How can you make your app even better?

On May 13, 2014


There are a lot of apps on the app store – there are literally over one million apps on the app store, and that number only goes up every day. There are not, however, one million unique app ideas on the app store. There are probably thousands of to-do and task manager apps alone – and enough of those are beautiful, coded well, and all around excellent that that should give you pause. What it tells us is that the idea itself of an app is now brought into question; with so many good programmers and designers competing on the same idea, your idea needs to be distinctive enough to merit the all-important download. If you’re lucky enough to really have a truly brand-new idea, you have it easier – but even so, all of us have to spend time honing our app ideas.

Everyone with an app this side of Mars imagines someone interacting with their app for hours at a time, showing their friends, and enjoying every second of that app’s existence. It’s on their homescreen, facebook page, everywhere. This is an exaggeration, but you certainly wish your users did this. The problem is, that is not how an iPhone app is used. They’re used in small bites, in moments and seconds, and their purpose should reflect this. A game should resemble more a flash game not in graphics but in gameplay – quick play under 30 minutes, during class time or while the boss isn’t looking. The task management app should get you to the screen you need and get you to it quickly. The weather app, even shorter. The launch screen should already have the information you need. Even the longest sittings like documents should not expect very much attention, because they aren’t powering through the great american novel on their iPhone. At best, they’re capturing ideas on their iPad. People do quick bits of work on their iDevice – that last read through and edit while they’re worrying before their oral presentation, or idea capturing when they’re hit with inspiration before a doctor’s appointment. As much as the game designer desires for someone to sit and spend great lengths of time playing their game, the sad reality is that this isn’t what happens. Your app needs to be simple, new and engaging the first time.

So now you’re inspired – you’re dreaming and writing about your app ideas and how your app is different and it’s features and what it will do and how it will do it wonderfully, and that inspiration is a great thing. However, there’s a trap you must avoid right from the get-go, one you might have already fallen in to; the trap of thinking that the feature makes the idea. If you’ve thought of some feature that would be really cool on iOS, that’s great – write it down and save it. While a feature can make an app cool, new, and different, a feature isn’t a reason to use an app at all. You might say “But the app Mailbox is cool because it has different features for eMail!” No, the idea of snoozing an alert or leaving it until later is not a new feature. Mailbox is different because it applied these features to a new core concept, ‘treating eMail like a to-do list.’ As cool as some iOS features are, at the end of the day an app is content-driven, function-driven. That feature has to do something in the context of the purpose; if it doesn’t help the user have a better and smoother experience, it is better left out. The importance of this cannot be over-stressed: know what makes your app different at the emotional level. Differentiating on feature set won’t win you the fight, but differentiating on core experience will. MacBooks are an example of this; on paper, it has less features and hardware than any other computers, and is astronomically more expensive. Yet, they are top sellers because they provide a delightful experience. Two task managers with the same features on paper can do completely differently in the market, because one has a good user experience and the other does not. In summary, an app has to have a good core function and a good experience to be successful in the market.

  • What makes your idea different? The question you hear time and time again is repeated for a reason. Chances are in the war between two apps that do roughly the same thing, people will choose the one that’s been reviewed more and is more popular, because it’s higher up on the charts and easier to find. This is worse then it seems – with a million apps on the app store and just as many with iOS devices, if there isn’t a clear reason to choose yours, they won’t. There needs to be a very real and very obvious reason why your app is better, that isn’t just tied to the ratings and chart position. And what’s more; what seems obvious to you is not obvious to everyone else. What is obviously better is not obvious if it isn’t a short sentence. If you can’t explain your app’s competitive advantage quickly and clearly, it can negatively impact your app’s perception.
  • Will it be executed well? Your app can make your iPhone shoot lasers, but if you can’t see the ‘shoot’ button, nobody will like it. Whatever your app does will have to do it simply, and it will have to do it well. Take Omnifocus: $19.99, it is considered the biggest and most robust task management app on the app store. It syncs with your calendars, reminds you of nearby to-do’s, and you can attach links and videos within the app. Plenty of people like this, but just as many people like Clear. Clear is a to do app, and is very basic: Pull down to create item, swipe to complete, pinch to see lists and then expand again to see the items in that list. It isn’t nearly as complicated as Omnifocus, but has enjoyed significant success. This is evidence of the fact that a clearly defined idea can lead to success on a bigger and grander scale than features, any day.
  • Is it easy to understand? There is an app on the app store that’s a game, and the point of the game is to hold your finger on the screen over a word, like elephant or monkey or cup. When the icon that flashes across the screen is your word, you lift your finger. It’s a fun 4 player game. However, It wasn’t successful because you couldn’t explain the concept well. People tried to tell their friends and their friends didn’t get it, so they gave up. In contrast, the app iBeer is easy to explain – “It’s beer on your iPhone!” and it made Hottrix millions. If your app idea can’t be explained in a single sentence, you need to refine it further.

