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biz ladies: creating the perfect iPhone app for your biz

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i am happy to introduce our newest biz ladies contributor, mini kurhan. mini is a graphic designer living in san francisco and has designed for the mobile industry since 2002. she has created some of the best selling apps of all time, including the virtual zippo® lighter iPhone app, which remains one of the top branded applications in mobile history.

today mini shares with us the process of creating and executing a professional and functional app for your business- from the initial idea, to being featured on iTunes, mini covers all the steps to getting your business into the 2.0 mobile realm. thanks mini for enlightening us on the world of apps! -stephanie

CLICK HERE for the full post after the jump!

I’ve designed for mobile since ye old days of 2002, and thankfully it’s come a long way since the iPhone opened the door for thousands of incredible apps. If you’re like me, you’ve got this great idea for a cool and professionally made app, and would love to make it. Once made, if people only knew about it, it’d be a moneymaker. So how on earth do you get the process started and then actually get some downloads once it’s out there?

First things first—come up with a solid idea.

It’s probably best to do a bit of research to find out what Apple will and will not allow in the App Store. Then do some keyword searching—with 150,000+ apps out there, chances are someone else already had your great idea. That being said, if there’s a chance for improvement it could be worth a try.

When we created the Virtual Zippo® Lighter app at Moderati, we had the idea long before the iPhone even existed. We did a “rock lighter” wallpaper years prior, and had been in the works with licensing images from Zippo. When we were pitching the app idea to Zippo a couple other lighter apps had just launched. My boss said to me, the thing that’s going to make this one the best is the design. The strategic licensing effort on the part of the marketing department also certainly had something to do with the success of the app.

Okay, so you have a great idea, then what?

Just like any other multi-media design project, you’re going to want to start by making a list of features your app will have. Chances are your list might get a bit long, so remember that “less is more” can be applied to new design mediums. Group features into clusters that make sense, and remove things that don’t really enhance the user experience or add to the final product (just because the iPhone can do something, doesn’t mean your app has to).

With your features listed, next you’ll want to mock up your product and do a bit of UI design.

Taking all the features into consideration, you’ll have to figure out an elegant way for users to actually use the app. Either by sketching on paper or creating simple shapes on the computer, think about how it will function, what users will see first, and what users will click on most. Remember that people are impatient, so it’s best to minimize the number of clicks. When thinking about elements on a page, and the order of things, keep in mind that instinct and learned behavior play a part for the user (for example, “forward” is usually on the right, and “back” is usually on the left).

Then, it’s page-flow time. When setting up your design and how everything will be connected, instead of thinking of it as a website (open-ended, scrollable, kind of limit-less), think of it more like a DVD menu interface (limited set of features that get straight to the point). Unlike a website, your app isn’t going to have breadcrumbs or a URL at the top helping you find your way back, so be sure the user can figure out where they are at all times, with shortcuts to important features. Adding a “Home” button is much, much better than forcing the user to click “back” a good number of times (if it were me, at that point I’d just choose to hit “End”).

Rough mockups or wireframes all done? Now you get to make it look pretty.

The first thing you want to consider when designing is the reason why the iPhone screen looks so amazing—it’s the resolution!  The iPhone has better resolution than computer monitors, and a really simple way to see the difference is by literally holding your iPhone next to your computer monitor. Compare any 320×480 image on your computer to what you see on your iPhone screen—notice that the physical dimension on the iPhone is probably about 75% smaller than what you’re seeing on your computer monitor. This will help you with readability.  Unless you are going to let people zoom in all over your app, you’re probably going to have to make things a bit larger than you first instincts tell you. Finally, remember not to forget anatomy—fingers are much clunkier than a dainty mouse cursor. Consider the spacing of elements so users can click on the intended item easily.

So you know how it’s gonna work, but how’s it gonna work?

Time for some programming to get the graphics turned into an app. From what I’ve been told, the programming languages used for iPhone development are easy enough to learn, but they’re different from other common languages, so there might be a learning curve involved. If you’re a designer with knowledge of programming, you can probably tinker and get things right. But if you’ve got complicated accelerometer work needed to be done (huh?!) you might need to hire a contractor to help you out. The best thing about hiring a pro, is that they’ll know the best way to approach the situation, and will hopefully figure out how to optimize the app most efficiently.

The app is done, now what?

Test, test, test. Apple actually employs people to check your app and make sure that it works.  If they find anything wrong (in function or content) they can reject your app or pull it from the App Store. Plus, if users become annoyed with bugs and crashes, they’re likely to rate your app with low stars, though high ratings are often what you need to get your app downloaded.

My app is approved, so how do I get it noticed?

Well, to be frank, if you can figure that one out, would you tell me the secret? Obviously, the best way is to get your app featured in the App Store, but if you don’t have a major client or brand associated with the app, that’s probably not going to happen unless it’s really unique and catches Apple’s eye. Remember that your app will always be listed in the “new” category, so it will essentially be featured for at least a week. Your goal is to get as many downloads and high ratings as possible in those first few weeks to try and keep it afloat. Be sure to consider price, and really think about what a user is likely to spend for taking a chance on your app.

How much does it all cost in the end?

If you’re going to hire professionals to create an app for you, the price can range drastically. An independent designer might charge $75/hr. but an agency might charge $175/hr. Be sure to think about what your app will actually generate in revenue before committing to hire help, and like any other project, expect it to go over-budget because after all, the iPhone is still a cell phone, and things don’t always work as expected. Also be sure to read Apple’s revenue share policy, because they’re going to take 30% of the proceeds. If this all sounds overwhelming and too expensive, remember that the iPhone has a web browser, and as long as there is an internet connection, users can browse a website just as easily as an app.

Lesson learned from my experience?

Whatever you do, do it the best you can. Being first at something might get you some good buzz, but sometimes it’s clear that the competition has done an inadequate job. If you can create a really great product that you think will add some enjoyment to the world at large, then go for it. The iPhone is really fun to design for, and I personally am always happy when I stumble upon a high-quality app that just makes sense regardless of its complexity.

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8 Comments

Ana

This is great, thank you for the information. The timing is perfect because I have an app in mind but have no clue how to go about creating it!! :)

Maria

Funny! I just had someone ask me about how to do this the other day. As if I know, but now I can just forward the link :)

Kat D.

Wow! First off, I love the Zippo app. Secondly, thanks for all the tips!

Penelope Bridge

Thank you Mini for sharing your process! I especially love your last bit of advice and how it applies to all design – do your best and create products that the world can enjoy. Very nice.

Mini Kurhan

Thanks for all the nice compliments! I was so excited to write the piece and share my thoughts and experience. Glad to see they were useful and appreciated. :) Feel free to email me if you ever need any help or have any questions. *Mini*

Ava Herrera

Mini! Your post was spot-on as far as my experience creating an iPhone app. For those looking to build an app, these tips are direct, yet thoughtful and well-organized into one succinct post. I will definitely forward to a friend, also asking me about the process. I’d also add, that the process can be lengthy and takes loads of organization and patience. And a well laid plan and budget…. and virtual Zippo rocks.

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