Everything begins with an idea.
However, the dirty little secret of most (if not all) ideas is that ideas are worthless on their own. Ideas are absolutely not valuable on their own. They are a starting point and nothing more. I say this because you might end up finding the same thing I did- you may come up with several ideas that you think are novel that have not yet been implemented. Yet no matter how new the idea may seem, during market research, you will see that someone has tried to create your idea before in some way. If you are not prepared for this, it can be seriously demotivating. Ideas are the starting point. But there is a lot more work that comes after. This document focuses on how to develop ideas in preparation for all that work that will come after.
List your ideas
Have a LOT of ideas. Brainstorm until you are blue in the face. Have good ideas, have bad ideas, get it all out of your system. Build a long list of ideas for applications to develop. When you are comfortable with your list, you can begin sorting through each idea.
Place each idea in one of three groups - Not Developing, Maybe Developing, and Developing.
Not Developing - This group will contain all ideas you will not pursue developing and that you do not see yourself developing anytime in the future.
Maybe Developing - This group will contain all ideas that you may want to pursue developing in the future.
Developing - This group will contain all ideas that you may want to pursue developing immediately.
How you sort through your list depends on your motivations for developing an application. Are you looking to make money? Sort based on what may bring in the most revenue. Are you developing for fun? Sort based on what most interests you. Are you looking to build a portfolio? Sort based on what would be most persuasive to potential employers looking for new hires in the field you are pursuing.
Ultimately, your goal should be to have five ideas in the "Developing" Group. The rest should go in either the "Not Developing" group or the "Maybe Developing" group.
Define Your Goals
Once you have created a solid list of ideas, you must define the goal for each idea listed under the "Developing" category. Each idea can have its own separate goal, independent of the others. Defining these goals will help you further narrow down which ideas you are willing to commit to.
The goal can be whatever you want. Some examples include the following- to learn how to develop for the platforms of your choice, to build a portfolio, to try and build a financial revenue stream, to expand a business etc.
Note: One word of caution- financial revenue is NEVER a guaranteed outcome. Like any other business, a for-profit venture does contain its risks. In addition, you must be aware of your tax laws in case you do end up building a product that brings in revenue- in this case, you will have literally created a business.
Perform Market Research
Why perform market research
The goal of market research is twofold - you must understand the competitive environment of the market you are entering and you must learn what potential users are expecting of your application. This is important for any project, including open-source software. The lifeblood of any application, and of all software in general, is its users. If you are not competing for price and value in the commercial sense, then you will almost certainly be competing for a users time. In either case, it becomes clear that you will have competition in some way. Do not neglect proper research simply because you may not have financial motives.
Market research unlocks a treasure-trove of information that will be very helpful in developing an application that matches and even exceeds user expectations as well as information regarding the market ecosystem and how your application may fit in it, depending on the developmental choices you will make. This information includes things like- expected features and functionality, how to reach more users, how to retain users, how to stay relevant, and what users are willing to pay for. With this knowledge, you can build an application that users will enjoy, and find ways to differentiate your product.
Your market research process may evolve as you discover the most effective means of research for your particular market. But a boilerplate sample plan can certainly help if you have no previous experience with this kind of research.
How to perform market research
Market research is one of the components in the application development process where you will be straying into another field. Large companies have teams dedicated to marketing, market research, etc. Here, you will do your best as you go along, constantly learning. You may not have a large team, but there is a lot of useful data that you can find and analyze on your own.
For each of the applications in your "Developing" list, gather the following information using whatever resources are available to you (search engines, Google Play App Store, iTunes App Store, etc.; also, be sure to save your research in a txt or doc file for future reference):
Identify your target market and your target users - parents, teens, mid-twenty-year-olds, gamers, musicians, book-lovers, calligraphy enthusiasts, etc. The more specifically and clearly you define your target market, the more effective your actual marketing will be. You don't have to limit yourself to one market category per application. However, "targeting everyone" is not going to be very helpful.
- Speak with people who may fall under your target market. People who are interested in similar applications. Ask them what they like and what they dislike about the similar applications. If you can get this info directly from potential users, you will be off to a great start. This kind of information is valuable.
- Your target market are those who you must persuade to download the application. Your target users are those who will actually use the application. Usually, both are the same, however there are cases where they are different. If they are different for your case, be sure to identify the category under which your target market falls and the category under which your target users fall. One very common example are "children's apps" whose target market are parents and their target users are the children.
Identify your competition - Identify at least 5 applications that are similar to your idea that currently dominate the marketplace. Take notice of the general number of similar applications that exist and write that number down. Then, gather the following data for each of the applications you have chosen to analyze.
- Application URLs - The app store URL for the product and their website url, if they have one.
- Application Description
- Application Category - The store category that the application is listed under.
