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From the Diary of an App Developer: Your App Ideas

April 26, 2010

If you're new to From the Diary of an Application Developer, this is a weekly column where I will share my experiences, tips, and overall expertise on application development with you. This is only the second week, so you aren't too far behind, but you'll probably want to start out with last week's article.

So, you've found your partner. Maybe it's a guy at the neighboring cubicle. It could be a sibling or a friend or even a spouse. Regardless of who they are, make sure they're the right partner for your application development, because you will be spending a lot of time building, brainstorming, and arguing with this person.

Now that you've found the perfect counterpart for your app creation, it is time to begin developing an idea. There are many different phases of idea generation, and I will go through them step by step with you now, but keep in mind that every person develops ideas differently.

Step One: Pick Your Category

The first step in developing an idea for an iPhone application is to look at your home screen. All of them. What types of applications do you have? Are you a utilities kind of guy or maybe you are obsessed with games? For most people, their favorite app category will jump right out at them, but, if it doesn't, make a quick tally and decide what your favorite category is. When choosing your favorite category, don't think about what will sell the best or anything like that; don't think deeply into the subject, just be honest with yourself about what types of apps you really enjoy. Now you should have your favorite app category picked. If you and your partner disagree on the category, I'm sure that you can come up with a reasonable compromise (perhaps, go with your category for this app and then theirs for the next development project), however, the partner who's right for you will probably share the same taste in apps.

Step Two: Dig Deeper

Your next task is to browse the App Store. Mainly browse your category's section, but right now you should just look around. Click on the icons that interest you the most and read about the apps' descriptions. Maybe download some of the free apps or even some of the $.99-$2.99 ones. Especially download apps that fall on the Top Charts—it's an investment you won't regret. You want to get very acquainted with everything there is to know about your type of app. If you chose Games as your category, what are the sub-categories? Which of these sub-categories dominate the top charts (if any)? Then, open and try all of the apps you downloaded while browsing the App Store. What do you like about these apps? What about them is plain awful? How would you improve upon these apps? Think about what made you download the specific apps, and decide whether or not they meet your expectations and why. You may not know it, but by consuming all of these other apps and category statistics, you are slowly generating an idea in the back of your head.

Step Three: Going Old School with a Pencil

Go get a piece of paper. No, don't use a word processor, I'm talking real, physical paper. Now start brainstorming. Nothing is wrong, just write everything down. Let all of these apps and features and observations that are inside of you explode onto the paper. Maybe you have a cool idea for an icon. Maybe you know what features are missing from all of the App Store apps. You can write the names of apps you liked and didn't like and why. Pour out every last drop of app-related goodness (and badness) through your pencil on to the paper.

Step Four: Transformation

The next step is to turn your amorphous blob of graphite into something usable. Take your piece of paper back to the computer and open up a word processor and make several columns: Features, Things to Avoid, What made the good apps good, What made the bad apps bad, etc. Depending on your scribbles, you may have more or less columns than me, and that's perfectly fine. So, now translate your paper into something readable within your new document. You may be wondering why we had to take part in the intermediary step involving the paper, and it's because when we create things with our hands (like drawing lines to form letters), it is a much easier process for the brain—your creativity is better for it. After you have translated the paper into the designated columns, you should start to have an application idea forming. It will most likely share a lot of existing applications' features, but that's OK. If you are taking existing apps, combining them, expanding upon them, and improving them, you're on the right track. This sounds like plagiarism, but it really isn't. You aren't stealing an idea, but creating a new one by combining a multitude of old, stale ones. This is totally fine, and is actually encouraged. The most important thing when thinking of application ideas, is that your app has to be an app that you want to use. After all, you will be pouring hours of labor into this thing, so you'd better be working on something you are passionate about.

Step Five: Keep Going...

If you don't have a workable idea by now, I'd recommend spending some more time playing around with apps from your category and then taking part in another paper scribbling session. By workable idea, I do not mean a complete idea. You should not know the title of your app yet. You should not have all of the features figured out yet or any artwork in mind. This is still an early stage, but you should know, at least, what your app will do. If it's a game, how will it be played? If it's a music app, how does it utilize the art of music to improve the life of the user? If it's a utility, what everyday problem does it address? You should still be looking at the big picture right now. So, now you have an idea for your app. Congratulations! You have some core features, maybe some other ideas still cooking, and you are well on your way. In the next week, keep developing. Always keep a pad and pencil on you because you never know when inspiration will strike. Keep thinking about your features, and try to make a list of all of them. After all, your features are at the heart of your app. Then, once you think you have all of the features figured out, make a sub-list for each feature that includes how it will work, why it's necessary, etc. Just keep developing your ideas. Never stop thinking about it, and be sure to have that paper and pencil handy at all times. Next week we will continue developing your idea so that you have a complete idea of how the whole thing will come together.

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