We have done case studies for projects before, but we have never done a project for a case study, until now! Travel Icons is an app that helps you overcome language barriers by using icons to communicate what you are trying to say. The app provides you with icons and translations to the most common words and phrases you need while travelling.
But we did not really build Travel Icons for travellers. We built it for you – the entrepreneur, the dreamer, the innovator, the disrupter. Those of you who want to know the process of developing and app and taking it to market. We wanted to develop a simple app and document how we did it from start to finish so that you would have a road map on how to launch your own apps. Let’s get started!
Settle in your mind why you want to build an app. What purpose will it serve? What are you trying to accomplish? What problem are you trying to solve?
For us, the reason we decided to build Travel Icons, is because we wanted to create a resource to walk you through the process of building an app from start to finish.
Without knowing this, you will find yourself burned out very quickly because developing and maintaining and app takes time, effort and resources, which brings us to the next point.
Apps do not come cheap. If you do not know how to build it yourself, you are going to need a technical co-founder or engage a developer. Developers range all the way from the student freelancer to the bespoke software development agency and you are going to have to pick between them based on what you think is best for your product.
The next decision you will have to make is what technology you want your app to be built in. There are many ways to skin a cat, just like there are many ways to build an app. There is a whole range of languages and frameworks to use. Even if you are a non-technical founder, try your best to get a grasp on these technologies. Read up on the pros and cons of each. Speak to your developers and ask them what they recommend and more importantly, why?
We are firm believers in hybrid app technology as our portfolio will show you – we have built 90% of our apps with React Native. That is why for Travel Icons, we wanted to expand our portfolio and use the second most popular hybrid technology – Flutter. We wanted to gain experience with Flutter and be able to consult our clients based on first hand experience using it.
Because the functionality for Travel Icons is so simple, there is no backend and no cloud storage either – it all fits into the 14mb app you download from the store. Though for most other apps, you will need to consider what back end technology and cloud service to use as well. Some technologies are faster to build with, others are more robust and scalable. Take into consideration your region and how easy it is to find developers with that skill set, because you may need to hire your own in-house team in the future.
Writing user stories is a critical part of the planning. Stories are the bridge between an idea and its fruition. It is the common language between the Product Owner and the developers.
When user stories are well written and estimated, both the development team and the Product Owner are on the same page on what is expected and when the feature can be completed.
Now that you have a backlog of user stories, it is time to hand it over to the designer and watch it come to life.
As with development, there are many ways to design your app. Some apps have everything on one screen with an infinite scroll. Other apps have one item per screen to keep things clean and focussed. Some apps are supposed to be colourful and playful. Others need to look professional and trustworthy.
Start with a logo and corporate identity. What colours will you use? Straight or wavy lines? What fonts and sizes will you use for headers, text, buttons, links, etc. Your designer will typically make all these decisions and design a mockup based on their understanding of the app for you to check.
For Travel Icons, we knew we wanted something green and not too serious. We wanted symmetry but also some irregularity. After all, it was supposed to be a fun app to be used on adventurous vacations.
No matter how detailed or well documented your user stories are, there will always need to be collaboration with the designer. They will typically design a first draft that you will have to give your feedback on, and they will continue to tweak accordingly from there. The design collaboration tool we use to assist in this process is called Invision.
Invision allows us to comment on specific parts of the screen so designers know exactly what needs to be changed. Pick whichever tool you prefer to get this done and once you are happy with how the app looks, it’s time to build!
We follow an Agile development framework called Scrum. Scrum breaks up the development cycle is into iterations called Sprints that last anywhere from one to four weeks long, depending on the needs of your project. The two main benefits of this, in my opinion, is that:
- You get a new working version of your app every couple of weeks
- It is very easy to cater to changes along the way.
Businesses never remain the same. Partnerships fall through, investments get held up, key people get sick or resign, customers are fickle. Your app needs to adapt quickly and constantly based on the business use case. The old Waterfall Model makes it difficult to do this because the requirements are set and agreed on at the start of the project.
A hot tip for when you are looking for developers is to ask what happens when a change is needed because it is only a matter of time before it is! We have been doing this for a long time and have launched many apps – not one of them had the same requirements at the beginning of the project as it did at at the end. Not a single one! So have an understanding with your developer as to what will happen when a change is needed.
Even with a simple two-week project like Travel Icons, notice the number of changes requested in the image below.
Now multiply that with a twelve-month project with 10 developers – there are going to be a lot of changes.
You may need to engage your designer once again here because apart from filling in all the fields on the Google Play Store and App Store, you want to have some good looking assets to entice users to hit that download button when they make it to your app page.
There really is not much to this process. Simply fill in the fields and make your app sound like the greatest and most ground breaking invention since mankind discovered how to make fire.
Google’s review and approval process is pretty speedy. If your app does not break any rules, it should be live in 1-2 days.
Apple is more stringent. Travel Icons was up on the App store within 2 days, but only because of its simplicity. 95% of all the other apps we have released took about a week to go live. This is because Apple reviewers may find things that are not in line with their guidelines or may ask for a dummy account to test the app. This back and forth could happen any number of times and hence the longer deployment duration.
The beauty of apps is that there is no limit to how successful it can be or how far it can reach. Thanks to the internet and the ubiquitousness of smartphones, everyone from your local farmer to your local mayor uses mobile apps every day.
The downside is that this is a very crowded space. You could build the most beautiful and useful app in the world and no one except your close friends and family are going to know about it. Literally thousands of apps are being published on the stores every single day. To get a slice of the marketshare, you need to do some marketing.
Do not make the mistake that many do, by spending all your budget on building and leave nothing for marketing. In app development, building is only half the job. The other half is swimming to the top of the pile of apps that are competing for your user’s attention. Social media marketing, SEO, SEM, flyers, posters, blogging, how-to-videos, affiliates, influencer marketing, freebies, referral and loyalty programmes, launch events – these are all ways that marketers use to stand out, and all of it takes effort and resources, so plan for it.
Maintain & Grow
If you are not going forward, you are going backwards right? As I mentioned before, businesses change all the time, at least, successful ones do. Businesses that remain static or refuse to adapt fall behind.
Facebook started out in 2004 as an attractiveness rating platform for Harvard students. Back in 2008, Uber was just a ride-hailing app for San Francisco. Nokia used to be the world’s largest and most successful mobile phone brand in the world back in 1998. My point being – businesses will change, and your app will need to follow suit.
We have little intention to grow Travel Icons, because it has served its purpose in giving us a real life app for us to write this blog post around – remember your objectives right?
A common misconception is that you can just build an app and it will run perfectly, with the download numbers increasing each day, earning you millions, while you sit on a beach and collect a cheque every month. Not quite. Apps require maintenance. There will be things you and your developers overlooked. User behaviours that you never expected. Upgrades to libraries, services, or open source software you are using. Stakeholders who want new enhancements.
So what do you do? Well for starters, be ready for what comes after you launch. Sign a long term agreement with your developer. Gradually hire and train your in-house tech team. Collect feedback and enhance. Plan for phase 2 as soon as phase 1 is complete.
Expect change, plan to enhance, keep innovating, or you will fall behind.
For all you entrepreneurs out there who have wanted to build an app but never knew how to start, I hope this has been helpful to you. You do not have to be a technical founder to start an app business, but you will need to know a few basic things and if you are serious about making it in this space, to be ready for the long haul.
You know what you need to do. Download Travel Icons and share this post (jokes!). Form a team of talented people, start brainstorming, planning and researching. Figure out and decide on your objectives, technology, resourcing, stories, and GET BUILDING!