#TechTuesday: How to Refine Your App Idea

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Why refining your idea can make or break your apps’ success.

By Megan E. Holstein (CEO, Pufferfish Software)

This article has previously appeared on Mobile Orchard and Medium.

There are over one million apps on the app store. Million is a large number, though, so to get a feel for how many there are, just try and find an interesting and relevant app to what you need on the app store, without looking for a featured app. The sheer amount of bulk on the app store will make it impossible to sift through the collection.

There are not, however, one million unique app ideas on the app store. There are probably thousands of to-do and task manager apps alone — and enough of those are beautiful, coded well, and all around excellent that that fact should give you pause. Just try searching to-do, and you’ll get hundreds of results that are simple and beautiful, and what thousands of other todo apps aspire to. Clearly, having a really well done app is not all you need to be successful.

We all know (or should know) that you need to market and advertise your app on today’s app store to be successful. It is not enough to make something well and throw it up; you need to be able to tell people as well. But with one million apps, the idea itself of an app is now brought into the competitive arena.

With so many good programmers and designers competing on the same idea, your idea needs to be distinctive enough to merit the all-important download. If you’re lucky enough to really have a truly brand-new idea, you have it easier — but even so, all of us have to spend time honing our app ideas. There are a couple of handy things to remember when creating or considering your initial app idea that will set you on the right track.

Make it Small in Scope

One easy thing to remember while refining your app idea is that it should be small in scope. This means that it should do only a handful of things, but it should do those handful of things really, really well. Think about all your favorite apps — Snapchat, the app that sends self destructing photos—Facebook, the app that lets you post messages, pictures, and comments to people or groups’ walls (and that’s a lot for one app—Twitter, the app that has 140 character messages—2048, a game with exactly 4 controls where you slide tiles around— the examples are endless. These apps only do a few things, but they do those few things well.

iPhones are used in small bites, in moments and seconds, and their purpose should reflect this. A game should resemble a flash game, not in graphics but in gameplay — quick play under 30 minutes, during class time or while the boss isn’t looking. A productivity should get you to the screen you need and get you to it quickly. A utility app, even shorter — only have one or two screens at all.

iPhones are used in bites, in moments & seconds, and the design should reflect this.

Even the longest sittings, like document editing, should not expect very much attention, because users aren’t powering through writing the great american novel on their iPhone. At best, they’re capturing ideas on their iPad.

People do quick bits of work on their iDevice — that last read through and edit while they’re worrying before their oral presentation, or idea capturing when they’re hit with inspiration before a doctor’s appointment. With so little time to make an impression, your app needs to make a good impression, and make it quickly. You can’t do this with an app that has more functions than a swiss army knife.

Your app needs to be simple, new, and engaging, the first time. You can’t afford a user’s split attention or difficulty using your app.

Cool Features ≠ Good App

Another easy guideline for app idea refinement is to remember that a cool feature does not a good app make. When the iPhone first came out, using the accelerometer feature was very in vogue — every game that came out had some sort of siginificant accelerometer feature. But the games that became famous — iBeer— had ideas that used the accelerometer in an engaging and simple way.

If you’ve thought of some feature that would be really cool on iOS, that’s great — write it down and save it. While a feature can make an app cool, new, and different, a feature isn’t a reason to make an app in the first place. You might say “But Mailbox is cool because it has different features for eMail!” No, the idea of snoozing an alert or leaving it until later is not a new feature. Mailbox is different because it applied these features to a new core concept, ‘treating eMail like a to-do list.’

As cool as some iOS features are, at the end of the day an app is function-driven. That feature has to do something in the context of the function of the app; if it doesn’t help the user have a better and smoother experience, it is better left out. The importance of this cannot be over-stressed: know what makes your app different at the emotional level. Differentiating on feature set won’t win you the fight, but differentiating on core user experience will.

MacBooks are a great example of this; on paper, they have less features and hardware than any other computers, and is astronomically more expensive. Yet, they are top sellers because they provide a delightful experience. Providing a delightful experience is what will win you the app market, and providing a delightful experience begins with a refined core app idea.

In summary, an app has to have a good core function and a good experience to be successful in the market.

