App Ideas: The X-for-Y Approach

Written by Reinder de Vries on July 22 2020 in App Business

App Ideas: The X-for-Y Approach

Let’s face it – most brilliant app ideas have already been made! A quick search in the App Store often tells you what you didn’t want to hear. That unique idea for an app you just came up with? Yeah, it already exists

That’s OK. App ideas don’t need to be unique to be successful. Instead, focus your efforts on solving one problem well, and helping a specific group of people benefit from it.

In this article, we’re going to discuss an approach to generate great app ideas. It’s called X-for-Y, and it works like this:

  • Calendar scheduling app for dog walkers
  • Live video conferencing app for creative/development shops
  • Group discounts for location independent entrepreneurs

Intriguing, right? Let’s dive in.

  1. How To Find Great App Ideas
  2. The X-for-Y Approach
  3. An App Idea for Everyone?
  4. What’s Your X-for-Y Idea?
  5. Further Reading

How To Find Great App Ideas

Great apps solve one problem well.

The best way to find a great idea for a mobile app, is to find an existing problem and solve/improve it with technology. Next, you help people with that problem to discover your app and benefit from it.

Here’s what you need:

  1. A problem (and a solution to it)
  2. People that have this problem

You’ve got two ways you can go about this:

  1. Find people, ask what their problem is, and solve it for them
  2. Find a problem, research who has it, and solve it for them

Many unsuccessful indie app developers get stuck on these issues:

  • They don’t test and validate the market, i.e. whether people want what they’re selling
  • They stare themselves blind on “unique” app ideas, i.e. “The idea I’m looking for cannot exist, if it exists already it’s worthless”
  • They develop their app idea in an “ivory tower”, without asking real customers for feedback

You might be compelled to build an app right now, and worry about finding users for it later. You can do marketing later, right? NO!

Start marketing your app on Day 1. That’ll get you closer to the people you seek to serve with your app, which gives you an opportunity to learn how they’d use your app. You can use those insights to improve your app ideas.

How?

Let’s say you get the idea to build a video conferencing app. Right now, people work remotely, and you’re in touch with creative/development teams, and they’re having a hard time to stay connected.

OK, let’s use that as input for the X-for-Y approach.

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The X-for-Y Approach

You can generate app ideas with X-for-Y approach. Here’s how it works:

  • The X represents the kind of app you’re building
  • The Y represents who it’s for

Let’s look at a few examples:

X Y
Video conferencing for creative teams
Exercise sharing app for physical therapists
Note-taking app for travel book authors
Broken stuff reporting app for municipalities
Chat app for you and your friends
Sci-fi audiobook app for teenagers
Curated podcast app for entrepreneurs
Booking app for yoga studios
Code mentoring app for coders
Tea timer app for tea lovers
for … ?

See how that works? You’re building an app specifically for a group of people. But it’s not just about finding a niche, there’s more to it.

Each of these categories of apps, such as video conferencing, are already enormous. We’ve got Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams, Apple Facetime, Houseparty, and so on. There’s no need for another video conferencing app, right?

Except for… video conferencing just for creative teams. For dev shops, specially designed. For people who need to work from home, with zero setup. For kids, friendly and no-parents-allowed-here. For teachers and students; an almost classroom-like experience. Pick one.

Because you’re building an app specifically for a group of people, you can tailor the app 100% to their needs. The group you’re building it for becomes deeply ingrained into the app itself. You’re not building a generic app that works for everyone; you’re building a specific app that only works for a small group of people.

An App Idea for Everyone?

Now you’re saying: “For a small group of people? There’s surely not enough people like that!” Shouldn’t you build an app for the largest possible audience? NO!

Building an app for everyone is building an app for no one. Here’s why:

  • When an app is built for everyone, it’s so averaged out it doesn’t appeal to anyone. It’s hard to make a difference for anyone when your app sort-of works for everyone.
  • When an app looks like it’s built for everyone, how will people know it’s for them? How will they know it’ll solve their problem, instead of someone else’s problem?
  • The best app ideas are worth remarking upon. What are users of your app going to tell the others? Being specific helps them talk about your app. It’s easier to be famous to a small group of people vs. everyone.

It’s a trap to think you should make your app ideas appealing to everyone. That’s impossible! Going for the smallest viable audience feels risky. Launching your app to everyone feels safe. Until you find out that there’s a music band that makes hillbilly flamenco, or relaxation music for horses, or Christian fitness music, or … ever heard of the Wellington International Ukelele Orchestra?

What’s Your X-for-Y Idea?

How can you find your own X-for-Y app ideas? We’ll discuss 2 approaches.

First, write down a list of 10 major app categories. Use the list at the top of this article as a starting point. What Big Ideas can you come up with? (This is the X column.)

Then, write down a list of 10 groups of people. Use the list again. What kinds of people do you know? Can you define ’em in groups? Try to focus on so-called psychographics, i.e. based on what people like or want, or how they behave. (This is the Y column.)

Finally, combine every item from X with Y. Yes, you combine each item from column X with each item from column Y. You now have 100 X-for-Y app ideas. Make a shortlist of 5 app ideas that resonate with you.

Alright, let’s discuss that second approach. It’s simple! What are ideas from one “vertical” that haven’t been applied to others?

An example: Groupon, the group discount organizer. It works well for restaurants. Can you do the same for, say, a group of entrepreneurs? That’s what AppSumo does. Interestingly, Noah Kagan, the founder of AppSumo, is now doing the same thing for email. Same idea, same people, different vertical.

The meaning of “vertical” can be anything: industries, business, categories, etcetera. It’s the what; it’s column X. Once you’ve found your group, i.e. column Y, it’s smart to make more apps for them.

Are there any X-for-Y ideas you can come up with?

When you’ve found some promising app ideas, this is a great next step: How To: Market Research For Your App Idea.

Launch your own indie apps

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Sign up for my iOS development course, and learn how to generate revenue by publishing your apps in the App Store.

Further Reading

Awesome! We’ve discussed how you can generate great app ideas using the X-for-Y approach. Here’s the gist of it:

  • The X-for-Y approach involves app ideas for a specific group of people, such as an “booking app” for “pilates studios”
  • A key concept being super specific about who you’re building it for, so no generic ideas that kinda work for everyone (and thus, for no one)
  • Find great app ideas by combining X with Y, or by finding what works in one vertical and then apply it to another

Want to learn more? Check out these resources:

Reinder de Vries

Hi, I'm Reinder.
I help developers play with code.

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Reinder de Vries

Reinder de Vries

Reinder de Vries is a professional iOS developer. He teaches app developers how to build their own apps at LearnAppMaking.com. Since 2009 he has developed a few dozen apps for iOS, worked for global brands and lead development at several startups. When he’s not coding, he enjoys strong espresso and traveling.

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