How to build an app: A complete guide of tips and tricks

Written by: Samantha Wolhuter

illustration about app development

With over 3.5 billion global smartphone users spending approximately 3-4 hours glued to their screen each day, an overwhelming majority of that time is spent using and interacting with apps. Whether we are generating our own content and uploading it to platforms, hailing a ride, or passively streaming the latest series or album, people are accustomed to interacting with mobile apps at almost every digital touchpoint they encounter in their daily lives.

There has never been a better time to get into the app development industry. Approximately 113,000 apps were released on Google Play Store in May 2020, translating to roughly 3,645 app releases each day. While some may see the market as already flooded, others do not see this as a deterrent but rather a clear indication that users are hungry for more. 

How to build your own app

If you have a really great idea for an app but have no idea how to develop it, then you have stumbled into the right place. At WeAreBrain, we’re in the business of tech innovation and digital development, and have helped many global businesses power their digital transformation by developing bespoke digital solutions for the new binary landscape. A large part of this work is focused on developing meaningful apps to provide smart solutions to various user needs. 

So, are you ready to deep dive into app development with us? Follow these steps and you will find yourself well on your way to being the hottest new player on the global app scene.

Quick guide:

  1. Planning
  2. Design
  3. Development
  4. Testing
  5. Promotion
  6. Launch
  7. Analyse and optimise

Planning

Goals and objectives

Before you get started assembling your app architecture with 1s and 0s, it is imperative that you first clearly establish the whys and whats for your app: why are you creating your app, and what do you intend to accomplish. Without clear and concise planning forming the foundation of your ideas you will not see the process through, as you will find yourself battling confusion, lack of direction, and ultimately an end product that doesn’t resemble your initial intentions (if you get as far as the development stage). 

Try defining the end goal for your ideal user by asking yourself these important questions: 

  • Who is your target audience?
  • How will your app best serve your user’s needs? 
  • How will your app appeal to a wider audience? 
  • What problem or frustration does your app intend to solve? 
  • Who is your competition and what are they doing right/wrong?
  • Why will users want to use your app rather than your competitors’?
  • Do I need an app (as opposed to a normal website)?
  • How long is the app intended to be used (short term fix vs long term, on-going use)?
  • Should the app be free or paid (brand building vs revenue creation)?
  • How are you going to promote the app?

By answering these questions you will be closer to defining your USP, and thus you will have defined goals and objectives. Clearly establishing the intended goals and objectives you wish to achieve with your app is the first and perhaps most important step. Once you have a clear idea and goal in mind, the road to get there is far more devoid of unintended obstacles. 

Functionality and features

Once you have established the motivating factors behind why you want to build your app and what problems it solves for users, the next step is to establish the how’s: how will your app achieve your goals? How will your functionality and features serve your intended goals? How will a particular development tool best serve your needs?

It is important to identify early on what specific features and functionalities your app will require. For instance, if your app leans toward eCommerce then building a payment portal will be essential. Likewise, if your app intends to display hi-res images, you will need to factor the required functionality into your thought process.

Another important aspect of the ideation phase for your app is to choose which development path to take. You will need to inform yourself about the differences and similarities between the various app development tools in order to ascertain which will best suit your idea. Be sure to check out our detailed article explaining the differences between Native vs Web vs Hybris vs Progressive Web apps to get more clarity. 

The development path you choose will affect the final product.

Research

Before entering any market it is crucial to conduct robust research into the space you intend to operate in, your target audience, and your competitors. This is a prudent series of tasks with the aim of gaining valuable insight into the possibilities and hindrances of the market, what the limitations are, and how your idea will fit into the mix – for better or for worse.

Market research

Once you have your idea for your mobile app you need to conduct market research in order to quickly identify if your idea holds water specific to your app niche. You need to identify existing user pain points and show how your app will help solve these issues. If your idea is not unique or does a worse job at solving existing user issues, then it may be time to reconsider the angle of your app’s service. Be sure to check out App Annie to gain vital mobile app data analytics to see where your app idea fits into the global market.

User research

Creating user personas is a great way to get a better understanding of the needs of various user types. User personas help you to flesh out each variation of your likely users in order to identify their specific needs and wants. By understanding the variations of users’ values and pain points, you are able to craft a meaningful user experience that speaks to them directly. User personas help with crafting possible user journeys to identify where and how you can communicate with each of your potential audience types. 

