How to Build Your Own Mobile App – The Step-by-Step Guide

how to build an app - the step-by-step guide to creating an app

Smartphone browsing has overtaken desktop browsing – it now comprises 63% of all browsing habits worldwide. This has accelerated the growth of the mobile app industry which revenued a staggering $88 billion in 2016. It’s only expected to double in the next few years.

The huge surge in mobile browsing has not only disrupted digital industries, it’s fundamentally altered our internet browsing behaviour. We now generally prefer to access services from our mobiles, whether we’re shopping, keeping fit, chatting to friends, learning or playing games.

In fact, in response to these shifts in browsing habits, Google has adjusted their search algorithms to prioritise websites that provide a ‘mobile-first’ browsing experience in the form of apps or mobile-ready websites.

The bottom line, then, is that apps are and will remain to be a major component of modern life. There’s never been a better time to enter the foray and bring your own app idea to fruition.

Whether you’re someone who believes you’ve cracked a gap in the market, need an app to partner your products, site or services, or simply feel you can add value to this extraordinary industry, the possibility is there for you to construct your own mobile app.

Entering the App Market

entering the app market

Just a few years ago, programming mobile apps and software was an art reserved almost purely for highly skilled and costly developers. If you had an idea, you’d either have to hire a whole team of designers and developers or dedicate a lot of time to programming it all yourself!

Of course, after the investment of both time and money, there is no guarantee of success and during the development period, the risk of another app swooping by and taking your idea’s place is unfortunately rather high!

Fortunately, the entire app building process has been simplified by suites of intelligent tools with automated easy-to-use functions. Anyone can learn to build their own app DIY with little to no outside help. The process is meticulous and it’ll take time and planning but most importantly, costs are kept low and you can dictate your own pace of development.

Always Begin with Your Visions, Goals and Objectives

Creative visions are extremely important – they ignite our passion to build and innovate. Try and grasp your vision and contextualise it within today’s current digital cultures to see where you and your app stand. Think of trends, past, present and future and imagine where your app sits amongst others on the digital stage.

Compare your app to neighbouring and similar apps with similar motives or purposes. Compare yourself to creators and innovators in your selected industry and niche. Compare, compare compare! Comparison is your best tool for contextualising your app in real terms.

As well as comparing your ideas to the ideas of others, discovering your own personal conviction to create an app is a prerequisite to its success. Without a burning desire, you’ll never see the entire process through from conception to ideation and end product.

Once you’ve pondered your idea from this more abstract point of view, it’s time to put pen to paper.

Planning Your Goals

An old cliché rings true here; if you fail to plan then you plan to fail!

Besides, planning doesn’t have to be boring and dull. Planning means illegible notes, spider diagrams, coffee-fueled brainstorming sessions and intense late night discussions between colleagues!

Itemise your goals and objectives so you can analyse each component of the production process.

Planning goals is about asking and answering a series of questions. You should view your app as an answer, only then will it have a purpose which drives people to use it. If it doesn’t fundamentally solve problems or answers questions then it has no purpose and people won’t use it.

Some generic questions to address:

  • What problem would you like your app to solve?
  • How is this problem relevant to people’s lives?
  • How are you going to convince people that they want or need it?
  • Who will it appeal to? Demographics: age, gender, job, area, etc.

Consider using SMART Goals. Designed for project management, SMART Goals are supposed to be:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Timely

SMART targets for building your own app

Research and Draft your Concepts and Ideas

Next, you should research your competitors and your market. The chance of competition in your niche is nearly 100%. In reaction to discovering that someone has already tried your idea, you might feel one of two ways:

  • Deflated, annoyed and frustrated that your idea isn’t 100% individual and unique to you
  • Inspired to enhance the competitor’s app and transform the concept into something better

The latter is both more optimistic and arguably, more rational.

Why? Because competition equals demand.

It’s better for your idea to have an existing user base. There are several advantages to choosing a competitive niche with an existing user base:

  • People are interested in trying alternatives. Think of dating apps; each fulfills the same fundamental role whilst taking subtly different angles that give people the option to diversify their choice. Also, people don’t necessarily settle on one app, they enjoy switching between multiple similar apps, either routinely or at random.
  • Existing apps don’t necessarily capture the entire potential market. Just because an app already exists in your niche doesn’t mean it’s captured or claimed its entire potential user base.
  • You can research existing competitors and apps. Existing apps in your area give you a point of reference and research. You can look up vital statistics about their performance.
  • The customers for your niche are already out there. Convincing people to use a better version of something that already exists is easier than convincing people to use something they’ve never used or thought of before.

Work out and Write Down your Competitive Market Edge

Whether you’ve discovered similar apps in your niche or not, you’ll need to draft the angles you’ll use to compete with others and convince people to use your app over theirs. These angles will be particularly useful for when you come to release and market your product.

Your edge is also about your competitor’s weakness. Look through your competitors reviews and identify common themes, look them up on forums; Reddit, Quora, Yahoo Answers, etc. Dig for the dirt on your rival apps!

