“The hardest part is starting. Once you get that out of the way, you’ll find the rest of the journey much easier.”
In a complex industry like mobile app development, it's difficult to know where to start. It’s made harder by the fact that the starting point and steps differ depending on the size of the company. This article won’t teach you how to develop an app. Believe me - you need a lot more than an article to learn that. Instead, it will focus on the 10 steps you need to take before starting app development.
In our experience, this process slightly differs, depending on whether the mobile app is driven by business demand, or a new app looking to disrupt the market.
Step 1: Evaluate off the shelf vs building a mobile app
For the existing businesses out there, how did you know you needed a mobile app? Often, business owners will discover an opportunity to improve a process or monetise an existing offering.
No matter how you determine that you need an app, the very next question you need to ask is whether there is something in the market that does what you want. Think of all those “I wish” moments.
For necessary context, off-the-shelf software has been built by a third party for the purpose of licensing it to users (for example: Xero, Hubspot, Sharepoint). Rather than building an entire payroll system for an SME, it’s far more effective to license Xero. Depending on the problem you look to solve, the solution may or may not exist. Even if an off-the-shelf application exists, you may decide through a unique value proposition and improved execution, you can differentiate yourself from competitors.
Evaluate whether an app exists and can fulfil a need or desire. If so, is their licensing strategy prohibitive or not? Our projects are specially built, because a business has better purposes than forking out over $30,000 per year for licensing costs. We’re sure yours does too.
Step 2: Create your product plan & strategy
Everything needs to have a strategy. Your product strategy will demonstrate how you plan to implement and grow your app. It will consider different user groups the app targets (both internal and external). Be sure to answer these questions when creating your product plan:
- What are your business goals?
- How will you measure success?
- What benefit do you provide to your users?
- Who are your competitors?
- What differentiates you?
- Who are your users?
Small businesses and start-ups generally don’t have the red tape and lengthy approval process like enterprises, meaning weeks saved because you don’t need to create a lengthy 50-page document. It can be something far simpler – 2 to 5 pages, or even a PowerPoint presentation. It’s still important to articulate and share the product strategy internally to create buy-in among everyone within the business.
Step 3: Articulate your problem statement
This will set a foundation that will be critical during the later steps. There's no need to a huge list of requirements articulating everything the app is going to do. Focus on what problem you’re going to solve. This avoids making assumptions yet to be validated. Rather than detailing the specifications of Instagram, your problem statement might be ‘how might we enable people to share photos with their friends and family?’
By starting with a problem, you also set up your target market and initial interviewee base for step 4.
Step 4: Interview potential users and validate assumptions
It’s impossible not to make assumptions when building an app. The biggest assumption is that people will actually use your app. The key is to try and validate as many of these as possible. Talk to as many people you believe will be your user base.
For applications to be used primarily within your company, this will be quite simple. You can interview your user base with a knock on the door. For example, one of the applications we built for Moreton Island Adventures would be used predominantly by ferry staff.
It turns out, for the most part, this is not the case. When the user base is external, interviewing potential users may call for a creative twist. Tanda, a Brisbane success story, called 10,000 businesses in 12 months to get to the bottom of whether their problem was shared by others in the industry. Not only did it validate a very important assumption; it led to a number of presales, plus a pretty well-rehearsed pitch.
While you’re still in the early stages, we highly recommend conducting at least a couple of interviews. That number doesn’t need to be 10 thousand; 5 to 10 will give you an indication of some trends to get you going.
If you’re struggling to find people within your network to interview, there are a few helpful products that have already solved this problem. At this early stage of starting your app, Askable is a great initial pitcher that allows you to set parameters to create an audience that you can survey. Later on, when prototypes are designed, Usertesting.com allows you to define an audience, give them said prototype and watch them navigate through it.
Step 5: Formulate the business plan
The business plan will build on top of the product strategy you’ve crafted. Where the product strategy is very much focused on the application itself, the business plan should consider all the larger areas of the business. Consider the following questions:
- How will the business resource the project?
- Who will be the product owner?
- What is the expected ROI?
- When does it need to be operational?
- Do you need to hire additional staff?
- Is there an exit strategy?
Step 6: Create a preliminary project budget for your app
This really should form part of the business plan, but it’s so important that we decided it was worthy of its own step.
The project budget is closely tied to the business opportunity and will always depend on individual circumstances. Is there a chance to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in licensing revenue? If yes, reflect that in the project budget. Don't forget to consider complexity of the app. The more complex it is, the longer it will take to build.
At an early stage, your business should identify what it is willing to invest in the project, remembering there are no estimates of cost. Setting a preliminary budget is vital to influence not only the app developers you engage with, but also the size and complexity of the solution scoped.
