Planning an iPhone App: Where to Start

Envisioning an iPhone app and bringing it to life can be an intimidating process. Here are some tips to help you get some movement with your app idea.

Ask Questions

Before you dive into visuals, it’s important to answer some questions about the app.

Strategic

  • What apps exist out there that are similar to your idea?
  • Why should people use your app and not those other apps?
  • Why are you making this app? This app will take up your time, mental energy, eat into social relationships, be your favorite topic of conversation, and your biggest source of frustration. Are you sure it’s worth it?

This is a good time to stop and reflect. Can you sell your answers to the last two to other people? And both of you believe it? Wonderful! Let’s keep going:

  • How much time do you have to devote to this app each week? Don’t forget to consider the little things like eating and sleeping, which take up time.
  • Is there a date that the app has to be launched by? If yes, do you have time to eat and sleep and still get it launched?
  • Who does this app exist for? Do they know they need or want what it’s going to give them? If not, how will you tell a story that demonstrates why it is desirable or even essential?
  • How else will you market this app?

Specific

  • What are all of the tasks someone can do using your app?
  • What tasks are more important than others? This hierarchy will end up helping you determine what your app navigation will look like.
  • What is your ultimate feature list to get these tasks done? It’s great to write everything down in a couple giant brainstorming sessions. Don’t be discouraged, though, if you end up cutting the list in half and then in half in again (and maybe a third time). Better to do your core competency extremely well than many things poorly.
  • At what point will you start testing the app? If it’s a genuinely interesting app, then you will have people asking to be testers early on and you want to be prepared with answers when they ask.

Get Inspired

Pttrns iPhone Screenshots

Pttrns iPhone Screenshots

Saving sanity starts with this easy task: recognize that innovation doesn’t come out of a void but is an evolutionary process. This means that you can’t possess within your person all of the knowledge, foresight, creativity, and vision that the project requires. The ideas and input of other people are essential for our best work to be done.

One obvious but sometimes overlooked tactic for gaining perspective is to download new (and hopefully inexpensive) apps just to experience the interface, look for interesting interactions, and take note of similarities to your future app.

Downloading apps is ideal because you get to experience them in their entirety. The next best thing is to look at screenshots. For apps I’ve purchased, I’m constantly taking screenshots and filing them away on my system. For others’ screenshots, I use these two growing sites for reference:

Pttrns.com
Mobile-patterns.com

Start Sketching

Sketch before you get up to your neck in design and development. It doesn’t matter how you do it – I’ve used paper, Balsamiq, Omnigraffle (with Zurb or Graffletopia stencils), and Protoshare, but there are dozens of options for this now. A Google search on “iPhone prototyping tools” will lead you to them.

Whatever way you do it, just get something out there that you can play with. If you’re on a Mac, I recommend using LiveView so that you can view static wireframes on your phone directly from your computer over wifi. There is a crucial difference in your perception of a product when the sketch is on your phone, in your hand versus the computer screen.

Example of a task flow diagram

Example of a task flow diagram

As I wireframe, I like to keep an updated task flow diagram handy so that I know where the screens I’m currently working on fit into the overall workflow. If you are working on a team project, then this will help keep everybody on the same page. It’s amazing how quickly miscommunications can sneak in.

Good luck and happy app making!

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  • http://twitter.com/iamdothack Hack

    Very good article :). Planning on making one within next 6 months

    • http://www.agicent.com/mobile_applications.html SB-Agicent

      You are planning to develop an app yourself, or would be looking for an expert development company for the same, if you are looking for an App development company, then don’t hesitate in contact me directly at sales@agicent.com, we’ll learn about your requirements and share an estimation/ quote.

      FYI – we’ve done more than 30 different apps and I shall be glad to share those references with you should you be interested.

      BRs
      - Sudeep @ Agicent Technologies

  • http://www.volkside.com Jussi Pasanen

    Hi Emily, thanks for a great post!

    I think quite a few people rush over the strategic part and straight into design and implementation (that’s where all the fun is!) but it’s worth emphasising the importantance of working out the business need first.

    The questions listed above are a good start and to help answer them you could use traditional market research (good) and concept testing with real people (better). It’s possible to test even a back-of-the-napkin sketch and you can never start too early.

    Here’s a recent post on the simple early stage user testing: http://blog.usabilla.com/early-stage-user-testing/ . Although it discusses websites and web apps you can certainly apply the thinking and process to mobile apps. The very early tests are probably better done in person rather than remotely, so it’s easier to gauge people’s emotional response to your proposed app.

    Also, Brian Fling recently posted a great article “Does your firm need its own mobile app?” that’s definitely worth reading: http://pinchzoom.com/posts/does-your-firm-need-its-own-mobile-app

    That and the referred BBC write up offer great tips for a successful mobile app.

  • http://twitter.com/emilysmith Emily Smith

    @Jussi Thanks for the links – I will definitely check those out. I appreciate your comments.

    @Hack Good luck with your app! Come back and post a link when it’s done. :)

  • http://www.greymatterz.co.uk Richard Scott

    Very informative post Emily – Thanks.

    I come from a graphic design background and so sketching everything beforehand comes as second nature to me. But it certainly has helped me to start planning the creation of my very first app for my new business…. in….. hypnotherapy.

    Who’d have guessed the change of disciplines eh? I think it comes down to a background in persuasion and suggestion if you ask me.

    But anyways, thanks again for giving out some great guidelines and inspiration.
    I can and will make this app work… and work well!

    All the best
    Rich

  • Evelina

    Great and informative article. We were creating an app and you know, your article really helped :) you can see our results here:

    http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/plan/id428005487?mt=8&ls=1#

  • http://www.agicent.com/mobile_applications.html SB Agicent

    very well informative article, I just want to add here that if anyone here is looking to get developed their iPhone/ iPad apps, then they can contact us at sales@agicent:disqus
    .com; we provide best in breed Mobile Apps development services, we’ve done more than 30 different Mobile apps till now, feel free to contact and get a quote on your app idea.
    BRs
    -Agicent Team

  • Agicent SB

    Hi Boris, I believe its too late, but lemme tell you that you can always contact Agicent (professional App Development company) for any of your App/ Web or Enterprise software development project. Just write an Email to sales at agicent.com and get the ball rolling. :) Hope that helps…
    Take care…BRs-SB Agicent