15 Lessons I’ve Learned From Making Apps
This is a version of a talk I gave at the 2014 Creative Works conference. Thanks to Josh Horton for inviting me to speak and forcing me to structure my thoughts and experiences about making apps into something kinda coherent.
Hi. My name’s Jason Powers.
My first son was born in Jan 2009, my first app was born later the same year:
It looked like this:
Album Art Tap was a Guess-the-Cover-Art game that my partner, Steven Baughman, and I worked on as a side project for almost a year to get right. I designed. Steven coded. We were really stoked on this app.
And then this happened:
In January 2010, Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad and announced it would be shipping in 3 months.
Having just launched an app and learning the hard way that no one cares about your app unless it’s solving a problem, catering to an existing audience and has a story that’s easy to grasp; we decided to ditch our iPhone app and funnel our learnings into creating one of the very first ever iPad apps.
We wanted to make an experience that utilized this new larger touch screen and something that allowed people to be creative. We envisioned a layout app where you touched the items on the page.
So the criteria for our first iPad app shaped up:
And this is how two dudes got into:
ScrapPad — Scrapbooking for iPad. From the name and 3 word description, anyone could easily guess what the app did and who would enjoy it.
We missed our 3 month deadline, but only by a month. So 4 months later, the bare bones, MVP version of ScrapPad was in the App Store, just in time for the international iPad launch.
We kept iterating on it month after month, year after year, to get it to a polished and robust experience:
And this is the kind of stuff people make with it:
It’s awesome. We love that ScrapPad allows people to make stuff they love.
ScrapPad’s sales started off really slow. We tried a number of marketing experiments to get things going, the most successful being catering to the App Store’s editorial schedule for feature collections.
Because we offered seasonal and holiday themed content packs, we were able to make free themed versions of ScrapPad that provided Apple with a quality free app to feature for each major holiday.
And it worked:
Which got even more attention:
Peaking at #10 in the charts when we made our paid version free for the first time.
5 years of hustle:
I’m amazed and humbled that this little side project grew into something that so many people use to artistically express themselves and share their memories.
As things got more real, we formed a mission statement to guide us:
This was why we made ScrapPad and how we evaluated new opportunities.
Our users presented a big one to us:
They’d finish creating their ScrapPad album and want to print a photo book, but all the major print on demand sites looked like this:
So Steven, myself and a third partner, Jason Horwitz, built a mobile printing platform:
Printzel — App-powered printing:
We built an API and SDK so any creative app (including ScrapPad :) could have an in-app module to offer their users professionally printed photo books:
All the e-commerce is baked in, powered by Stripe.
We built a simple photo book Printzel App to showcase the service:
And then we got really creative with marketing.
We wanted to show how the Printzel service could be integrated in a popular photo filter app. So I retreated to my research studio:
After examining every app the Photo & Video charts, studying what combination of utility and fun could possibly break through, I emerged with a flash of inspiration! I fired off this email:
Along with this GIF:
25 days later, FLIP was submitted to the App Store:
40 days later, FLIP was on the front page of the App Store, featured in New & Noteworthy:
We were successful in launching an app to be visible in charts, but as for our original thesis of people ordering photo books from fun filter apps:
The print orders didn’t materialize from FLIP, or a later experiment BLEND, and we found it challenging to find partners to use the Printzel service: they were either too small and didn’t have an audience to support the overhead of integration, or they were too large and incorporating our platform into their app proved too difficult to get on feature roadmaps, and the few ‘just right’ medium partners usually needed a custom feature we hadn’t accounted for.
In the summer of 2014, Printzel entered talks to be acquired. An offer was accepted but the deal ultimately fell apart in the final stages, as these things so often do.
After years of focus on ScrapPad and Printzel, they went on the back burner while the team explored other opportunities, and were ultimately decommissioned at the end of 2016.
So what have I learned from my years in the app game?
Here are my 15 App Dad nuggets to share:
App designers need their nuggs too, right?
When starting out a project, it’s so important to know what you want for the endgame: A portfolio piece to land a specific job? An acquisition? An indie company? A fun art project? All are valid goals, but they require different paths to success.
Knowing where you want to end up will guide how you make decisions about your app.
If your idea can be done as a website, that’s probably a better way to go. Really think about how your product will benefit and take advantage of being a native app.
The App Store is CROWDED. What will make customers choose your app over competitors? How do you concisely articulate how you’re different?
To get potential partners willing to invest time or money in your idea, whip your idea up to be as real as your skills allow. Design comps are better than sketches. Prototypes are better than comps. How’s it branded? What’s the marketing look like? Get real.
Enjoy both spectrums of the work, the big picture planning and the detailed execution grinding. Both mindsets are required and necessary.
Get the people you’re working with excited! Get them involved in the idea with a great presentation. Showing a developer pro looking designs is the best way to start momentum on an idea.
No insanely great product was completed solely in 9–5 office hours. Expect some stretches of long days and late nights if you want to ship something excellent. The thing is, it won’t seem like work if you’re excited about what you’re building.
The only way to keep a longterm creative partnership going is to counter balance the cranking times with chilling times. The great thing about time off is that new ideas and inspiration are found, and strength is gathered for the next sprint.
Plan and build in sharable moments into your app. What achievement or learning or fun moment will make users want to talk about your product with others? What artifacts are you creating for users to distribute across their social channels?
Product is hard. People are harder. I’m still figuring this one out.
It’s amazing how low our standard of customer service is. A simple personal response addressing a user’s problem can usually turn a hater into an evangelist. And convert those satisfied with your customer service into App Store reviewers — Lord knows we need more positive reviews there.
Don’t worry if your app isn’t getting the tech blog coverage other apps are. Those eyeballs have super low conversion rates into paying customers. Exposure in the App Store, where people are browsing with the intent to download, is much more valuable. Optimize for that.
I mean come on, we’re taping and flicking colorful things around with our thumbs all day. Fun wins.
A blocking sign up form? No onboarding? Type too small to read? How rude.
Cut to the chase, get to the good stuff. Kill as many steps in your flows as possible.
In the end:
I filter all this stuff through a 4-step creative process:
- Listen for empathy and opportunities.
- Encourage others who are inspiring you, establish and maintain relationships.
- Do something. It’ll probably not be great at first. That’s ok.
- Repeat. Iterate. Refine.
Remember, no one knows what they’re doing when they start, you just need to start:
I look forward to meeting your apps.