When I used to dream about starting my own business, I envisioned myself being the next big Etsy seller or perhaps having a booth at my local farmer’s market (R.I.P. Salsacraft!). Figuring out how to launch an app seemed way outside my comfort level — not to mention way outside of my actual technological ability. But when I did a bit of research, I was floored to see how many people had done it with even less tech savvy than myself.
Figuring out how to launch a mobile app isn’t the right fit for every type of business, but if you have an idea for one, it’s a booming market to get into. Android and Apple’s app stores both offer over 2 million apps to customers — each. That's a huge potential audience! Since not having the required set of high-level skills should never spell out a dead end for a great idea, I reached out to Kristin Beers, Director of Operations at Voxox. As someone who's worked in tech and app development for years, she had great insight into what it takes to launch an app successfully — even without super-duper technological skills. Here’s her step-by-step guide, full of intel all potential developers should know:
Like every successful project, it's important to start off with a strong foundation. “Write your idea down and identify the features you want your app to have,” says Beers. Never underestimate the importance of simply putting pen to paper when it comes to starting a large project.
This phase in the game is also a great time to identify what the experts refer to as "minimum viable product," which Beers defines as the absolute minimum set of features needed in order to release this application to the public. It’s important to determine exactly what that is early on to avoid waiting too long to release. For instance, if you were going to release a music streaming app, is it imperative to the success of your launch to include programming that would allow users to share their playlists on social media, or is the primary goal for users to have access to your library of music? Can the social media sharing functionality be introduced later? If so, then you’ve identified your minimum viable product.
Once you've laid out a clear vision, start diving into some preliminary research to seek out a baseline understanding of how mobile apps work, a step Beers says will save you from some headaches in the long-run. She recommends looking into a database that might store user information, a server for that data to live on, plus an application programming interface (API) that lets your app talk in a consistent way to supporting services like a database. For those building an Apple app, iOS Dev Weekly is a free site that's updated weekly by experienced developers and provides great crowdsourced information. For Android apps, Android Developers Blog has some helpful tips for that operating system.
Next up, Beers recommends clearly and concisely laying out a list of to-dos for developing app features, which will be created by an engineer. “There are a ton of different ways to write requirements, but when you’re working with a small team, the most important thing is to make sure you agree ahead of time on a consistent workflow, so there’s no confusion about what work needs to be done and how to prioritize that work."
If you’re outsourcing the engineering, “ensure they can do both front end application development, and server and database development,” advises Beers. In total, she recommends a small team of one person managing requirements and workflow, one or two engineers, and one person who can run quality assurance.
"The size of your team is entirely dependent on the skill set of those team members. If you have a badass engineer who can do it all and thinks like a QA person, you might not need anyone else on the team," says Beers, who recommends finding out the following information about prospective engineers during your outreach:
If you plan on collecting money from your users, there are a few things you should know. “Apple will absolutely reject your app if you try to collect money directly in the app via a user providing credit card information and you charging them with your merchant account," warns Beers. However, Apple does allow in-app purchases, which charge the credit card a user already has set up on their Apple account. "This means that Apple takes responsibility for vetting purchases for fraud, and they process the actual transaction with no intervention from you."
This also means that Apple takes 30 percent from purchase made within the app, which when all things are considered, is a small price to pay to avoid dealing with fraudulent charges. However, Google Play allows developers to process payments directly from credit cards — while still allowing in-app purchases for the same 30 percent fee. "If you elect to go that route, you’ll need a merchant account — the most popular is www.authorize.net — to process payments. You will be responsible for fraud mitigation, which can be a complicated beast.” Authorize.net offers lots of support and resources for those who want to learn more about fraud (and how to avoid it).
“Apple devices and iOS are fairly straightforward,” says Beers, who recommends supporting the last three major iOS versions, but nothing further since the software doesn't tend to vary a ton between versions. Android, on the other hand, is a totally different ball game, since there are so many phones and operating systems, all stemming from different manufacturers.
Beers noted that this could mean a feature which works on one phone or operating system for an Android device won't necessarily work on another. "Your best bet is to piggyback on already available market analysis. There is data available that will tell you the current most popular Android phone, and the most popular version of Android."
Testing your app on all of those devices can be a bit tricky, but there are services like TestObject to help you run tests on multiple platforms to save time and headaches down the line.
Yes, it's taken a lot of prep work to get to this point, but I promise it'll all be worth it in the long run. Now is the time to start asking yourself about the more nitty-gritty details to cater your app for your audience. Will your app need security measures? Have you decided on your branding? Who will be applying the branding to the interface — you, or the engineer? How do you plan on testing your app on multiple operating systems? This is where you’ll set the tone and pace for your team’s workflow and hit the ground running.
And speaking of testing: You've got to do it. “Testing your app is as important as developing it. If it crashes 50 percent of the time on launch, your users are gonna have a bad time,” assures Beers. Test, test, and test again with your engineers until you’ve met your minimum viable product, and once that's done...
Drumroll, please! All of your hard work is finally going to be seen by the masses. Now it's just down to ensuring everything is submitted to the app stores correctly. Mobile developers can typically take care of this process, but it's best to confirm this detail in advance of your scheduled launch, on the off-chance that you need to learn to handle it yourself.
Apple has posted a guide for app developers on submitting your app to the store, which is a slightly more intensive process than the process for submitting an app to Google Play, with the main difference being that Google Play makes your app available for download immediately after you've submitted it to the store. No person reviews the app to make sure it meets any basic criteria, but if you violate their Developer Program Policies, they may pull the app and restrict you from uploading again.
Finally, much like search engine optimization, the language you use in the listing for your application is as important as anything else. If you don’t use the right words, your target user may never find your app. Think critically about how you'd search for an app like yours, and make sure those key phrases are included in your description. You have limited space, use it well!
You constantly have to fine-tune your app to satisfy your customers, and products like Mixpanel provide analytics on how your users use your app in real time, which can help you spot areas that need improvement.
“Mixpanel and similar products provide insight into patterns present in your user base, which might help you make feature decisions," explains Beers. "What's the most used feature? Once you know that, you can focus on improving the user experience of that feature. Where are most of your users based? Maybe you want to add localization for Indonesia if you have a large user base there, for example."
You can also provide ways for users to contact you directly. For instance, your app might include your email address or feedback form. Ensuring users have the ability to continuously let you know how you can improve will help your app flourish.