Define your USP

Each and every app, just like other commercial products, needs a USP.

Your USP will not only become your headline feature, it’ll become a major component of your sales and marketing strategy. It needs to be something which is catchy, memorable and useful.

Decide on your Method of Monetization

Many apps are built purely for non-profit use and you might decide that this is what you want to do. You might be creating a partner app for a service or product you already offer, or you might be developing an app for educational, charity or other non-profit use.

In many cases, though, it’s best to plan the method you’ll use to monetize your app early in the app building process.

The Main Methods of Monetization:

  1. Advertising. This is probably the most common form of app monetization. Most apps contain adverts, some subtly integrated into the UI and others overtly plastered all over the shop. There are tons of ways of incorporating ads into your app. You can go with icons, banners or periodical adverts, or request users to sit through ads or interact with ads in order to progress to the next level of a game, for example.
  2. Promotional. By requesting that users make an account and agree to be sent promotional emails, you can use your app to build a mailing list. You can then link this mailing list with your other products, sending out deals and products to those who have used your app.
  3. Paid. Many apps offer limited trials with unlockable paid versions. Users can use the free version of the app (often with lots of adverts) or pay to unlock a clean, full version of the app without limitations.
  4. Subscription. Similar to the above, you could offer a free trial period that automatically changes into a paid subscription after a set period. Or, you could offer a subscription version of the free app that enables access to a whole host of ‘pro’ features.
  5. In-app Purchases. Most common in mobile gaming, you can monetize via in-app purchases which unlock extra features, in-game currency or other content.
  6. Combinations. Of course, there’s nothing to say that you can’t combine these methods of monetization.

Market Research

Market research is vital if you’re bidding to enhance existing app concepts. This is an extension of your initial research but this time, instead of trawling through existing information, you’re creating new information specifically for your app concept.

Market research should ideally come early in the process, once you’ve drafted your app’s concept and purpose and generally involves asking the public for their opinions, ideas and feedback.

Some Platforms for Market Research:

SurveyMonkey: SurveyMonkey allows for the creation of surveys that can be sent out to cross sections or demographics of people that you can select yourself from a vast user base. The tool also pools data, creates graphs and displays handy points about your answers.

AnswerThePublic: This tool is used amongst marketers but it can display handy visual data about what the public are searching for or where their queries lie in particular niches or industries.

AppAnnie: This app-specific market research tool provides tons of data on app downloading and buying trends.

Building a Market Research Map

Market research is about discerning your target audience from your secondary audience, the demographic status of your audience in terms of their gender, affluence, industry and geographical location, etc.

This information is absolutely vital as it’ll guide your design, branding and marketing. If you mismatch your app to your audience and screw up your branding and marketing then the entire app building process will have been more or less wasted!

After all, you are building an app for public use. You need to make sure that each and every facet of its look, feel and use fulfills public expectation in a purposeful way.


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How to Build an App: The Two Main Routes

When it comes to building a mobile app, you can take one of two broad approaches.

  1. You can either go down the conventional custom route, where you create various wireframe prototypes before drafting your backend, create user/graphical interfaces and finalise your front and back end with various test procedures dispersed throughout the process.

This is ideal for:

  • Those who want to work with developers and designers on longer term projects
  1. Or, you can use an app builder. Like the app version of web builders like Wix, an app builder sums many build processes into one piece of codeless software. App builders allow for the creation of apps using automated DIY methods and processes. You can drag and drop elements from templates and pre-made sets of graphics.

This is ideal for:

  • Those looking for an efficient and pragmatic solution for app building.

The Custom Route

Wireframing

wireframing mobile apps

Wireframes are digital sketches of apps or websites/pages. Wireframes provide a series of outlines of buttons, pages, functions and other design elements which can help you get a sense of how elements of your app will fit together. They can be exported into other design tools to help designers create UIs and skins.

There is a debate about whether you should design your app’s skins, logos and branding before or after wireframing. After all, how can you create a sketch of your app without knowing what images will fill in the gaps?

Wireframes have a practical purpose; they allow you to get a sense of how users will navigate your app and how it will function from a mechanical point of view. If you pack your wireframe with graphics and logos then you’ll get bogged down in tweaking visuals when you should be focussing on user journey and flow.

There are tons of wireframing applications online, many of which are easily used by those with no experience via templates and drag-and-drop services.

Testing your Wireframes

Once you’ve tinkered with your wireframes, it’s best to test them extensively.

Don’t just do this yourself, recruit family, friends and coworkers to go through your wireframes on different devices. Report any flaws, issues with dead ends or issues with flow.

Remember to bear your market research in mind. For example, an older more corporate user base may prefer simpler and more functional layouts and flows whereas a younger audience might want quirkier transitions.

What Comes Next? Back-end or Front-end?

Once you’ve prototyped your idea with wireframe mockups, it’s time to think about building your app for real.

This is where most DIY app builders get bogged down in details and jargon that they don’t understand.

