How-To: 9 Quick Tips To Build Your First Killer App

Written by: Reinder de Vries, December 7 2015, in Guide, Q&A

Do you have an app idea but no clue how to get started?

Learning how to build your own apps can be intimidating at first, but once you get started it’s incredibly easy.

In this blog post I’ve set out 9 tips and best practices on getting started with your app. It’s a step-by-step framework for getting from idea to app!

Each of the 9 tips and best practices are applicable, whether you’re just starting out with apps or more experienced. It doesn’t matter if you’re looking to learn iPhone development, or you want to just design your own app – these tips will help you, definitely!

A quick overview:

  1. What tools do you need to build apps?
  2. How can you meet like-minded app makers?
  3. No million dollar app idea has a poor design
  4. Find out what your target audience wants
  5. Discover the best tools for the job
  6. Try out your app with low-tech pen and paper
  7. Test your app with beta testers
  8. Don’t try to be unique!
  9. Leverage your app’s traction with App Store Optimization

NOTE: Don’t miss the free “Get Started With Your App Idea” guide at the end of this post.

1. What Tools Do You Need To Build Apps?

iPhone apps are made with these tools:

  • Xcode and Interface Builder. Both are Mac-only software programs you use to code and build your app.
  • iTunes Connect and the Apple Developer Program. iTunes Connect is used to manage your app in the App Store. Purchasing the Developer Program ($ 99 a year) is required before you can do so; it’s a license. Don’t worry: you can run your app on your iPhone without the Developer Program!
  • Swift. That’s the language you use to code apps. Learning how to code is incredibly easy – you don’t need to be a math prodigy. Several online websites offer courses on learning how to code, including the Pro Course.

Who’s using these tools, then?

2. How Can You Meet Like-Minded App Makers?

Networking is important for any business, including your business as an aspiring app maker. is active in any city. It’s a platform for get-togethers on any topic you can imagine: cooking, foreign languages, beer tasting, graphic design, board games and of course… building apps! One of the more popular iPhone and app making meetups is CocoaHeads, active in over 100 cities around the globe.

At a meetup you can meet other app developers and marketers. Usually a meetup has a formal presentation or keynote and informal networking after the keynote.

Many meetups also host hackathons: a day or weekend to work on your own project in a co-working environment or to invent something new with other hackers (the good kind).

Hackatons help you to refine your app making skills, discover new ways of building your projects, and meet like-minded people. But above all: it’s incredibly fun and exciting!

Multiple million dollar apps started at a hackaton…

3. No Million Dollar App Idea Has A Poor Design

It’s true: would you install an app that has a poorly designed graphics? Design matters!

It’s often said that coders aren’t good designers, and designers aren’t good coders. However, the fact that many people specialize in just one thing, doesn’t mean they only must do that one thing!

As an app maker you can learn anything, be it marketing, programming or design. You live in a world of abundance, where it’s easier than ever to pick up a new skill online. Many websites are devoted to teaching you how to become a master of your craft.

A coder’s superpower is analytical thinking and solving problems. Designers’ superpowers are creativity and the ability to see the world through the eyes of a user. Why wouldn’t you mix the two?

Make sure you learn about design, and not only about programming – and vice versa. A successful app maker is proficient in three disciplines: coding, design, and marketing.

Speaking about marketing…

4. Find Out What Your Target Audience Wants And Iterate Towards It

Ideation, validation and iteration are key to your app’s success. Here’s why.

Back when I still studied we worked in group projects as part of the curriculum. Usually we would apply the management method known as “Waterfall Management”.

It goes like this:

  • You get started on the project
  • The designer in you starts making up wild designs
  • The coder in you starts coding a cool feature of the app
  • The marketer in you starts dreaming up assumptions and future app deals

You don’t manage your time, prioritize features and everything you do is based on possibly false assumptions. That’s no way to build a successful app business!

The proper way to run your own app project is this:

  • First, start with an initial idea or problem you want to solve. Ideally, you find your target audience first and then survey them for potential app ideas second. You base your app idea of off a solution to a problem. This step is called ideation.
  • Then, you build a simple sales page or product offer. You put it in front of your audience (with content marketing, advertising, outreach, etcetera) and measure how your potential customers respond. Are they signing up for your offer or do you need to refine your app idea? This step is called validation.
  • Finally, if the validation is a success, you start working on the actual app itself. Build your way from mockup to graphic design to development to publishing your app.

Don’t start building “blind” without testing what your market wants first. It’s a waste to spend time on building an app no one wants! Yet “Build it and they will come” is a popular myth among beginner app makers.

When you’ve built the first iteration of your app, you start with step one again. Find out what your current and potential customers want, and then build it. This way you don’t have to build a feature-heavy app before you get some traction, which greatly reduces the investment you need to make before you see results.

You can reduce the time you spend on building your app even more by using the right tools for the job.

An App Sales Page

An App Sales Page

If you like this post… you’ll love this free video guide… check it out below.

