5 Critical Lessons of App Building

An article I posted a year or so ago on Inaka’s blog, with a few updates!

While most may think that the meat of building an app is in the development, we’ve found that a large part of a successful project is the work done up front. Today we’d like to share a little bit of what we’ve learned with our clients.


1. An idea is not a product.

There is one thing all those who succeeded in the app game will tell you: while the product is born from THE IDEA, there are a lot of things that have to happen before said idea can become a full fledged product. Arguably the most important of them is having an outline that defines your product in detail before development has even started. This is not to say that plans won’t change once development has begun, but it needs to be defined up front. There will be significantly less errors and misunderstandings if you have a detailed blueprint in place right from the beginning.

There are a few simple questions you could begin with when you are sketching your product outline, start here and then drill deeper:

  • I want to build the next whatsapp — but what is the unique feature of my app? What differentiates my product from others (and which are these others)?
  • What features do I want, and what do I not want? For example, if you want users to be able to share their ideas, what form will the content be in? Will it be text/ image/ video? Will it be visible to all users or just to people who are connected?
  • Do I want users to connect with friends in the app? There are different ways of doing this — the most simple one is to compare users’ phone contacts, but your developers will need to know exactly what your preferred method is in order to deliver exactly what you want.
  • How many screens will my app have?
  • Can I produce a complete list of ALL the features and functionalities?

Depending on how much help you need, there are several companies that specialize in product definition and strategy to get you to the point where you need to be before we can take the shovels to the ground.

2. An app is an investment…

… and similar to any investment, you get out of it what you put into it. This doesn’t solely mean monetarily. It will also mean a lot of time, effort and love. Our most successful clients were those who live and breathe the business of their app. They understand that a successful app also needs a solid marketing and sales strategy.

You will need to invest time and money in user generation. You’d be surprised how many times people have a great great idea which is developed into a beautiful app — which no one downloads from the store. The client says: “people don’t like my app”, when the real problem is “people don’t even know that your app exists”. We can build you the best, most solid app in the world but ultimately the success of that app will be based on the work you do once it has been built.

3. Quality matters.

There is certainly not a lack of developers in this day and age. Everyone from the Silicon Valley hot shot to your neighbor’s 17 year old is pumping apps into the app store, but that being said, remember point #2: an app is an investment! If you don’t know about app development your best shot is to hire a firm you can trust or you might end up paying a lot more later than you did up front. What happens a lot is you will get a nice-looking app which crashes as soon as people start using it — or as soon as you get more than two users/day. We’ve had to fix quite a few of these. So remember to do your research properly when it comes to choosing who develops your app, and remember that ‘cheapest’ does not mean ‘best’.

4. Communication is Key.

This is a FUNDAMENTAL rule inside our organization which we came by the hard way. It also applies to communication with our clients. The truth is, unless you are 100% sure what you want from the get go, plan on making no changes, and have never heard of agile development then you need SOLID communication with the dev team you are working with. Building a product is like building a work of art. It’s very difficult to fully determine what it will look like at the outset, and the best apps are those that are molded to perfection throughout the process. Without communication and client involvement, this essential piece is lost. Just handing out the plan and waiting to get the final product in X days is not enough, you will need to keep in touch with your dev team. We’ve discovered that the best way to keep client-dev team communication flowing is to work around the client’s schedule and provide a quick and comprehensive update once or twice a week. Even if the client is not particularly technical, we want to keep them involved as much as possible — so we speak ‘human’ and lay off the technical jargon whenever we can.

5. You don’t want a YES man, you want an advisor.

Sometimes that means disagreement and conflict, but don’t let that get to you — it’s all part of the ride. You might feel more comfortable with a team that takes “the client is always right” approach, but in the end, if you’re taking a wrong turn, you are better off knowing.

On our part, we tried our best to advise our clients on their decisions and to provide enough information for them to make an educated decision on all things related to the development of their app.

In the end, building an app may be a “get rich quick” strategy for some, but it certainly is not to be taken lightly. It should be approached the same way as, and taken as seriously as any other business venture. As with any investment, you are facing the possibility of failure, but then again isn’t that what makes being an entrepreneur so exciting?