Chapter 2: Define the App Concept

So you have a great idea for iPhone app. Just hire a programmer to code it, right? Not right-it’s not that easy. If you don’t clearly define exactly what it is you what from the programmer, you probably won’ t get it.

Before looking for an app developer to write the code, there is an important step in the process we will call concept design. The concept design fully defines and describes exactly what the app does at the functional and appearance level. This provides app specifics that will then be implemented with the Objective C code that the developer writes. The concept design defines, for example, what the app does or how it responds when it receives an input (i.e. a user enters some numbers or presses a button), and what feedback or display will result from the input.

The following pages discuss creating concept design documents; flowcharts and screen sketches that, in turn, lead to producing an app specification to guide the programmer in creating the app code.

To begin the process there are a few preliminary design activities that are recommended you complete. They are:

  • A Comprehensive Description/Definition
  • Basic Market Research
  • Evaluate Financial/Technical Feasibility

Preliminary Design

Before you spend a lot of time and effort fleshing out your idea with a detailed concept design, it is wise to consider exactly what your app is, does and what makes the idea workable on a basic level.

As with so many facets of app development, the amount of effort required here will depend on how lofty your technical and marketing goals are. The more basic your app the easier this phase will be, and vice-versa. For example, if you want a simple app for you and your friends, or for you and your staff, the only real question is whether or not you can fit it into your budget. Plus, if the app is pretty basic it shouldn’t take long to put a concept together and request some proposals. In these cases, there is very little risk in proceeding with the concept.

On the other hand, if you plan on making the app publicly available-even for free as a customer service or promotional tool-it will behoove you to make an effort to learn the who, what, and whys of the app scenario.

If you plan on marketing the app for revenue, then knowing the answers to these same questions becomes extremely important.

We are going to discuss the preliminary design review as if the goal is to market the app. To do so, we will use a somewhat oversimplified example to illustrate the process. If you have other goals for the app, then you can choose what parts of the preliminary review apply to your situation.

Clearly Define the App

The first step is to make sure you have clear definition and description of the app. You might think you have the app fully defined in your head, but getting things clearly documented is an important step. This might seem like a simple, straightforward step, but you shouldn’t take it lightly. This is the information you will use when determining the feasibility of the app and when defining the functional details. It is also an important step in being able to communicate the app is to others.

Start the definition with a brief statement that summarizes the app then move forward to more detailed descriptions. If you are not sure how to go about this step, a great starting point is to answer the basic questions like who, what, when, why, and how. Then brainstorm other questions that a potential user or customer might have, and potential questions a programmer might have about the app. Capture the information in a table or form. It is important to properly record this information instead of relying on your memory. Plus, sometimes the act of simply writing it down helps us realize oversights or generates new ideas.

Let’s use an example to illustrate the process. Say there is an avid fisherman from Wichita. Before selecting a destination to fish and heading out, he spends about 30 minutes on the Internet checking conditions at area lakes and rivers. If he had an iPhone app that could collect conditions at area lakes and rivers then display them together on a scrollable list, it would save him both time and effort. Plus, he believes that most people with Apple devices who live in the area and enjoy fishing would appreciate the app as well. It may even generate income if marketed properly.

Interested in pursuing the idea, the Fishing Wichita app project is born. The preliminary design app is shown in the “Fishing Wichita App Definition table below.

While some of the information captured here may seem obvious, not recording every aspect on paper is risky because it can lead to oversights and misunderstandings. Getting it on “paper” is essential.

Now you are ready to use that information in the next steps of the concept design.