Think About The Difference

Chances are, in the war between two apps that do roughly the same thing, people will choose the one that’s been reviewed more and is more popular. This is due to the sheer fact that it’s higher up on the charts and easier to find.

Because other apps will be higher up on the charts and more reviewed, if there isn’t a clear reason to choose your app, users won’t. There needs to be a very real and very obvious reason why your app is better, that isn’t just tied to the ratings and chart position.

And what’s more; the reasons that seem obvious to you are not obvious to everyone else. What is obviously better is not obvious if it isn’t a short sentence.

If you can’t explain your app’s competitive advantage quickly and clearly, you’re already at a disadvantage.

Execution is Everything

Your app can make your iPhone shoot lasers, but if you can’t see the ‘shoot’ button, nobody will like it. Whatever your app does will have to do it simply, and it will have to do it well.

Screenshot MediumTake Omnifocus ($19.99 iPhone / $39.99 iPad): it is considered the biggest and most robust task management app on the app store. It syncs with your calendars, reminds you of nearby to-do’s, and you can attach links and videos within the app. Plenty of people like Omnifocus, but just as many people like Clear.

 

 

 

Screen grab twoClear is also a to-do app, and is very basic: Pull down to create item, swipe to complete, pinch to see lists and then expand again to see the items in that list. It isn’t nearly as complicated as Omnifocus, but has enjoyed more success — about 2,000,000 downloads’ worth.

 

 

This is evidence of the fact that a well-executed idea can lead to success on a bigger and grander scale than features any day. Make sure that not only is your app idea small in scope, but that what it does do is executed in a way that is simpler than anything else available. Turns out, all of the clichés about simplicity are ultimately based in truth — if it isn’t simple, it won’t succeed.

Is it easy to understand? There is an app on the app store that’s a game, and the point of the game is to hold your finger on the screen over a word, like elephant or monkey or cup. When the icon that flashes across the screen is your word, you lift your finger. It’s a fun 4 player game. However, It wasn’t successful because you couldn’t explain the concept well. People tried to tell their friends and their friends didn’t get it, so they gave up. In contrast, the app iBeer is easy to explain — “It’s like beer on your iPhone!” and it went viral for Hottrix.

If your app idea can’t be explained in a single sentence, you need to refine it further. You can never capture the fabled virality or word-of-mouth craze if your users can’t actually explain your app to their friends or coworkers.

Always Get Feedback

One of the best ways to measure your app idea is to get feedback for your idea. Feedback is important throughout the whole development process, because it is a reality check as to what your users want. Below are a couple of good ways for you to seek feedback on your app idea, and these methods can be applied through the whole development process — not just while you’re refining your idea.

  • Never forget to ask friends and family for feedback. This is something you can do right now; stop reading this and type up an email to a close friend with your app idea, and ask them what they think of it. Make sure it is someone who is comfortable with providing you honest criticism, and won’t just tell you it’s good to encourage you. If your idea doesn’t pass this initial test, modify it before moving on to other methods of validation.
  • One way to get feedback at every stage is to build a short survey and to distribute it to people on the internet. A free survey is a fantastic way to get descriptive information about an app, in a quantifiable way — a way where you can analyze group results. You can create a free online survey using SurveyMonkey or Google Docs. Make sure your survey has a field where people can leave their email addresses, so you can stay in contact with them (and let them know when your app is available).
  • One invaluable way to get users, spread the word about your app, get press, and make all your app dreams come true is to go to local events for the Tech community. These can be found through the website Meetup, especially in the Tech section. Set the distance to your area, and attend some of the app and startup meetings. Tell people there about your app idea, and solicit feedback from them. Connect to people you meet on LinkedIn, and grow your personal network. A personal network is one of those things that you don’t need until you need it — and then you really need it.
  • Another way to gauge interest in your app concept is to build a landing page for your idea. This is most easily done by starting a launchrock. Launchrock is a service for creating landing pages, and they offer pre-built templates with images — this means you can select a template which makes sense, change the text to reflect your app idea, and you’ll already be ready to start collecting emails and gauging interest in your app idea. This is best used in conjunction with other methods of gauging interest, because it allows you to give somewhere else to direct users to, a link that they can share with their friends or coworkers, if they like your app idea. And by collecting email addresses, you can follow up later when the app is built to prompt people to download it.