Firstly, let’s just summarise the difference between the frontend and backend:

Front-end: The front-end is what you see as a user or customer. It comprises of the interface and components which you can interact with.

Back-end: The back-end is the core/brains behind the front-end, and deals with app functionality, requests from the front-end and data.

If you build your back-end first, which is generally the more time consuming of the two, then you may find that your UI is limited to what you’ve built into your back end.

However, if you design your front-end first, you might be penalised when adding extra functionality in the backend.

Overall, it is generally considered most logical to build your backend first. The backend drives the frontend and without its core fundamental elements, it’s difficult to envisage how your UI will come together. Also, if you’ve wireframed then you’ll have an idea of UX and flow already, better enabling you to design your core backend and choose what services you need to get your app running.

Starting with your best wireframes, work out and jot down what APIs you’ll need and whether you’ll need custom APIs, data diagrams and then delineate your servers.

There are a number of backend services that allow for the creation of backend services without the need to code:

Frontend: UI

frontend ui mobile app

UI design is often considered the ‘fun bit’. You’ve slogged at your app databases, servers and APIs but now, it’s time to get creative once more – it might have felt like forever!

App UI design now revolves around what are called WYSIWYG editors. This simply stands for What You See Is What You Get.

They allow for the design of user interfaces which look identical on your screen to how they’d look in real life. You can drag and drop visual elements, create icons, menus and screens and generally design the look of your app with pre-made visual elements.

Often, you can import your wireframe into a WYSIWYG editor, allowing you to quickly drop visual elements into your wireframes. This enables you to easily test and compare your prototypes.

Visually designing your app is absolutely pivotal to everything from marketing to sales. This is how your app will be visually advertised, the aesthetic attraction it will have to your user base. Everywhere your app goes, its visual design will follow in the form of screenshots and logos.

Building your App: The App Builder Route

If you want to skip most of those processes, you’ll need to recruit the service of an app builder.

App builders automate both front-end and back-end design processes, allowing you to quickly create an app with minimal custom programming or development. They’re pretty easy to use and can produce some fantastic results.

If you have no experience in app design or programming in general, the app builder route will enable you to quickly and accurately build an app based on your own intuition.

App builders are becoming more and more advanced and many now allow for the creation highly personalised and customized apps.

Design Principles

It’s impossible to fully elaborate app graphic design for the purpose of this post but here’s a few creative pointers.

The Visual Anatomy of an App

You can’t just design some bits of your app and not others. Everything has to be continuous and consistent across the board. Don’t overlook any of the following elements:

  • A core logo which will feature on app stores like Apple’s App Store and Google Play
  • Associated logo variations
  • A homogenous app colour scheme continuous with logos. Colour schemes are incredibly important, take time to align your app to its most effective colours.

colour psychology chart

  • Buttons, menus and drop downs
  • Animations
  • Outlines and overlays

2018 App Design Trends

Keeping your app up-to-date with current trends will vastly improve its marketability. Here’s an overview of some key design trends:

Broken Grid Layouts: Broken grids effectively segment parts of your app to create greater clarity and flow.

Illustrations and Animations: Animations are becoming increasingly popular components of app UIs. Menus drop down with attractive mechanical animations, pages transition with cool effects and elements change and adapt to touch gestures.

Minimalism and Maximalism: These aesthetic styles are opposites. Minimalist designs are subtle and clean, maximalist designs are bold and striking. Both are popular right now.

Component Based Design: Ideal for larger businesses, component design provides designers with a suite of tools and graphics from the get-go to ensure continuity between apps and services. For example, think of the enormous continuity across Google’s many apps and services. A 2017 – 18 UX industry report suggested that 67% of companies are planning to use component based design tools for app design.

Finalisation and Extensive Testing

You should be routinely testing your app after both minor and major changes. The purpose of testing is to suss out major issues, crashes, dead ends, dead links, error messages, etc.

Testing can be done on a personal basis, with the service of friends, colleagues and family or via the use of a service like Solidify.

Another option is to hire a professional tester on a platform like Upwork or PeoplePerHour.

Testing on Android vs iOS

Once you’ve got an APK of a relatively finished app, it’s easy to install and test on an Android phone.

iOS is a little tricker, use TestFlight.

You should take time to test your app across many devices. It’s a tough ordeal and you’ll need to use the appropriate services or individuals to help you. If you release an app riddled with functionality problems then you’ll rack up a sequence of low reviews right off the bat.

Failing to extensively test app functionality across multiple devices is one of the chief reasons why an app fails soon after release.

To Summarise

The planning, brainstorming, ideation and drafting stage of app building is always the same. Take time to plan your approach, it’ll save you time, money and effort.

After that, you’ll have to either build your app in the custom way by working through its various elements or use an app builder.

Whichever course you choose to take, always reflect on where you are and how far you’ve come.

The road may be long and winding but you’re sure to learn a thing or two and many hugely successful app owners once shared your intrepid position!


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