“Fishing Wichita” App Definition
What does the app do? (Summary) The app will gather weather/water conditions and fishing reports from popular fishing lakes and rivers in a 150 mile radius of Wichita and combine them into one easy to read and scroll display.
What exactly does the app do? (Technical Description) Using available on-line data or information, it will collect conditions and then consolidate them into an easy to read display. The app will update conditions to user settings, such as every morning or every Saturday morning.  Conditions can also be updated upon request.   Users can enter set-up information to customize app in terms of update frequency, and site categories (i.e. favorites, complete list, ignore). 
Why would someone want the app? It is time consuming to gather current conditions information about area lakes and rivers, but without information choosing the best place to fish is just a guess. Time is precious when leaving to fish, especially in terms of getting an early start.  Having quick and easy access to all the area lake and river conditions would have value for people who like to fish.      
Who would want the app? The market or audience would be people in the Wichita area who fish regularly in area waters. 
When would they use the app This would be particularly important for fishing day trips, where there is only a morning or a day to go fishing, and going an hour north versus an hour south could be the difference between a great fishing outing and a lousy one.  Spending 30 minutes on-line checking conditions wastes valuable fishing time. With regular daily/weekly updates you have the information at your fingertips.  Or update conditions manually, and by the time you load your gear or get a cup of coffee, you have the information you need to make an informed decision about the best place to fish that day.People would tend to use and buy the app during spring, summer, and fall with little demand over winter months.   
When is the app needed? No pressing need or deadline.  Overarching goal would be to have app complete and available to buy in 6 months.
How would they find and get the app? Since it is an Apple device they would purchase and download the app from the Apple App Store.  Marketing would be through the App Store, an app website, using regional on-line/Google ads, and through local merchants, events, and word of mouth.
How would they use the app? (User Description) They would enter set-up information (i.e. select a favorite list, select places to ignore, select update intervals). (Default settings would be no favorites or ignored, update manually.) They when they open the app the starting Screen would display two options:

  1.  Sites displayed: Favorites list, complete list, particular site
  2.  Conditions Displayed: Display conditions from the latest update or update the conditions then display.

 

The last selected will be the default selection on this screen.  The user will then press a Display or Cancel button.  Cancel closes the app.  Display does just that: a Display Screen with an easy to read and scroll format using clear titles and labels with proper/appropriate color and shading schemes.  An [X] in the upper right corner closes the app, and a back arrow [<-] will take users back to the selection screen.   

How much would prospects pay for the app? TBD – depending on how well the app works, between $4.99 and $19.99.
Concerns?Questions?
  1. Finding/communicating with an outsourced programmer to get the app envisioned actually produced
  2. Overpaying for the app development or development overruns
  3. Putting a lot of time and effort into the app only to lose money
  4. Losing more money than I could afford to lose
  5. Automatically retrieving condition information

 

 

Basic Market Research

If your plan is to make money by selling the app, you need to do your homework to verify that the potential to make a profit is there and that any expectation about sales and revenue are realistic. This step is especially important if you are investing significant funds into the app project. While it is a little out of the scope of this book, it is worth noting that if you are launching a business based on an app or apps development, then you have to create a comprehensive business plan that addresses the market very thoroughly. But every app development should have its own marketing viability report.

Much of what is calculated for market research will be based on best guesses or anecdotal deduction, because many of your questions will not have answers available based on firm, objective statistical data. Obviously it is best to look for hard data, and use it as a foundation for marketing calculation when possible. But the main point behind analyzing the marketplace is to create an in-depth understanding and to know why and how you arrived at that number – including both the known and the unknowns involved. When you say you can sell a million apps, how did get that number? If you have done your market research, you can answer that question in a very precise manner. Wild guesses are not market research.

Calculating the Market Potential

Let’s consider the Fishing Wichita app again. While our fishing friend is very interested in creating the app, like most of us he can’t afford more than a modest financial risk. Plus, he feels it is only worth the effort and the investment if he can make a small profit.

The first guess is how much it will cost, not including his time, to get the app developed and to market it. A very conservative guess is $5,000, and he feels pretty confident it shouldn’t cost more than that. If he invests $5,000, what are the chances of making a profit? In other words, realistically, how many apps could he sell at what price? And how long would it take to recoup his investment? Market research is about ultimately answering these questions in the most accurate way possible.

From the app definition, we know the potential customers are people who like to fish in the Wichita area. If you knew how many people fit this description, then you could make an educated guess about the number of prospective customers.

There are a number of ways to approach this. The best method is usually the one that allows you to accurately approximate the prospect base using demographic numbers that are easily available. In this case, those would likely be:

  • The number of annual fishing licenses sold in Kansas
  • The population of Kansas
  • The population of the Wichita area

Using this information we can easily calculate a good guess as to the number of people in the Wichita area who fish.