At WorkingMouse, we use the preliminary project budget during scoping to ensure we’re not proposing an unrealistic solution. Using our earlier example, there are many ways to build an online payroll system - some may take 10 weeks to build, others may take 50. The project budget keeps everyone’s expectations aligned.
In some cases, your project budget may be closely tied to investment raised (if you’re not self-funding or funding through an existing business). If this is the case, there is one extremely important point I need you to take away. Do not allocate your entire budget to app development. It is imperative to put budget aside for app support (at least 10-15% of the build costs every year), marketing, sales and any other costs associated with the product.
Step 7: Research app development companies
Now for the fun part. There are two ways a startup or small business can get a software project off the ground. Maybe you want to hire software developers and resource the project internally. Or perhaps you want to engage an software development services company to build the application. Let’s unpack both of these options.
Option 1: Hire your own developers
When it comes to building an app, people generally base their decisions around three things – speed, cost and quality. If you decide to hire your own developers, consider time implications for hiring and training those employees. The risk of lower quality control is also very real if you do not have the processes in place that an existing app development company has (achievable, but takes time).
When it comes to costs, this can be a more affordable option. Keep in mind it may restrict you on the discipline front. For example, if you only hire app developers, the app misses the chance to benefit from a user experience (UX) designer. The same point can be made for scrum masters/agile project managers.
Of course, there are benefits to hiring internally. The control and certainty are big drawcards to have in your hand. When you’re still looking to test your product in the market at early stages, watch for the risks associated. In my opinion, the better approach is to build an MVP, start moving towards product/market fit, then look to move to an internal model.
Option 2: Engage an app development company
By engaging an app development company, not only do you avoid internal hiring costs; you also benefit from the company’s past experience. If you’re not an app development company, it can be difficult to suddenly create an environment and process for building an app.
Our Way of Working took years to create. Even now, it’s still evolving. And we’ve shared it with everyone, read it here
Engaging an app development company when building the first version of the product is the best way to mitigate risk. But there is still plenty to be wary of. We’ll discuss this further in step 9.
Step 8: Engage stakeholders
Part of creating a successful product strategy is engaging and aligning stakeholders. Whether it be investors, a board, or internal employees, there will likely be an opportunity to engage others as part of the decision-making process.
Why is this so important? Well, the best idea is the one we came up with, right? When you engage and empower your stakeholders at an early stage, they feel bought in. This is especially important down the track when things get challenging. This is true regardless of whether you’re engaging stakeholders further up or below in the chain of command.
I mentioned this in step 8, and it’s important to include stakeholders in the decision-making process in step 9. When really, it’s best to engage stakeholders around the time you create the product strategy.
Step 9: Shortlist and select an app development company
This is perhaps the most critical step in the entire process. Choosing the wrong development company could set you back months and thousands of dollars. Now, I could tell you to engage WorkingMouse and move onto step 10, but I figured it’s best to be a bit more subtle.
There are plenty of articles and theories about the number of vendors you should shortlist. Ultimately, it will depend on how fast you need to move and how much free time you have. For the purpose of this article, let’s say you’ve shortlisted 3.
Every app development company has its own process. That may very well be the reason you go with company X over company Y. How we want to guide you is with a uniform set of criteria where you can evaluate each company in the right areas.
Step 10: Build and grow
I could keep going and include another 20 steps that cover off each stage in the development journey and beyond, but we’ll save that for another article. Instead, I’ll leave you with a few key points that will help when you’re in the development and growth stage of launching your app.
Keep Your MVP Lean
There will be times when you’re tempted to include all the bells and whistles in your app. Maybe you’ve convinced yourself they’re essential to solve the original problem statement.
Don’t do it.
App development can be as cheap or as expensive as you make it. Keep your MVP lean, test the market and iterate before building the next lovable version of your app.
Analytics Aren’t Optional
Data-driven decision making is essential when you’re operating in a world of unknowns, and launching an app has a few of those unknowns living in it. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you know how people will use the app.
Embed analytics tools like Firebase or Smartlook, and use that quantitative data to make decisions going forward. Another fresh tip - mix in some qualitative data through surveys or phone calls to add context to the metrics.
Live by Your User Acceptance Tests
I won’t go into too much detail here. For background context, a user acceptance test is done by a product owner (customer) when an app is being built. It’s the customers chance to review the app and make sure that it works the way they expect.
You may be tempted to trust that your developers got it right and have a ‘quick 5-minute test’ to see if everything looks ok. Once again, don’t do this. You might trust your developers, but there is every chance that a miscommunication happened somewhere along the way, meaning the app functions differently to what you expect.
Conduct thorough UATs and you’ll be all over this at an early stage. It’s much better than the alternative. By putting in the work at the start of a project, you’ll give your app every chance to succeed.
Follow the 10 steps I’ve outlined above and the app development agency you choose will love you.
Ready to take the next step in turning your project into reality? Book a Chat.