would pay for it, and ask if they would recommend it to their friends and family. When performing polls, it’s helpful to include negative and positive response options so you can correctly gauge the feedback.
Another route you could take is posting a question on Reddit. Redditors are often very engaged and will take your request seriously, providing thoughtful feedback. A good place to place the questions could be in /r/startups community. It’s a place designed to discuss startup problems and solutions and has over 880k members. Another smaller, yet highly relevant subreddit /r/apps, is for all things app-related.
Step 4. Analyze your app idea’s market fit
If your app idea makes it through the validation stage, it’s time to find out if it will resonate with the users you have in mind. This is also known as analyzing your app’s market fit. In short, you’ll need to make sure that the app’s features and monetization method will appeal to your users and make them want to choose your app over any competitors with a similar offering. So how do you start?
Dust off your Excel pages skills and open a spreadsheet. Then, you’ll want to list your app and about five competitors in the first column. Then, create a column for each of the features present in any of the apps. Also, add a column for the monetization methods. Then, go through and fill in the boxes to show whether each app has the said feature or not and, when necessary, add details about the feature. For example, if the feature is “Storage,” you would list the amount of storage an app allows per month.
Compare monetization models
As for monetization, list the models that each app uses to make money. The main methods are often paid downloads, ads, in-app purchases, e-commerce, or affiliate earnings. Keep in mind that ads aren’t typically a great source of revenue until you have a very popular app so are better for the later stages.
Identify differentiators and feature gaps
Once your spreadsheet is filled out, it will be easy to analyze all of the apps and see how yours stacks up. A few key things to notice are features that you have that others don’t (differentiators) and features that others have and don’t (gap features). Ideally, you’ll have at least one differentiator to give you a competitive advantage and will close as many gaps as possible. Remember, you have to give users some reason to choose you over the rest.
However, it’s important to remain clear on the primary problem you set out to solve. Don’t get too lost in all of the features, causing you to lose sight of your main initiative. Ensure your app does its primary function very well. The rest will be icing on the cake.
Step 5. Decide which app type is best for your business
1. Web apps
A web-based app is a computer program that uses web technology to deliver content and perform tasks. All of the “brain” behind the app lives on a remote server. For this reason, only a tiny amount of code is required on the smartphone on which these apps are installed.
These apps work similarly to a standard website. When a user launches the app on their phone, the app uses the internet to deliver content. The only significant difference between a web app and a website is in their respective functions. If the online code provides some kind of tool or service, it’s generally referred to as a web app. If the code is purely informational, it’s more likely to be referred to as a website. Both operate through an internet browser.
When you open a web app it downloads data from the internet. This kind of app won’t work without an internet connection. Nor will it use a smartphone’s more advanced hardware features like GPS.
So why are they useful? On the plus side, web apps need far fewer resources to run, and are “platform-independent,” meaning they run on any kind of smartphone. Their versatile nature means they can be configured to run on a wide range of devices with minimal additional coding.
Here are a few examples in action.
- Netflix: The film streaming giant distributes its video content via a web app. It’s perfect because the large amount of data needed to watch a movie isn’t stored on your device. If it was, you’d run out of space in no time. However, without an Internet connection, the Netflix app won’t work. One interesting feature of the Netflix web app is that it’s designed to work well on a host of devices, from smartphones to desktop computers to smart TVs. Owing to their versatility, web apps are excellent for providing cross-device functionality.
- Mailchimp: Mailchimp helps people manage their email lists and email campaigns. Marketers and communicators can use this app to check how well their campaigns are doing, manage and segment their email audience, and even craft marketing emails from their portable devices. From a coding perspective, all this app does is send data back and forth between the user and a central server. The reason it’s defined as an app and not a website gets back to the fact that Mailchimp is more an interactive tool than a static source of information.
2. Native mobile apps
Think of a continuum. On one end, you have web apps. These apps work on any kind of mobile device, but they can’t perform sophisticated functions. They’re versatile, but they’re not very powerful. Native apps occupy the opposite end of this spectrum. They can be equipped with sophisticated features. However, a native app must be programmed for one operating system only. They’re powerful, but lack the versatility of a web app to work across many platforms.