By dividing the number of annual fishing licenses purchased in the state of Kansas by the population of the state we can estimate the percent of the population who fish. Then we can apply that percentage to the Wichita area population to determine an approximate number of people in the Wichita area who regularly fish.

In an equation form:

[(number of resident fishing license bought every year) / (population of Kansas)] = (percent of Kansas population that fish)

[(percent of Kansas population that fish) * (population of Wichita area)] = (number of people who fish in Wichita area)

Plugging in the actual numbers of licenses and the Kansas and Wichita area populations that are easily found online:

(191,000 Kansas licenses / 2,886,000 Kansas residents) = 6.6% of population

(660,000 Wichita area population * 6.6%) = 43,560

After just a little research and basic math, the number of people who fish in the Wichita metropolitan area can be estimated to be about 43,000. But remember that only people with iPhones or Ipads will buy the app. Some additional research reveals that about 6% of the U.S. population has iPhones and about 10% have iPads. Since the iPhone/iPad owner demographic does not perfectly align with the fishing demographic, a very conservative estimate of the percentage of the people who fish who have iPhones or iPads might be 5%.

After a little more math, a conservative approximation would be that about 2178 people with fishing licenses in Wichita area have an Apple device. That is very critical piece of information to know in deciding whether or not the app idea is feasible in terms of making a profit and in deciding whether to proceed with app development.

The final step would be to estimate how many of these prospects would actually buy the app and for how much, but we will get back to that later.

First, let’s reiterate that all it took to come up with that number was a little thought and five minutes of Internet research. Using this approach may have a significant margin of error, but it is still infinitely better than just making wild guesses. While this is a simple example for illustration, the larger point is always true. Be innovative and motivated and you can probably figure out a lot more about your market than you thought you could. Make some effort to understand the numbers.

Collect User Feedback and Information about Competitors

As part of the market research, get feedback from friends, coworkers, gadget heads; anyone whose opinion you value or trust. Consider them ad-hoc focus groups. Create a list of standard questions, like:

  • Would they find the app helpful or useful?
  • Would they buy the app?
  • How much would they pay for it?
  • Are there missing features they would find useful?

Another important facet of market research is to explore any and all existing apps that do similar things. However, just because there is an existing app doesn’t mean you shouldn’t proceed. The question is; can your app compete? Perhaps the other app is flawed or doesn’t work right. Perhaps your app has features or advantages over an existing app. Buy, review, and analyze apps that do any kind of similar function. For example, maybe there are no other fishing condition apps, but there is an app that reports skiing conditions in New England. How does that work and how well is it selling?

Knowing the marketplace gives you a better chance of success, especially with a concerted effort to understand what your competition is doing wrong and what they are doing right.

It may be a bit out the scope of this book, but this point bears mentioning: For many projects, doing some basic research ourselves makes sense. Realistically, however, if you plan on investing a lot of money to develop and market an app then spending some development funds to hire a knowledgeable professional to provide market research would be a smart move

Reviewing Financial and Technical Feasibility

The final step before sketching out the functional app concept is making sure the app is doable and does it make sense technologically. In other words, does it make financial sense and can it be done with current technology and methods?

Financial Analysis

The market research really comes in handy when making the financial analysis. Now you can at least make an educated guess as to how many apps you might sell over the next 1-2 years (which is generous for an app lifecycle). That, in turn, gives you a clue as to what price you need to sell the app in order to see a return. The other part of that return equation is the cost. Don’t forget to consider sustaining costs as well as the development costs. You can keep sustaining costs very low, but if you market the app there are bound to be some expenses like web hosting and advertising. Of course, the more you plan to do after development in terms of marketing and support, the higher the sustaining expenses will be.

Is it feasible for the Wichita fisherman to make a small profit from his app idea? It could be calculated from a few different perspectives or scenarios by plugging in some different possibilities. Remember, the App Store will take a 30% cut of sales, so you will only realize 70% of the price in revenue.

