App-ly yourself

Got dreams of creating the next Flappy Bird viral app hit but no idea where to start? We've got you covered with everything but the coding.

Let's face it, building an app in the 2010s is what writing a novel was to the last half of the 20th century. Both challenges appear technically within reach of almost everyone, and success at either carries a promise of riches – but few actually go through with it. For those who do, like high-diving at the Olympics, it’s all in the execution. For every Flappy Bird triple somersault, there are thousands of no-name belly flops.

Since the first release of Apple’s iPhone in 2007, the concept of apps for everything from entertainment to productivity to quality of life enhancers has changed the way we live. The app market has grown in leaps and bounds from around 500 apps on the first App Store, to around 1.2 million apps now on each of the Apple and Android platforms, and a further 120,000 on Windows Phone.

Some of the biggest success stories came during that nascent stage of our love affair with apps simply because choice was limited. Today’s app store developers are going to need a lot more than luck to compete in such a crowded marketplace.

The Idea

First things first, you need an idea. Whether it’s a game, a tool, or a marketing feature for an existing business, this idea needs to be clearly defined. It doesn’t need to be the first app of its kind, and with so many other apps out there, it probably won’t be – but it does need to be simple. “An app should do one or two things, really,” says Brett Hancock, managing director of design and development company Born Digital. “Even all the good photo-taking apps like Instagram or Snapchat only have one or two features. Apps should be simple and uncomplicated.”

Just look at current app store darling Yo. It pared down messaging between users to just two characters: YO. And yet the functionality of sending a simple ‘Yo’ to contacts drove the app to over a million downloads in just four days last June.

“Generally if it’s an idea you can explain to someone in less than a minute in a couple of sentences, and they say ‘how can I download it?’, then you know it will be good,” says Reuben Bijl, co-founder at Christchurch-based mobile developers Smudge.

To DIY or not to DIY

Pop quiz, hotshot: You’ve got a great app idea but know nothing about programming, let alone wireframes and user design. What do you do? Well, if you’re a lone wolf, a go-your-own way kinda entrepreneur – or if don’t have $20k-$80k to farm out the development to the people who know what they’re doing, your options are limited, but not limiting.

Do it from scratch. If you don’t already know Objective C (iOS), Javascript (Android), or HTML5 (web-based), then you best get started. There are plenty of tutorials online to help you along the way, then you’ll need to to figure out wireframing, prototyping and testing. (Lucky for you, we’ve summarised those steps in the sidebar on page 57.)

Take a shortcut. You want the cachet of having crafted your own app, without all the pesky coding? There are a slew of build-your-own app templates to meet you needs, with varying levels of customisation and quality. But caveat emptor: you get what you pay for.

Something like Appmakr might be completely free, but the resulting app will be to Whatsapp what paint-by-numbers is to the Mona Lisa. “It’s a bit cheap and dirty, but not everyone can afford full on apps” says Hancock. Servicing the people in that "need help" niche is where app developer Moa Creative has positioned its new App La Carte service.

“We realised there was a very large SME market that either couldn’t afford apps or didn’t have an IT team, which made [development] too daunting,” says Moa Creative's managing director Rohan deSouza. He describes App La Carte as a “template-based solution” that will remain future-proofed with software updates.

Go native?

Beyond the Android versus iOS debate, there’s the HTML5 versus native debate. It boils down to whether or not you want to create a standalone app, upload it to the respective app stores, potentially monetise it, and use it to access phone features like camera and touch functions.

If your app can be browser-based and doesn’t need those advanced features, then it’s potentially a fit for HTML5. The upside of that decision is your app will be able to run on any platform, as it runs in-browser. And it’s probably a whole bunch cheaper to develop.

“If you want to have a presence online or on phones, then my opinion is go with a responsive website. If you just want to have your contact details and find stores [on mobiles], then youcan do that without an app,” says Bijl.

“The danger doing that [with a native app] is it becomes so old so quickly, you have to keep it up and keep it fashionable and spending every year. You could spend your money better by taking a completely different option.”

Mega bucks

Despite the thousands of dollars or hours you may well sink into developing your app, financial return isn’t guaranteed. You need a good marketing strategy, and getting featured by either Google or Apple is a good start.

Trouble is, there’s not much you can do to influence the big guns, apart from building a great app. Reviews on major sites will help, as will word of mouth, and app store optimisation. However, perhaps the best marketing tool is the app itself – so one of the first decisions you want to make is how you charge for it.

There are four main pricing models to consider: freemium, ad-supported, in-app purchases, and paid. Freemium should by now be a familiar model, where a ‘lite’ version is free or ad-supported, and users are compelled to upgrade to the paid version to access full features ot to escape ads.

“People are unlikely to pay for an app they’ve only read reviews of,” says Hancock who, apart from his role at Born Digital, has developed and released apps on his own. “They’re far, far, far more likely to take a chance on a free app – and if you hook them, they’ll easily make that transition and upgrade to a paid version.” Kiwi success story David Frampton (sidebar opposite page) is a good example of how pricing models have changed over the last five years. Back in 2008, Frampton was able to quit his day job (programming weather graphics for the MetService) when his helicopter game Chopper was released via the App store. That was back when apps were around $8 a pop, which Frampton recognises is “inconceivable” now. His most popular game, Blockheads (a Minecraft-like game where you manoeuver your square-headed characters through a range of worlds and adventures) is offered completely free. Instead, Frampton makes money through users’ in-app purchases of in-game items, and from making people pay for updates.

It is a sign of the times that although far more people play Blockheads than Chopper, the earlier game made more money. At the slum dog millionaire end of the making-money-from-apps spectrum, if you are really lucky you’ll go the route of cross-platform instant messaging subscription service WhatsApp, and Facebook will buy you out for $19 billion. But don’t bet on it.

In the meantime, don’t be afraid to experiment with different revenue models, depending on your app’s purpose and user base. And don’t expect to be done when the app is released, either. “Software is never finished,” says Ryan Baker, co-founder and CEO at cloud-based appointment scheduler Timely. “People tend to think they just need to find someone nerdy to build their app and then they’re finished. Our experience is the exact opposite. Development up to launch is the least amount of work you’ll do. That’s just the start line.” ×

There's an app for that

No man is an island in the app world; there is a ton of free/cheap stuff out there to help would-be developers. We like:

Android Developer hub developer.android.com Google’s home for everything a developer could need. Tools, resources, software development kits – and more. Registration is a one-off $US25 fee.

Apple Developer developer.apple.com Apple’s version of the same. A developer licence costs $US99 a year.

Team Treehouse teamtreehouse.com Learn iOS and Android development from $US25 a month. Also try the free Stanford iOS course on iTunes at j.mp/stanfordiOS, or Udemy for HTML5.

Sensor Tower sensortower.com Market intelligence tools and app store optimisation information for popular apps. Free trial, subscription thereafter.

Crashlytics try.crashlytics.com Identify bugs and gain analytics on app crashes. Enterprise features are paid, free for everything else.

Balsamiq balsamiq.com Create sketches and wireframes quickly and easily. Balsamiq enables collaboration, prototyping and testing. Start with a 30-day free trial, then subscription thereafter.

MoPub mopub.com Hosted ad-serving for mobile publishers. A one-stop shop.

App Annie appannie.com Analytics for all app data and tracks across the App Store, Google Play and Amazon. Dashboard for revenue, downloads, ratings, reviews and rankings. Mostly free, some advanced features are paid.