User testing

After your user persona research is done it is important to move on to user testing. User testing is when you research whether or not there is a need for your product and if it is poised to provide any value to users. You’ll be trying to work out if people will use what you plan on building and if it resolves a challenge they’re facing. If your concept passes the user test, you are ready for the next step of your research: competitor analysis.

Competitor analysis

The best way to know if your idea is going to gain traction is to know what other companies are doing in the space you wish to enter and operate. Gaining as much information about your competitors will drive you to define and refine your idea to get it to a USP that is uniquely ‘you’.

It is important to understand what your competitors are doing well (and how you can leverage that) and what they are doing poorly (and you can leverage that, too). Ask yourself questions like: are there other apps out there promising similar solutions? How are they going about addressing user needs? What is working and what is not? How does their UX serve their product? What do audiences respond well to and what do they get frustrated with? 

By answering these questions you should have either been able to consolidate your idea and how you will present it, or you should already know if your idea is worth pursuing or not.

Design

Sketching is great for starting to visualize your ideas.

Once you have clearly established the reason why your app idea deserves a spot on major app download platforms (informed by answering the why’s, what’s, and how’s as above), it’s time to grab a pencil and notebook and start sketching out the look and feel of your idea. The design process has officially begun. 

Part 1: Low fidelity

Before you begin playing around with colours and fonts, you first need to put all your ideas on paper and workshop them. The aim is to get everything down so you can see which elements work and which do not, what to cut and what is relevant, and what areas of one idea may work better with another. A great way to do this is to simply sketch out your designs on paper.

Storytelling in UI 

If you want to ensure seamless integration with design and functionality later on down the line, then it is a good idea to begin to define your UI storytelling angle for your app at this stage. Storytelling in UI design separates the good apps for the remarkable ones as the psychology behind it speaks for itself. In design, the art of storytelling as a technique is used as a way to gain valuable insight into the psychology of users, and access them on an emotional level. This is achieved through building a relationship by leveraging our uniquely human emotion of empathy. By having a clear idea of your app’s UI story, you will be able to craft your wireframes accordingly.

Wireframing

Once you have settled on an angle for your UI story, it is time to start thinking about how you want to go about packaging and presenting your story. Wireframes are a major part of the UX and UI workflow and are used to communicate ideas regarding screen layouts, similar to blueprints used in CADs and architecture, for example. Wireframing can go from hand-drawn sketches on paper to more sophisticated digital and interactive prototypes that display the desired end product. It could even be something in between these two. The amount of information displayed in each wireframe reflects the stage of the design process and product life cycle.

The stripped-down style of wireframing makes it a great tool to use early on in the conceptualisation phase, as it provides time to finalise your content architecture before diving into the details. Additionally, their simplicity is forgiving of mistakes and allows you to experiment before the prototype delivery phase.

Wireframing 101: The Whats, Types and Tools

The importance of good copy

UX writing involves creating copy for user interfaces in order to guide users within a site, app, or product and help them interact with and navigate through it. It can be viewed as the nuanced art of facilitating the communication between a user and the digital product. The best way to ensure great results is to get your writers involved in the project from the get-go so they have a clear understanding of what your product objectives are. Because communication is the basic definition of their craft they will not only be able to guide you on the best way to ensure that your audience understands how to navigate through your product, they are also likely to pick up things that might not make sense. As the saying goes, two heads are better than one. Having the right minds in the room when you’re planning to create something new means you can conceive a more holistically usable product.

Part 2: High-fidelity

Now that your low-fidelity process is complete you have a clear idea about how your app should look and feel. We’ve written a detailed article about basic mobile app design principles which you should really check out before continuing.

The high-fidelity phase provides you with a great opportunity to see your ideas for layout, user interfaces, and flow, presented in more detail from a holistic standpoint. Here you are able to flesh out what your users will see, and how they will interact with and use your app. It is at this point where you will likely discover issues pertaining to layout, flow, and functionality. But this is a good thing, as you want to detect them at this early stage so you can rectify them now, rather than later on in the building phase which will be more difficult and costly to change.

Mockups

Mockups show the intended flow of your app – how each interface interacts with others, including your layout and copy. It also shows your entire app architecture, like what happens when each button is clicked. This is where you want to consolidate your UX ideas. Exploring UX best practices and the various research methods is fundamental in ensuring your users are being treated to a memorable experience. Mockups are great to show clients and/or stakeholders what the app will look like and how it will function before you have written a single line of code. Any and all major changes required are handled at this point allowing for smooth building later on in the process. 

