SOFTWARE DEVELOPMENT

10 Steps to Take Before Starting an App

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 app de­vel­op­ment 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, free to down­load.

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.

You can do this with our check­list for How to Evaluate a Software Agency. Download it for free here.

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? Contact us here.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Yianni Stergou

Marketing en­thu­si­ast and FIFA ex­tra­or­di­naire

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