- Application Maintenance - The current release version as well as the date of the last update.
- Application Size - The amount of storage space the application requires.
- Target Market - Who is being persuaded to download the application?
- Target Users - Who is actually using the application. Often, this is the same as the Target Market, but not always.
- Hook - What is the applications main "selling point"? Is there something about it that makes potential users curious and persuades them to check it out and click download? It can be gimmicky and it does not have to be very useful. However, it will convince potential users to download the application. Not all applications have one and not all application developers know they have added one.
- Pros - The good stuff the application offers. Download the application, use it and make your own observations. Then, read the user ratings and take note of what others liked about it.
- Cons - The bad stuff that hurts the overall application. Again, download the application and make your own observations. Then, refer to the customer ratings and take note of what others did not like about it.
- Screenshots - How many screenshots are being displayed? Are they tablet screenshots? Are they mobile screenshots? What parts of the application are being displayed?
- Videos - Take notes on how they use video to market their product.
- Store Listing Design - Observe the app store page design, specifically how the product is being marketed in the context of the overall page. Look for tailored styles, custom images, anything that is not a part of the default app store. Take note of anything you find. You may have to decide whether or not you wish to spend time designing your own assets (e.g., a banner "feature graphic" for the Google Play store). You also want to take note on how they use these styles, images and other assets to market their product.
Identify your product's hook - You should have at least one major differentiator for your own application. You have knowledge on what is already out there in the market. Now how will your product be different? It doesn't have to be anything special or revolutionary, but it can be. It could also be some gimmicky feature that would capture interest and persuade potential users to download the application. The overarching point here is that you will almost always have competition, and lots of it. Giving yourself a hook, a differentiator, is a good attempt at getting some share of the market for your product. It is certainly not a guarantee, but depending on the hook, it can increase your chances in successfully building a user-base.
(Optional) Identify potential revenue channels - For each of the ideas in your "Developing" list, determine whether or not you wish for it to be a for-profit commercial product. If so, identify potential revenue channels.
- Advertisements - This can bring in some revenue if you end up having a LOT of users. However, ads are not appropriate for all applications. For example, you may decide that placing ads in applications that target toddlers (by marketing to parents as a "children's application") is not a very good idea. Decide whether or not your application is a suitable candidate for ads and whether or not you want to implement them.
- In-App Purchases - These days, In-App purchases are definitely something to consider if you are seeking to bring in revenue. Avoid compromising the experience of the application in anyway that makes it unfair to the free users. For example, a game where the paying players always win may immediately lose value; the free players (who are potential customers) may simply stop using the application, and consequently, you may end up with a smaller and smaller pool of paying customers.
- Premium Version - You may consider making a paid premium version of your application. This version would offer more features that enhance the application experience while still allowing non-paying users to have access to the free version. I would consider making this an In-App purchase as opposed to a separate application. That way, the upgrade more accessible and will allow for users to upgrade at their leisure.
- Other - You can get creative and find other ways to monetize your application. The previous suggestions tend to be the standard methods of bringing in revenue. But if you know of another method or if you can create your own, and if it follows the terms and conditions of the platforms you plan to support, then go for it and give it a shot!
(Optional) Identify localizations you wish to support - The more languages your application supports, the wider the net you will be able to cast for building a user-base. All mobile application platforms offer localization support for text and images. So plan ahead of time whether or not you intend to support other languages. If you speak other languages, consider providing support for those languages. Be sure to take into consideration whether or not a market exists in the languages for which your are considering providing support.
Make Your Decision
After having completely racked your brains for application ideas, filtering down that list, and thoroughly researching the market, you now have enough information to decide whether or not you really wish to pursue any of the projects in your "Developing" list. Eliminate those that no longer interest you. Then simply decide here and now whether or not you are truly willing to commit to completing the ones that remain.
I would, at maximum, work on two or three personal projects at a time. The more projects you take on at one time, the longer they will take for you to complete.
If you have decided you do not want to pursue any of the ideas on your "Developing" list, you can do one of two things. You can refer to your "Maybe Developing" list and reconsider some of those ideas. Or you can start again from the beginning and come up with a whole new list of ideas.
The entire Brainstorming Phase may take days or it may take a few weeks. Do not get discouraged if you find yourself spending a week or more on it. Remember, you will probably spend months working on the project itself. You do not want to end up starting work on something on a whim, only to find out later that you are no longer interested in the project, or that it may not be profitable, or any other line of reasoning that could have been prevented with proper planning and research.
There is a lot of information here. Use it as a baseline and tailor it to your particular goals. The ultimate point is that you want to have well-researched data and make well-reasoned assessments that will help you understand the scope of the project you are taking on and its potential requirements for completion. Hold on to all the information you have gathered so far. It is going to be organized in the next phase as part of your project documentation.