During the mockup phase, you can let your designers loose to indulge in their creative proclivities and add splashes of colour, fonts, images, and graphics to bring your idea to life. As humans are creatures that respond directly to images and aesthetics, it is vital that your app looks amazing. Consider getting a team of talented designers to come up with beautiful design elements that will make your app stand out. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel here, simply take inspiration from other successful apps, and tweak/adopt certain elements. Look out for the latest UX/design trends for inspiration. And, if you really want to turn heads and provide a memorable user experience, then consider implementing UI neumorphism into your app’s design.

Taxi Driver App

Bonus tip: Microinteractions

If you are wanting to take your UX to the next level during the mockup phase, try creating a few memorable microinteractions to add a healthy portion of sparkle to your app. Microinteractions are single-purpose events found all over devices and apps which provide feedback to the user by letting them know the status of an interaction, like a loading bar for instance. They make it easier for users to navigate and interact their way through a website, which already adds ease and comfort. They keep users constantly informed and updated through information relevant to their actions (in the form of tips and helpful hints), which increases the time they spend on a page.

404 page for the BeautifulNews

Feedback

Before diving into a sea of code to develop your app, it is a good idea to get as much feedback about the design and functionality as possible. Design a rendered click-through model that your user test subjects can easily operate and flow through to pick up any issues relating to design, layout, navigation, and simple UX. Of course, the more people you ask to test your mockup the more comprehensive feedback you will receive. Try being in the same room as your test subjects so you can observe how they instinctively use your app: this can bring you valuable insight into the certain layout or functionality aspects that you only can assess once people actually ‘use’ your app for the first time. It is a good idea to bring your developers into this stage of the process so they can provide feedback to your designers regarding the feasibility of the build and to give an idea of the development timeline.

Development

picture of frontend code

Front-end and back-end

It’s now time to hand over your designs to your development team to transform your design ideas into a functional product. At this point the majority of your design process is complete, however, your designers’ input is still required. 

While your development team begins building the functionality of your app, both devs and designers need to remain in close contact throughout the building phase. This process calls for close and effective collaboration between designers and developers in order for both teams to add their magic where it counts. Much like a car’s engine needs to work correctly, the design of the car housing the engine is equally as important when demanding the attention of users.

Historically, front-end designers and back-end developers do not speak the same language. But it is essential they reach a middle ground where they are able to effectively communicate in order to see their ideas come to fruition. The designer/developer handoff is crucial to ensure the best version of front-end design is bolstered by back-end functionality. Collaboration here is key.

Our head of UX penned an informative article about effective the collaboration between front-end and back-end creatives. Here, she explains the nuances of this kind of collaboration, and provides an example of possible topics for brainstorming sessions between designers and engineers:

  • Project vocabulary. Defining the terms used in the project. These can be created and updated together.
  • Translating business domain models or user mental models into basic data models. This should be led by UX designers. It requires engineers to be patient with illogical world views or users and businesses. Try to use the Event Storming technique for this.
  • Behavioural and structural diagramming must be done together (use cases, interaction overview, objects, classes). This process is led by software designers (architects, engineers). It requires designers to speak UML and XML/JSON. Results must be recorded in the documentation that is created and updated together.
  • For CMS-driven websites. Defining taxonomies and content types. Results in the documentation that is created and updated together.
  • Defining and naming roles and their rights for multi-role systems.
  • Learning by borrowing. checking important competitors for design and technology patterns. Shared facilitation. Results in a shared understanding of ‘industry standards’. 

Prototypes

Prototypes are the final stage of the process before delivering the final product, and in many ways, they can be considered as close to ‘finished’ as possible. Prototypes allow you to test your interface ideas and receive vital feedback to know whether your design is on the right track or not. Prototypes are the most functional piece of documentation you can create when showing your ideas.

Testing

Once you have successfully built the prototype of your new app, the next logical step to take before launching is conducting a series of tests to see if your app’s design and functionality are up to the task. How do you ascertain whether your app works in a real-world setting? Well, there are 3 surefire ways to see if your app is going to make an impact on its users or not.

QA tests

If you don’t have a QA engineer then it’s time to hire one, because this is where you are able to see if your app has what it takes to make its mark. QA engineers specialise in going through every component of your app with a fine-tooth comb to search for any bugs, issues, inconsistencies, and general technical tomfoolery that has made it to the QA stage. They ensure certain quality protocol is adhered to so that your app is functioning correctly at every touchpoint.

