Does anyone actually want your app?

By Megan E. Holstein (CEO, Pufferfish Software)

This post comes on the heels of my popular “How to Refine Your App Idea” post. If you haven’t read it yet, read it first before diving into this piece. This piece originally appeared on Medium

Many folks seem to think it’s all right to have an idea for an app, and immediately dive into building it before making sure anyone else even wants it. This doesn’t seem to be because of bad assumptions so much as it does excitement on the part of a beginning app developer.

But let’s think about it; You liking an idea doesn’t mean everyone likes the idea. Take, for instance, celery. Most people don’t like celery, but celery-lovers do exist. If your app idea is the equivalent of celery, that’s fine — not every app is meant to be a chart-topper. What isn’t fine is assuming your app is cake, when your app may very well be celery.

Luckily, there are a couple of quick and easy steps you can take to make sure your app isn’t celery.

1. Create a LaunchRock Website

This step is ridiculously easy. LaunchRock is a service where you can make a free website and email collector, and they have built-in analytics for all of the free websites you can create with them as well.

Just create a website around your app, even if you have nothing more than an idea. You don’t need screenshots or a working app to create a “coming soon” website, which is what you need.

Pick a template, add some text and Google Analytics, and you can start sharing that URL.

2. Promote Your Website

Post a link to your website on forums where your intended users would be active. Most internet advice would stop there, but we’re going to ask: where would your intended users be active?

  • Reddit is a forum website with a subreddit for everything under the sun. Search their subreddits for related categories, and post a link to your LaunchRock on all the related categories you can find.
  • HackerNews is a great place to post if your app idea has wide appeal, such as a photo-editing app or a social network.
  • Tweet at people who are leaders of your intended audience. Even if the person you tweet at doesn’t interact, other followers will.
  • Comment on articles that your target market is reading. People who are very interested go through comments, and your website would make sense there.
  • Additionally, here is is a directory of dozens of websites you could share your app idea with, especially if your app is aimed at a technical audience.

When you post about your app, you don’t want to be spam. Anyone spamming doesn’t think they’re spamming, and learning to tell when you personally are coming off as spammy is necessary. Here are some tips on how to avoid coming off as spammy:

Tell a personal story

It won’t take you too long to come across a post which says “Hey, I’m creating this app called flim flam, will you download and review? Thanks!” And you will say “nope” and scroll on by. You do this because there’s no emotion or story attached to this post to reel you in. To avoid people scrolling on by your post, make sure it says…

  • Why the app idea excites you
  • What your dreams are for this app
  • How you had this idea
  • Who you’re trying to help with it

Give viewers a call to action

You’ve got them reeled in and feeling emotions now, you want to do something with it. What do you want your excited readers to do? Ask them in the post to…

  • Sign up for your mailing list
  • Share comments or critiques of the idea
  • Share some sage wisdom with you if they have any.

Keep it personal

Don’t be official or come off as marketing copy; at this point, you’re a person on a journey. Make sure they’re enrolled in that journey by sharing your emotions and experiences in this affair. Ask viewers for advice on anything you’re struggling with, or perhaps their top tip to help you out. Folks love sharing advice.

3. Interact with Signups

After you’re promoted your website and built a mailing list, you need to interact with people who have signed up. There are a couple of ways to do this:

Start a company blog

This can be easily done using a service like WordPress or Tumblr. Don’t worry (yet) about connecting URLs or making your website and blog look nice. Right now, your worry is getting an audience built and proving that spending time and money on a website is worth the effort. Writing blog posts provides a context for you emailing your audience with information relevant to your app, and something for your audience to share with other people, thus increasing your presence on the internet. Once you’ve written useful blog articles, share them with your audience. Send them out in newsletter updates and post them on your social media.

To learn more about what a blog can do for you and how you can leverage that blog to increase subscribers and sales, check out TunaHack, QuickSprout, OkDork and VideoFruit. These are 4 people who run blogs and email lists for a living, and they routinely update their content.

At the bottom of most emails sent to your signups, ask them questions. Ask them what they are most excited about in this area, what they’d love to see in an app like yours, anything you want to know. Most people won’t answer, but those who do tend to be willing to discuss their answers with you.

Survey people who signed up for your email list

Surveys can be put together for free and distributed easily with SurveyMonkey and Google Docs. Surveys allow you to collect information about what your users want from your users. This ensures that the product you build will be something that people love, not just something you hope they love.

Ask your users questions

The goal of interacting with all of these email signups is to get them excited about your app and to get their feedback. Gathering feedback is the best method to get direction for design and to know how well you’re solving a user’s problem, because it’s got a couple of key advantages.

  • It’s free, always a huge advantage
  • It’s quick (takes talking to 5 people or less)
  • You often get more than you ask for

However, it’s easy to get wrong. You can’t just go up and ask “would you like an app which did x” — that question yields a lot of false positives, because it’s a yes/no question where someone’s feelings may get hurt.

Visionaries like Steve Jobs say things like “people don’t know what they want,” because when you ask someone what they want, you get what they envision as their ideal solution — not the actual ideal solution. This means if you go right up to someone and ask “What product do you want that would solve your problem?” your answers are going to be next to useless.

Think of the traditional Buggy vs. Car example. If Henry Ford asked his customers what they wanted, they would have said “a better horse.” But we’d all agree we’re happier Ford made the car instead.

Here are the questions you should be asking (thanks to Charles Liu for this great information):

  1. What are you trying to get done? (Gather context) Most of the time, someone’s initial answer isn’t going to be the answer that you’re looking for. It will appear at first glance that it is, but sometimes what people think they want is based on a bunch of faulty assumptions that they want. In order to get through all of this confusion, make sure to ask “Why?” several times to get to the root of the matter. This can also reveal where users problems may be created by lack of understanding or incorrect application, as opposed to the solution not actually existing. Then, if you wanted to solve the problem, it would be by educating people on the solutions which actually exist.
  2. How do you currently do this? (Analyze workflow) To solve your user’s problem better than they do, you must first understand how they solve their own problem. Knowing the full extent of the user’s workflow puts you in their shoes, and gives you the information you need to do a better job solving their problems than them. This can also help you understand how to simplify their solution; even though they might not necessarily have a problem, there will likely be parts of their workflow which are inefficient and unnecessary. You should minimize those. Then, you can focus on making the most important parts of the workflow better. Lay this workflow out in a flowchart. Flowcharts are perfect for understanding the users workflow, and one sketched out on paper as you’re interviewing the user should do the job quite nicely.
  3. What could be better about how you do this? (Find opportunities) After you’ve asked the last two questions, you should have a pretty good idea of what is going on with your user, and should have a hypothesis for how you can fix their problem. When you ask this question, you can verify your hypothesis; if you were warm, proceed. If you’re cold, go back to start and try again.

By this point you should have a good idea, a LaunchRock website, email signups. You should be talking to those email signups about what your app should and shouldn’t be. And when you eventually release your app, you’ll already have a built-in audience.

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.