Native apps work in a very similar way to desktop software. The app is installed directly to a user’s mobile device. All the core functions of the app exist on the device’s hard drive and will function properly with or without an internet connection.
Programmers build native apps with a software development kit (SDK), or a standardized set of coding tools. This kit communicates closely with the device’s operating system, meaning these apps can directly access a device’s hardware. Native apps can therefore use a phone’s GPS data, its camera, its microphone, and any other built-in sensors or hardware the smartphone comes equipped with.
Instantly, native apps gain a few big advantages over web apps.
Because a native app is built to work perfectly on one kind of phone, it’ll typically be faster and more reliable than other kinds of app. Native apps can also use device-specific hardware. This means they can deliver more features.
Finally, these apps usually “feel” like they belong on the device. Native apps have a natural flow to them because the SDK they’re built around makes sure they use logic with which the user is probably already familiar.
These apps only work on one kind of mobile platform, so if you want to develop an app for both iPhone and Android, you’re looking at a separate development process for each platform you want to reach. And, as operating systems evolve, the codebase of native apps will need to be updated accordingly so they continue to function properly. They’re usually higher maintenance and more costly than other kinds of apps.
Here are some examples of native apps:
- Pokemon Go: With its deep reliance on GPS, camera, and accelerometer, this game could only be developed as a native app. It may be a fun way to make a neighbourhood walk an adventure, but it’s also a sophisticated piece of software.
- Waze: Waze is an interesting example of a native app because while its codebase exists in its entirety on the hosting portable device, it still downloads map data via a cellular data connection. Waze is a good example of how native apps can perform complicated and challenging tasks by combining multiple sensors and data sources.
3. Hybrid mobile apps
Just like a progressive app, a hybrid mobile app combines web and native app design. These apps are built with a single codebase, most of which the app accesses via a remote server.
However, they can also directly access a portable device’s operating system, potentially incorporating a much wider array of sophisticated functions than a simple web app. Hybrid apps are therefore very similar to progressive apps, but like a native app, hybrid apps are distributed through a mobile platform’s built-in app store.
Hybrid apps can generally be developed in considerably less time than a native app. They’re easier to develop than native apps, and significantly fewer resources are required to separately program an app across multiple platforms. Developers with a limited budget frequently choose to create a hybrid app because it offers excellent value for investment.
Also, because they’re distributed through a mobile device’s built-in app store, they’re easier to market and distribute than a progressive app.
Here are a few examples of hybrid apps:
- Marketwatch: This app gives investors a steady stream of market news and analysis. While the app’s main goal is to give users a carefully curated library of investment articles, Marketwatch also incorporates a limited collection of more tool-like functions, including a stock watchlist and real-time data streams. It’s available within both the Android and Apple app stores, making the product extremely easy to find and install.
- Sworkit: This fitness app allows users to set their goals and participate in a wide variety of exercises. The interface is slick, resembling a cross between a fitness wearable dashboard and a streaming fitness service. Sworkit’s marketing strategy is built around directing prospects to the Apple or Android app stores to purchase the product.
So, what should you choose?
If you plan to sell your app, native apps are a clear winner because they’re built to be sold directly through a mobile platform’s app store. However, a hybrid app is also a viable option here because it can be developed to be sold in a similar way.
On the other hand, if your goal is to build an app that extends your website visibility—perhaps, for example, you want a part of your website to be available offline on a portable device—a progressive app is great because your target audience can grab it seamlessly directly from your webpage.
If your purposes are purely informational—for example, imagine an app that delivers newsletter-style content in an easy-to-read format—a web app can deliver this functionality with a relatively small development cost and makes sense as an option.
Step 6. Create a wireframe
Once you have your goals, market, and positioning defined, it’s time to create the app’s wireframe — the plan for your app, a rough draft. You want to map out the structure and flow of the pages. Show what a user will see when they open the app. What options will they have? What comes next, and next? You don’t have to worry about aesthetics here, it’s about the core functionality.
This can help stakeholders gain a strong understanding of the app and enable them to provide input on how it should work. Plus, it creates the blueprint for development. You can create wireframes in a variety of ways: sketch them out, use software, or create them on your computer.