User testing and usability testing

After you get the stamp of approval from your QA engineer it is time to conduct usability testing. While usability testing is when you actually test whether or not users are able to use the product or solution you’ve built. Read our article outlining the differences between user testing and usability testing

User vs usability testing.

Beta version launch

The penultimate step before you strap in for the official launch of your app is to undergo the final stage of testing: releasing a beta version to see if users respond well to it. The aim is to soft-release your app to a small group of early adopters who will try out your app in a real-world setting. With beta testing groups, it is important to gain as much feedback from users as possible so you can have one last crack at reviewing, updating, and fixing any problems or inconsistencies that may arise. From this, you will get a good idea of how users feel about using your app, what they like, and what can be improved before you launch your go-to-market strategy.

Promotion

Once your app has undergone rigorous testing and passed with flying colours, you should now focus your attention to developing a comprehensive marketing strategy to promote your app to the public. Developing a sound marketing campaign will ensure your hard work pays off, because if nobody knows about your app then all your endeavours will amount to nothing.

We published a detailed outline of the best practices to market your mobile app. It covers every aspect of the marketing process: pre-launch (building awareness), post-launch acquisition (building a user base), and retention (fostering advocacy). Follow these simple steps to drive awareness to your product and to build excitement in the lead-up to your official launch.

Launch 

If you have reached this point then you have successfully conceptualised, designed, developed, and tested your app, and are thus finally ready to start the process of launching it to the world. But before you begin promoting your creation, you first need to list or publish your app on major app download platforms, like the App Store and Google Play Store. While publishing your app on Google Play Store doesn’t require any vetting (simply upload your app to the platform and users can immediately download it), there are certain publishing requirements the App Store demands before listing your product on their platform. Make sure your App Store optimisation game is on point to see fast results.

Here are some app publishing requirement tips for iOS and Android operating systems from our crew of talented WeAreBrain developers: 

When it comes to text protocol, Apple has specific guidelines you must adhere to. For example, only use the name “App Store” and no other variations of the term ( iTunes App Store, Apple App Store, or iPhone App Store). Be sure to remember to use the article “the” before the term “App Store” so it reads ‘the App Store’. It is important to never use the phrase “on the App Store”, but rather use “in the App Store”. It may appear semantic but Apple have a strong sense of their branding requirements which should serve as an inspiration rather than a drawback.

For Android, be aware of the text character limit guidelines: your application name should be ≥ 30 characters, your short description of your app should be ≥ 80 characters, and the full description should sit around ≥ 4000 characters. 

The guidelines for Android icon specifications are as follows: 

  • Format: 32-bit PNG (with alpha channel)
  • Size: 512×512 pixels
  • Max. file size: 1024KB

Analyse and optimise

Firebase is an industry-standard for app analytics.

Your very own mobile app has officially been launched – congratulations! The challenging yet rewarding part is finally over. There are only a few more things to do in order to ensure long-term sustainability and usability: continual analysis and optimisation.

Now that your app is out there and being used, you have unprecedented access to incredible insights from data analytics and user feedback. For the first time since conceptualisation, you are able to draw insights from much wider audiences who will be able to inform you of their impressions of your app. You can synthesise this data to inform your approach when making continuous improvements to your app’s look and feel, and overall functionality. 

Encourage feedback from your users and listen to their gripes and frustrations, and their likes too, so you can develop a well-rounded perspective of how your app is performing in the real-world. Sure, some users may like certain elements while others may not – the aim is to not pander to each user’s whim,  that’s impossible – but utilise user feedback to gauge whether you are still heading in the right direction. After all, your app was created to benefit the users, so their continuous feedback is crucial to the long-term adoption and advocacy of your app.

Keep an eye for user feedback and comments.

Summary

There you have it – our complete guide to helping you build your own app. If you have followed each step in the process, then you are well on your way to seeing the downloads bar of your app boom, while hopefully making a positive impact on your users’ lives. Each step in the product design process is just as important as the one which came before it and the one which follows. If you have a really great and unique idea then half of the battle is already won – all you need to do is simply follow these simple yet effective steps in order to see your idea come alive. We hope this has helped you understand what it takes to build an app, and we cannot wait to see what you have created.

If, however, you have a great idea but would prefer to leave the designing, building, and marketing of your app to the experts, then get in touch with us today to see how we can help drive your digital innovation.

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Samantha Wolhuter
Author info
Samantha Wolhuter
Sam is in charge of writing a big portion of WeAreBrain’s creative content. She is a digital nomad always on the go, inspiring us with her words from some of the world's most beautiful locations.
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