These guidelines are not meant to harp, but there’s more to having an iPhone app then just having an iPhone app. The idea of having an app on the App Store may sound impressive, but the act itself is not that difficult – it’s having a successful app that is. Pay Apple $100, code something in a week or two and you have an app. While a recipe for an iPhone app, that is not a recipe for a good iPhone app. We’re all far more impressed with someone who had a good iPhone app out, one that truly enhanced our lives and made the top charts and lots of money as a result. Apple has made people millionaires from the app store, but at the same time the median income for an app (excluding the super-successful) is $500 – for it’s entire lifetime.

While there’s no way to test an app’s experience before it’s designed, you can test an app’s core function easily with a survey. Sounds completely unexciting, sure, but the survey is one of the most useful tools in your arsenal for improving your app idea. If you put together a survey and everyone says ‘this idea sucks,’ ‘it’s missing this thing,’ it doesn’t mean you should give up – what it means is that you should refine your idea to include this or that, and what will come out on the other side is something you know people will love, not just something you hope people will love. Surveys are also an excellent chance to begin collecting eMails for an eMail marketing list, a list that can make or break your app at release time. If you’re curious to know more about just how important eMail lists are, you can flip ahead to later in the book. Surveys, therefore, are a two-pronged weapon: Get a better idea that more people will want, and get people who will buy it as soon as it exists. And with the advent of the internet, creating and distributing surveys is as easy as an afternoon’s worth of work with a pizza by your side. Creating the survey is easy enough, just go to and create a free account to get started. Free accounts are limited to 10 questions per survey, but for one this informal that’s all you need. Here are some tips for creating your own survey:

  1. Start off the survey asking demographics. Knowing your market is critical, and even when you think there are no trends there might turn out to be. For instance, a manuscript-creation program doesn’t seem very gender-specific, but 75% of those who showed interest were 16-25 year old males, a very specific demographic you can target for your surveys, and later your marketing. You can make gender and age one question, by making the question a ‘Matrix of Choices (One Answer Per Row)’ in survey monkey. Put gender in the columns and age ranges in the rows, and you have your demographics question. This can be a required question if you want, since it’s anonymous information.
  2. Make your last question a request for an eMail address. Don’t make this mandatory, or some people will opt not to take the survey at all. These eMail addresses will be important later on, and if you don’t have them you’ll wish you did.
  3. If possible, make questions multiple-choice. People don’t like writing out answers to things, and if they’re multiple choice you can get nice statistics on the results as well. If a multiple choice can’t cover all possible options, offer an ‘other’ option and add an optional text box. e.g. ‘What program do you currently use to write your manuscripts?’ answers: Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, Scrivener,, and Other with a textbox. This gives you the best of both worlds; it’s easy to answer and see data, but you can get all possible information out of the [future] user.

Side-Note: Unless it’s logically impossible, like with age, make the multiple-choice questions multiple-answer as well. You’d be surprised at what people say or do.

  1. Use simple languages and short sentences. If you make the survey a pain to take with long explanations and complicated questions, people will not do it. If they need to think more than a half-second, they will stop and think it’s not worth their time. Smooth over the process for them as much as possible. (This is also why a shorter survey is advised.)
  2. If after a day or so of responses you find a question is poorly worded or an answer in ‘Other’ is frequent, you can hop on and add that option retroactively. Furthermore, you can edit respondents answers retroactively, meaning you can go back and change that ‘other’ response to your newly added response. (Keep in mind, unless you delete the text in the ‘other’ box, it will still show up as a comment.)
  3. Ask the responders how good their current solution for the problem is. Whatever app you’re making, someone somewhere has also tried to solve this problem, and asking how well the responder likes their current solution tells you how much the current solution is doing wrong. However, 5 stars shouldn’t merely be ‘it did everything I wanted’: 5 stars is a product they should be stark raving mad about, and that is your goal for how they’ll feel about your app.

You have your survey now, and it’s ready to be distributed. Now you just need to find people who will take it. It would be easy to write ‘find the internet for relevant forums and post your link,’ but scouring the internet isn’t always that easy. However, a wonderful place to start is You can search the reddit boards to find relevant boards, and post your survey link in a new text post. People in those boards will often know where other people like them hang out, and you can look at the boards or just ask the users with a text post where to go next. Here are some sample text posts:

Hey everyone! I’m a writer on, and I’ve always hated the applications or methods I had available to me to write. Every program I’ve ever used was missing some critical feature I wanted, like Apple Pages was missing simplicity (Word too) but things like TextEdit or iAWriter were missing actual features I wanted like italics or what have you.