You’ve got your user feedback on your idea — be careful not to put too much weight on their feedback.

Don’t Always Obey

Knowing what your user wants and needs is a critical part in designing a successful app, but you need to be careful of making the mistake of just chasing what the user wants. Their feedback can help center your design, but you need to always keep the core of your app in mind. This is that one-sentence description, that important mission that inspired you to take the journey of creating an app in the first place.

If you discover that what your users want is completely different than what you initially had in mind, and you want to make that different thing, it is known as a product pivot. You can pivot your app if you want, but you have to throw out all the work you did for the old idea and start anew in order to make a quality app. Don’t hang on to old work just for the sake of having done the work. This is not like an hourly job; each hour spent is crossing distance towards something, and you’re not counting the hours — you’re counting distance towards that goal.

Other times, its appropriate to ignore the user’s feedback. This is counterintuitive, but it’s also a principle that Apple Inc. lives and dies by.

Steve Jobs is quoted as saying “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” in an interview in BusinessWeek, May 25, 1998.

This is an important thing for you to keep in mind as well — the user accurately knows what problem they’re having in their life, but they’re not always most deft at identifying the appropriate solution. If merely doing exactly what users say resulted in a good product, Apple would not be as successful a company as they are; Apple Inc. regularly ignores feature requests and has a limited scope of compatibility, which next to price is the most frequent complaint made about Apple’s products.

Yet, they still manage to be beloved and exclusively bought by millions of people, raking in billons of dollars. So how does Apple determine how to design their products? They look at what the users want not from a technical standpoint, but from a more emotional one. They ask themselves what features would make the users feel good, what features will make their lives better.

This translates to asking the users how they currently feel, not the features their users say they want. Often, (as with the iPhone), the answer is something that had never crossed the user’s mind — but revolutionizes their life. This is evident on their website: Go to the product page of any Apple product, and it won’t have a laundry list of features and comparisons to competitors — it will have beautiful pictures of their products, and emotion-evoking statements about them. Nothing more.

What this means for you is that you should do the same thing — focus on what the users say the problem is, but don’t implement the solutions they suggest. Give the problem honest, concerted thought, and come up with a solution (a core purpose for your app, as we discussed earlier), that evokes buzzwords like “innovative” and “intuitive.” Take into account the survey data to identify your user’s problems, but not for what the solution should be. This was the purpose of having the survey respondents rate their current solution — It tells you how much the current solutions are failing in this area, but doesn’t get you caught in the trap of doing a feature comparison.

The Final Test

The final test for app idea development is when someone will inevitably ask about your app. These are the questions you must be able to answer clearly in under two sentences:

  • What is your app? / What does it do?
  • Why should I download it [over competitors’ apps]?

Keep refining your app idea, and keep soliciting feedback, until you can always clearly answer these questions in a way that fully satisfies the person asking. They shouldn’t be able to ask “Why wouldn’t I just do ____?” or “Wait, how would I use it?” The person asking these questions should be left silent, understanding completely the idea you are communicating.

Feel free to head back over to Reddit or wherever you distributed your survey to propose your new and honed idea, and see what sort of questions or comments you receive in response to it. You shouldn’t have to answer a litany of follow-up questions to sell your idea, and now is the time to finalize your app idea and description enough so that you don’t have to. (Having to answer a litany of follow-up questions down the road can be the thing that makes or breaks an app’s success).

A great app idea is the foundation for a great app, and having a great app idea can quickly set you on the path to success.

Photo credit: Sergey Niven via Shutterstock.


About the guest blogger: Megan Holstein is a freshman at the Ohio State University, from Columbus OH, 18 years old and the president of Pufferfish Software. Pufferfish Software makes apps for autistic children and their therapy, and Megan started this company when she was fifteen.  Her passion for entrepreneurship developed when she was 14, and began a business buying and selling broken laptops on eBay. Follow her on Twitter@MeganEHolstein.