AppJamm: 8 ways to make your app amazing

This weekend the ReignDesign team are helping out at AppJamm, an exciting event where teams will concept, design and pitch a mobile app in 45 hours. I was asked to give the kickoff speech to inspire the teams into making something amazing!

At ReignDesign, we’ve had a lot of experience making apps for our clients, as well as our own apps and games. Here are eight things we’ve learned about making amazing apps, together with examples of apps that get it right.

First, do one thing well. In a smartphone app, you have the user’s full attention. Help them accomplish something. Identify a pain point and solve it for the user in the simplest way you can. There’s a temptation to stuff in as many features as you can into the first version of your app, to make it more attractive or sticky. But in practice, this doesn’t work. Apps which fulfil a single task well will succeed better.

A good example of that is this Android app called ShopSavvy. It’s really simple to use – imagine you’re in a book store. You scan a barcode and the app will load information about the book: prices from online retailers and reviews, to help you make a better buying decision.

Second, focus on your audience. Who are your audience? What problems, pain points do they have? How much might they be willing to pay to solve the problem?

So, why did I pick this image to illustrate the slide? This is a Kenyan farmer. Kenyan farmers are a valid audience for an app, they have pain points that need solving. But I’m not a Kenyan farmer. And that makes it really hard for me to get into their mindset. So initially, think about problems that you encounter yourself – would you use this app? Do you have access to the audience you are targeting for testing?

Here’s a great example of an app which understands its audience. IA Writer is an iPad app which is targeted as people who need to write – journalists, authors. They want a distraction free environment. So IA Writer has been designed with these people in mind. The user interface is really stripped back to the essentials. But they’ve included tools that writers will find useful, like a word count.

Next, think about spontaneous use. Most smartphone sessions are very short. The user wants to get in, do a task, get out. Here’s a classic example. A commuter waiting for a train – and she’s pulled out her phone for a few seconds or minutes. You need to account for this behaviour. Make your app start really fast. And focus on the most important information on the first screen.

Don’t forget that most people spend most of their time on other people’s apps. So don’t break their expectations with your app. If your navigation system is totally different to the way most apps work, people will get confused and leave.

A great example of this is the Tripit app for iPhone. Tripit lets you store your travel itineraries in one place.

Last week I was catching a flight to Singapore and I knew I was running a little late. I pulled up Tripit on my phone, and on the first screen it gave me all the information I needed to know: the flight number, and how long until it departed. I didn’t have to go hunting through menus to find it: the app was smart enough to give me the information I needed.

The latest smartphones are packed with sensors. That lets us answer important questions like:

  • – what time is it (clock)?
  • – where am I (GPS/Wifi location)
  • – which way is my device oriented, which way am I facing, am I moving (accelerometer, gyroscope, compass)
  • – what can i see (camera)
  • – what can i hear (microphone)

Think about interesting ways you can use all these sensors. And what makes these sensors much more exciting is when you mash it up with data from other sources. For example, with a time and a location you can pull up weather information, or nearby points of interest.

An app called Nearest Tube uses the iPhone’s camera and sensors to create an “augmented reality” view of the world. You can move your phone around and see the location of the nearest metro stations shown on your iPhone screen. And imagine mashing this up with live data: if there are delays on a line, or a station is closed, this can be shown right on the display.

Before smartphones and tablets became mainstream, most of the ways we interacted with our computers and phones were indirect: mouse, keyboard, buttons, stylus. But now the primary interaction model is touch. We can use our fingers to directly act on content. Drag things around. Stretch and squish them. Most people find the touch model much more intuitive. If its appropriate, try to model real world objects in your app.

Apple’s app GarageBand is a great example of this. It lets you play all sorts of virtual instrument – like a guitar. And notice the way as the user’s finger plucks the string, the string actually moves and warps. That’s providing instant feedback that the user’s gesture is working. If you can provide that combination of direct touch manipulation and instant feedback, you can create a magical and intuitive user experience.

Your first version of an idea may be flawed. That’s OK. Any great app idea has to go through a process of iteration and testing. It’s vital to get early and frequent feedback. So while you’re working on your app idea, be sure to get input from other people. Show them sketches, see how they would interact with your idea. Test names and ideas. The process of iteration needs to happen both before launch (the concept phase) and after launch, via listening to customers, and providing app updates.

One of our own apps, Pig Rush, was launched a couple of years ago. We thought we’d made a pretty cute and fun game. We contacted all the big review sites, told our families and friends, posted the news on Facebook and Twitter, and excitedly waited to see our first day’s sales report. We made $6. Only six people had bought our app. And the second day was even worse!

What was the problem? We knew the game was fun. So, we went back and did more testing. We listened to the feedback of the people who’d bought the app. We tweaked the controls, added highscores, created new themes. We tried changing the price. We launched new versions to the app store. Still, it took 4 months of iteration before we started making more than $10 a day. But it was worth it: we ended up with a much better game, and Pig Rush has now been downloaded over 3 million times on iOS and Android.

Developing an app is tough! But there are lots of ways to take shortcuts. You can learn many insights before you ever write a single line of code. Create simple mockups and prototypes, with tools like Balsamiq and Graffletopia are great for making concept mockups. Low-fidelity is great. A simple pen and paper sketch can help you explain a concept. If it doesn’t work, throw it away.

And “faking” can even be part of a real product.

This is Aardvark. As a startup, they prototyped lots of ideas about how to connect people who have questions, to the right experts in their social graph who could answer them.

They gave the simple prototypes to a bunch of people and saw how the interacted with them. But initially, there wasn’t any real backend to the service to match askers and answerers. Instead a bunch of humans would answer questions and assign them. It worked well enough to prove that one concept resonated with users, and then they could get the funding to develop the backend for real. And eventually Aaardvark were acquired by Google for $50 million.

Finally, do something worthwhile. Apps are a very competitive industry. Most ideas fail – and if you’re going to fail, do something worth failing for.

Alexis Madrigal recently wrote in the Atlantic:

Get four college kids in a room, fuel them with pizza, and see what thing they can crank out that their friends might like. Yay! Great! But you know what? They keep tossing out products that look pretty much like what you’d get if you took a homogenous group of young guys in any other endeavor: Cheap, fun, and about as worldchanging as creating a new variation on beer pong.

This weekend at AppJamm you have access to some amazing people to create ideas with. So, think beyond a better version of beer pong, and think about our theme: what you can do to help the “Global Good”?

This app called SpillMap was created after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It allowed people to “crowdsource” their photos, and pinpoint the locations of places where they found oil on beaches, or wildlife that had been affected. The overview helped get the attention of local politicians and direct cleanup efforts.

A final thought. 43 years ago humans sent man to the moon. The smartphone in your pocket today is thousands of times more powerful than the computers that NASA used to control the mission.

So – think big. Do a global good. And have fun at AppJamm!

Matt Mayer

Matt Mayer is a founder at ReignDesign. Matt is from the UK and was based in Shanghai for ten years. He is now living in Bangkok, Thailand.

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