Step 7. Find an app developer
A key in the developer-vetting process is ensuring that the app developer has the skills needed to take on your project. To find out, you can share your wireframes with them. They will assess the technical challenges you need them to overcome and, assuming they can solve them, can provide you with a tech spec that outlines the details of what needs to be done behind the scenes in order to bring your wireframes to life. They can often give you a quote after this step, enabling you to weigh your options and make a choice.
To make that magic happen they will perform any (and most likely all) of the following tasks:
- Work with you to refine the initial app concept
- Write accurate and efficient code in the app’s target programming language
- Liaise with graphic design artists, software experts, IT managers, and marketing people to ensure the app meets all design criteria
- Test the code for accuracy
- Ensure the app continues to work across operating system updates.
Once the app is finalized, their role transitions into maintenance — creating patches and upgrades that keep the app current and fully functional.
Step 8. Create an MVP – minimum viable product
The initial milestone in app development is creating an MVP — a minimum viable product. An MVP is the most basic version of your app that demonstrates its most essential features. The bells and whistles can come later. Initially, you only need the bare-bones pieces that your app needs to function.
For example, if you were building a food delivery app, it would have the ability for users to log in, select a restaurant, view a menu, and order an item. If you wanted to add in a special perks section, rewards, and driver tracking, that could all come later. Once you’ve created the MVP, you have the core functionality and can build from there.
Step 9. Mobile app quality assurance
Before launching an app, you want to make sure all the bugs are out. That is where quality assurance (QA) comes in. The QA specialist you hire will test your app on multiple mobile platforms (when applicable), multiple devices, and multiple software versions to ensure all issues are resolved before going to market.
Step 10. Deploy
Once all the bugs are worked out, you are ready to deploy your app! The deployment process varies depending on the development method you chose. However, most mobile apps require a server back-end to function. Then, you will need to submit your app for review by the various app stores. To do so, review their requirements and ensure your app meets them all to avoid rejection and delays.
Step 11. Market your app
While it would be great if launching an app was enough to drive downloads, the truth is, you need to do some work to get the word out. People need to know about your app and see the value it can provide to them. Here are a few ideas to market your app:
- Reach your target audience by building a digital presence across the social media platforms where your audience spends time. This can include Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn, Snapchat, and YouTube. Post on a regular basis and build your following to generate interest. Think of creative ways to show how your app works, who needs it, and how it solves problems.
- Optimize your app for the app stores. By understanding how the various app stores work, you can optimize your app so it has the greatest chance of being found organically.
- Run paid ads on search engines and social platforms to reach a large targeted audience fast and direct them to download the app.
- Create blogs that are optimized for search engines so that your content shows up high in search results and drives traffic to your app organically.
- Create a press release to announce the app and publish it across multiple outlets that are relevant to your target audience.
Step 12. Gather feedback and make improvements
Making an app is not a set-it-and-forget-it type of deal. It should be more like a living thing that grows over time and needs consistent attention, and feedback is key to your app’s success. Listen to your users to understand what they love and what needs improvement. Then, you can further tailor the app to their needs over time. Most customers like giving their opinions and it can help them become more invested in your app. You can get direct feedback via questionnaires and pop-up boxes in-app or on social media. Plus, always check the reviews left publicly in the app stores.
As you track your KPIs and gather feedback, you should be continuously making improvements to the app to better meet the needs of the market. This is why most apps release updates every couple of weeks. It’s a competitive, fast-moving world, and your app needs to keep up!
But as you make improvements, you will be going back into development meaning you go through the whole process again, including quality assurance. Always make sure that you thoroughly test the app before releasing a new updated version. If you don’t, you risk losing the hard-earned users you have gained so far.
The bottom line: you don’t need to be a programmer to build an app
What you do need is a firm understanding of your business case for making an app, and how you plan to measure your success. Equipped with this information, you’re in a great position to build up an informed idea of what kind of app you want, what it needs to look like, and how you intend to get your audience to use it. When you can look down at your desk and see all that information ready to go, you’ll know it’s time to find that ace programmer and turn your great app idea into a reality.
If you take your time with these steps and make sure you have clarity every step of the way, you too can develop a killer app.