For example, assume over the next two years 25% of the prospects (people in the Wichita area who like to fish and own an iPhone or iPad) buy the app for $4.99. Development costs are estimated at $3000 and sustaining costs are estimated at $1000.

Revenue = (.25) x (2378) x ($4.99) x (.7) = $2073.81
Costs = $3000 + $1000 = 4000.00

Using these numbers, Fishing Wichita would end up almost $2000 in the red. It is hard to see any scenario with costs in this ballpark where the app could make a profit at $4.99, so that price is just not feasible. Since numbers like development costs and price are uncertain, it is wise to explore other scenarios.

If the app price was raised to $9.99;
Revenue = (.20) x (2378) x ($9.99) x (.7) = $3325.24

The price of $9.99 would likely still be a great value for people who regularly fish in the Wichita area, so it is assumed the higher price would not impact sales significantly, but the percentage of prospects is lowered to 20%. At $9.99, however, the app is still not making a profit if the app costs $4000 to develop. One concern is that if the price goes much higher it could significantly impact sales. The only chance might be to be lower the estimated development costs.

If the development costs are lowered to $3000 (i.e. $2000 development + $1000 sustaining) then a price of $9.99 makes the project more financially feasible. With the right marketing approach, a price point of $11.99 or $14.99 would provide an opportunity for profit, and these prices would likely not be an obstacle for people who fish and have iPhones – if it provides a service they want.

Revenue = (.20) x (2378) x ($11.99) x (.7) = $3991.71
Revenue = (.20) x (2378) x ($14.99) x (.7) = $4990.47

Again, while the example is simple, the point is that with a little research and exploratory calculations you can get a much better feel for where you stand in terms of prospects, price point, revenue, and profits than if you just guessed. This insight will be important as you start talking with developers to create the app and you understand how different development costs will impact the project financially.

While exploring financial feasibility, it is worth noting that there are also other ways to profit from apps besides selling them. You can incorporate ads into the app, for example. There are networks like AdMob, AdModa, BuzzCity, and iAd who sell and manage ad space for apps, and most programmers can easily accommodate these services in development.

You can also find sponsors who may help finance the app or promote the app. Returning to our fishing app example, a sporting goods store may invest in the app if their store is promoted through the app. Affiliates can promote the app by specials or bundling. An example of this would be getting the app when a customer buys a particular model of fishing reel.

Technical Feasibility

After the financial evaluations there may be some technical questions to answer as well. After all, not everything is possible even in our current technology-driven world.

For example, you might consider creating an app for making reservations at restaurants in your city. It would be an easy sell to people who enjoy fine dining, but there is one problem. After a little investigation you learn that very few restaurants have the capability to make electronic reservations. At this point it is simply not a feasible undertaking because the technical capability is not there.

It is better to discover these things before investing significant time and money into a project that isn’t possible.

You might not be able to find definitive answers to every technical question, but if you do your homework you will at least be able to intelligently discuss technical concerns with the programmer selected hire to make sure they can be resolved before proceeding with the project.

Let’s go back to the Fishing Wichita app. There would certainly be a technical concern in being able to gather the information from various sites automatically and without any manual intervention. Conditions for most area lakes and rivers are posted as text on various websites such as the National Weather Service websites or State/National Park websites. But it is unclear how that can be retrieved or used for the app. While this concern may not be enough to stop the concept process, the issue must be addressed and resolved with you outsourced app developer before proceeding with the project.

Another issue related to feasibility is considering if a mobile device app is more appropriate than a web app. For a fishing app like our example, people might often want to use it on the go and when they do not have internet access, therefore, a device app seems most appropriate. However, in some cases a web app that they can run on-line with PCs or smart devices might work just as well. Since a web app would be simpler and less expensive to develop, it might be preferable if internet access is available.

Once you have covered preliminary design concerns like those discussed here (and others that are specific to your situation), you are ready to move on to the concept design.

vishal-parikh
Your simple and small suggestions have proven to be game changers for my project. They really contributed towards making my product a success.  But what I really liked working with Space-O is that the project manager - Jignesh's high work ethics. He handled my project amazingly well even when he had a medical crisis going on in his family. Overall, I would never think of any other company but Space-O for my future projects.Vishal Parikh
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