On Creating an iPhone App (Part 1)

We released our first iPhone app, Funeral Notebook, about a month ago (February 4th to be exact). I learned a lot during the process and thought it would be helpful to document the experience as a resource for anyone else thinking about creating an iPhone App. Originally this was going to be a single post but it kept growing so I decided to break it into sections. Each section also includes links to some resources I found helpful along the way.

Part 1: The Plan

A Little Background

Just to establish a little context, my skills and experience lie in the area of web strategy, information architecture, and web interaction design. I’m not a developer and while I’ve done some visual design, it’s not my strong suit. Assessing my strengths and weaknesses helped me figure out which pieces of the project I’d do myself and which I’d outsource. On this project I did the business plan, design, project management, and marketing. I hired out the development and brand identity work. (So there won’t be much (ok, any) information here about how to actually code an iPhone App.)

I created a company, Thrive ID, LLC, before starting to work on the app but I won’t go in to much detail here. (See Stepping Out of the Boat for a little more information.) Starting an LLC is not expensive and is pretty painless so I’d definitely recommend doing it.

Financing came from personal resources. No loans, no VCs, etc. (aka. I’m bootstrapping.) God has been good and I’m thankful for the resources to be able to do this. I know not everyone has financial resources from which to draw.

Getting Started

The Idea

Funeral Notebook was originally going to be a web app but the cost of building and maintaining a web app was more than I wanted to take on – at least initially. The idea for building an iPhone App instead actually came from my wife (who is responsible for many of the better ideas related to this project). The development cost and time were much lower and there was a decent size market for iOS apps so going this route made sense.

The inspiration for Funeral Notebook came from a book my sister-in-law wrote called “Between the Phone Call and the Funeral“. In the book she shares dozens of ways to make the time between when a loved on dies and the funeral run a little smoother. Creating an app that provides similar information combined with the ability to build and manage a task list seemed like an idea worth pursuing. Helping people through a really difficult time in life also fit well with the mission of Thrive ID.

Market assessment

It’s impossible to predict which apps will be financially successful but it’s important to at least take a look at the size of your potential market to see if there is a realistic chance of making a profit on your investment.  For example, yes, there may be millions of bird-watchers in the world but how many of them have an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad (aka an iOS device)? And if you’re only going to cover North American Birds, how many bird-watchers with an iOS device would need information about North American Birds?  Then you have to consider the competition.  If there are several competitive apps it’s likely you are only going to be able to get a percentage of your total market.

It’s also important to research competitive apps and products. Download and try out apps that look similar to yours. The existence of competitors doesn’t mean you shouldn’t develop your app. It just means you need to define how yours is different and why a customer would buy it instead of a competitor’s. Also think about competing products that are not iPhone apps.  In our case sticky notes, a pad of paper, and a pen are big competitors we had to think about.

It’s important to at least do “back of the napkin” analysis. Your idea may seem like a good one but it doesn’t necessarily mean it will make any money. (Of course there are reasons besides making money to create apps.) The jury is still out on whether Funeral Notebook is just a good idea or a good idea that also has a strong return on our investment. Stay tuned.

Revenue model

There are several ways to make money with iPhone Apps.

Charge money
This is the most obvious option. Apple gives you control over how much you charge for an app. The price can range from $.99 -$999 and you can raise and lower it whenever you’d like. Figuring out pricing of anything is a tricky task and in some ways pricing apps seems even more difficult. The fact that there are so many free apps seems to set the expectation that apps should be no or very low cost. Plus, for some reason the small screen size can make it feel as though you’re buying something really small and so shouldn’t have to pay much for it. But, as I mentioned, pricing of anything can be a tricky thing. I heard one story of someone who had a $.99 app in the store that wasn’t selling very well. When he raised the price a couple of dollars (for the same app), sales started to pick up. Like I said, it’s tricky.

Free “Lite” version + paid full version
As an extension of the “charge money” option, there is the possibility of offering a free “lite” or stripped-down version of your app in addition to a paid version. This lets users try out some of your app functionality for free and then, if interested, “upgrade” to the paid version. It seems as though this could work well but finding the right balance between offering too much or too little value could be a challenge.

We decided to stick with only offering a paid version initially but offering a lite free version could be an option depending on how things go.

Advertising with iAds
Another option is to offer the app for free but display ads within the app. iAds displays small ads at the bottom of the screen which users can tap to expand and get more information. You get 60% of the revenue generated by ads displayed in your app.

We decided not to go this route because our users are in the middle of an incredibly difficult time and displaying ads seemed pretty inappropriate. Basically I wouldn’t want to see them so I’m not going to make anyone else see them either.

This involves placing a sponsor’s logo, name, and/or information somewhere within the app. It’s a “this app is brought to you by” sort of message. To be honest we didn’t look into this much but it could be a something we explore more in the future.

In-app purchases
In-app purchases enable users to make purchases without leaving your app. The classic example of this is someone buying a game for $.99 (or free) and then buying additional levels from within the app. This could be a future route for us as well but we don’t have any plans right now.

Our conclusion
Ultimately, after much debate, we decided to charge $4.99 for Funeral Notebook. Here are our reasons:

  • It contains the information of a book being sold for $20
  • Included task management functionality
  • The average price for books on the app store is around $5.00
  • We didn’t think $4.99 was unreasonable for something we thought was truly helpful.

That’s not to say we won’t change it at some point depending on how things go.

The project plan

At a high level our project plan looked like this:

Diagram describing iPhone App development process

Note: While this is the general process flow we followed, it’s not a strict series of steps. Obviously a plan comes before a launch but in between here is a lot of back-and-forth between focus areas. You will learn a lot in each area (especially building and testing the prototype) and it’s likely you’ll need to go back and update the requirements or redesign part of the app or update something else you’ve previously defined. It’s not just ok, it’s necessary.

Describe end users

The design of any product or experience starts with defining who the app is for and what they’re going to need. For example, Funeral Notebook is for adult iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad owners who have personally lost a loved one or who are helping someone who has. They’re in shock and beginning to experience the grief that accompanies the death of someone close. As a result they’re also tired and not able to think very clearly. To top it off they now have all kinds of new and unfamiliar tasks to complete and decisions to make such as finding a funeral home, contacting friends and relatives, scheduling appointments, planning the funeral, tending to legal and financial matters, etc. They need a way to figure out what they need to do and keep track of it all.

The Marketing plan

There are over 300,000 apps in the iTunes App Store so it’s highly unlikely that potential customers are going to find your app by browsing through the app store. Defining a basic Marketing plan describing how you’re going to get the word out about your app is important if you want a lot of sales. The bare minimum marketing opportunity for every app is the informational page people will see when they click on your app within iTunes (or the associated web pages). This page allows you to verbally describe your app as well as provide screenshots of the app itself. (Here is our page for Funeral Notebook as an example.) Ultimately this is the last page people will see before they buy your app or look elsewhere so it’s worth spending some time on.

Other Marketing and promotional tools include:

  • A blog related to the topic of your app
  • Advertising on Google, Facebook, related blogs, other websites, magazines, etc.
  • Social media – Twitter, Facebook, etc.
  • Conferences or conventions
  • Etc., etc., etc.

You don’t need to have everything figured out but an outline of a plan or at least some ideas will help you think through it as you develop the app. Also, keep Return on Investment in mind. If you’re only making a dollar or two per sale of your app, you can’t afford to spend $5 per sale on marketing.

See my post on Marketing a Death-Related iPhone App for an overview of what we’ve been doing.


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