I’m also a software designer, so I thought about actually designing an application specifically for authors (not just a text editor) that supported chapters, exporting to ePub, and all kinds of other features most text editors lack. Before I actually start making it, though, I’d like to know a little about the problems you face as an author with your system.

I designed a survey on SurveyMonkey, so I’d love love love it if you took the time to take it, it’s very short:

Feel free to discuss any additional feedback or suggestions in this thread, as well. I want to design a solution that’s awesome for everyone, whatever they’re writing. Thank you so much for your time.

This post is a good post for two reasons. 1. It tells a personal story instead of being mere spam, and 2. it invites additional comments and discussion in the thread. Number 1 is important because forums and boards are for communication between humans, and telling your story makes the people who are reading the post empathize with your plight. They’re more willing to take your survey and discuss with you the problems they’re having. Number 2 is important because the thread offers another area of communication with your potential users. This is where people will discuss in detail the problems they’re having, and you can enter into a discussion about what they, the user, need. It helps paint a complete and accurate picture of what a real user wants out of this app, and you can’t make something they’d love without knowing what it is they want.

You can be completely successful promoting your survey on reddit alone if you post on enough subreddits and keep the threads active, but that doesn’t have to be the only place you promote. Try googling the purpose of your app along with the word ‘forum’ and post your survey & summary on the forums that pop up in google. If there’s any website your demographic goes on or product that your demographic commonly uses, you can post your survey on the accompanying forums they will sometimes have. Even reddit itself will link to the relevant websites from within the description of individual subreddits, meaning reddit itself is giving you advice on where to look. Another place to look is also on relevant facebook pages or open groups, or you could even message the moderator of a facebook page/group to promote your survey themselves. If you include your personal story and explain how the product will help them, they’re usually happy to post the link for you explaining your situation. A cursory search of your keywords on facebook can reveal to you dozens of good groups or pages on which to post your survey, increasing your reach. Another good way to reach out is on twitter; tweet at some influential people about your idea, linking to your landing page or your survey, and they’ll probably be willing to click on the link – remember to prompt them to retweet what you tweeted at them.

Knowing what your user wants and needs is a critical part in designing a successful app, but you need to be careful of making the mistake of just chasing what the user wants. Their feedback can help center your design, but you need to always keep the core of your app in mind. This is that one-sentence description, that important mission that led you to buy and open this book in the first place.

If you discover that what your users want is completely different than what you initially had in mind and you want to make that different thing, it is known as a product pivot. You can pivot your app if you want, but you have to throw out all the work you did for the old idea and start anew in order to make a quality app. Don’t hang on to old work just for the sake of having done the work. This is not like an hourly job; each hour spent is working towards something, and you’re not counting the hours – you’re counting distance towards that goal.

Sometimes it’s appropriate to ignore the user’s feedback. This is counterintuitive, but it’s also a principle that Apple Inc. lives and dies by. Steve Jobs is quoted as saying “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” in an interview in BusinessWeek, May 25, 1998. This is an important thing for you to keep in mind as well – the user accurately knows what problem they’re having in their life, but they’re not always most deft at identifying the appropriate solution. If merely doing exactly what users say resulted in a good product, Apple would not be as successful a company as they are; Apple Inc. regularly ignores feature requests and has a limited scope of compatibility, which next to price is the most frequent complaint set about Apple. Yet, they still manage to be beloved and exclusively bought by millions of people, raking in billons of dollars. So how does Apple determine how to design their products? They look at what the users want not from a technical standpoint, but from a more emotional one. They ask themselves what features would make the users feel good, what features will make their lives better, not what features they want. Often, (as with the iPhone,) the answer is something that had never crossed the user’s mind but revolutionizes their life. This is evident on their website: Go to the product page of any Apple product, and it won’t have a laundry list of features and comparisons to competitors – it will have beautiful pictures of their products, and emotion-evoking statements about them. Nothing more.

What this means for you is that you should do the same thing – focus on the user’s problems, but don’t take their solutions. Give the problem honest, concerted thought, and come up with a solution (a core purpose for your app, as we discussed earlier,) that evokes buzzwords like innovative and intuitive. Take into account the survey data to identify your user’s problems, but not for what the solution should be. This was the purpose of having the survey respondents rate their current solution – It tells you how much the current solutions are failing in this area, but doesn’t get you caught in the trap of doing a feature comparison. As you would consider your own design and user experience, consider theirs as well.

The final test for idea development is when someone will inevitably ask about your app. These are the questions you must be able to answer clearly in under two sentences:

  1. What is your app? / What does it do?
  2. Why should I download it [over competitors’ apps]?

Until you can answer these questions, you haven’t honed your idea enough.


About Author:

Megan Holstein is an entrepreneur and app-guy, and has apps of her own.  She is even working on a book about making apps, which you should read more about@MeganEHolstein