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5. Discover The Best Tools For The Job

When you walk into a craftman’s workshop, what do you see? All kinds of tools and material, carefully laid out in an organized system. When the craftsman isn’t working, he keeps is shop clean and tidy. Moreover, he doesn’t use a hammer to get screws into a wall, right?

Even though you have a digital workshop, it doesn’t mean your workshop shouldn’t be kept neat and clean. The fact that you’re starting out with apps for the first time, shouldn’t mean you’re “just winging it”. Discover and use the right tools!

Some ideas:

  • Use Balsamiq Mockups to create a mockup, a rough sketch, of your app.
  • Get Sketch to graphically design your app’s user interface. Big plus: it’s much cheaper than Photoshop!
  • Begin with a user interface template, instead of starting your design from scratch. Download these free UI kits: Stark UI, iOS 9 GUI for iPhone by Facebook, NOW UI Kit by Invision.
  • Instead of building a custom back-en, hit the ground running with Parse, a cloud-based data storage provider. Oh, and they’ve got Push Notifications too!

Scout around to discover new tools. There’s always something out there that makes your job easier.

It’s said that Google employees get to spend 1/5th of their time on personal projects. Why doesn’t an app maker do the same? Spend some time during your weekend to discover and try out new technology.

It’s not all high-tech, though…

6. Try Your App With Low-Tech Pen And Paper

OK, this is actually a lot of fun to do.

Did you build a mockup of your app? Print it out on a big sheet of paper (A3 or bigger) and cut out all the individual screens and lay them out on your desk.

Then, do this:

  1. Find the first screen of your app; it’s the user interface your app’s user sees first.
  2. Tap on a button or UI element of the screen with your finger. Yes, it’s imaginary! Come on, tap it, try it out…
  3. What happens now? You, the user, is most likely taken to another screen. Move over to that screen on your desk, and tap on another UI element. What happens now?
  4. Continue until you’ve played out all the screens of your app.

So, what did you just do? You’ve effectively played out the flow of your app with a technique that’s called paper prototyping. You’re literally making an app out of paper. It doesn’t work, but you can make it work with your imagination.

This exercise is great for optimizing parts of the flow of your app. Although the exercise happens in your mind, it’s incredibly real to see your app played out in reality.

Don’t want to use paper? Most mockup tools, including Balsamiq Mockups, have a feature to make on-screen mocked-up buttons clickable.

Oh, and it’s fun to try your paper app with friends, colleagues, and even your app’s financial investors…

7. Test Your App With Beta Testers

Sometimes your app isn’t used in the way you intended.

Humans can be weird and quirky. Although you designed your app with the most care and thoughtfulness, some users just don’t “get it”. Right?

No, on the contrary. You don’t get it!

If you didn’t test your app with real-life users, you cannot be sure your users understand how your app works! It’s not a disaster, though.

It’s never too late to test and optimize. Gather friends, colleagues and family and put your iPhone in front of them. Say you want to test your app with them. Launch your app, but don’t say anything about it.

Watch closely and make notes. You can record the testing session on camera or ask your test subject to speak their thoughts out loud during testing. Your goal is to get an understanding of how your users use your app, and if they understand it’s purpose and user interfaces.

Look for the following two “mistakes”:

  • Quick fixes. What’s easy to fix and doesn’t take too much time?
  • Obvious fixes. What mistakes make your jaw drop, say “Aha!”, or face-palm?

Why are they clicking there and not there!? Testing your app definitely makes it a better product.

Speaking about making the best app ever…

8. Don’t Try To Make A Unique App

Creating a unique app is the bees knees, the pinnacle of perfection.

When you create a unique product, customers will flock to you and go crazy begging you to sell them your app. It’s what they say: be remarkable, and people will see you. Right?

Sure, they’ll see you.

Have you ever bought a purple cow just because you saw one?

Being unique and remarkable might get a potential customer interested in you, but it won’t convince them your app is what they need. Great ideas aren’t based on uniqueness, but on usability and an end benefit for your customers.

An inventor once made a wireless kettle, the iKettle. You can control it with your smartphone; set the temperature, and even schedule it to automatically turn on in the morning.

This is what it doesn’t do:

  • Pour itself into a cup and make tea.
  • Walk to your bedroom, instead of you to the kettle.
  • Put water into the kettle before boiling.

Yes, that’s right! It doesn’t really solve anything! The only problem it solves is turning on the kettle, which is an action that literally takes one second to do.

The iKettle is extremely unique: no one has thought of it, and no one has made one before it was invented. Unfortunately for the makers, no one wants it either because it has no real use. The pain point it solves isn’t worth the $ 100 price tag.

Yes, you’re paying $ 100 to get out of bed in the morning because your WiFi-enabled kettle is done boiling water you put into it yourself…

Don’t try to create a unique product. Invent an app your customers can benefit from, a product they want to use. Solve a problem, instead of desperately attempting to create something no one has ever seen before.

Then, assuming you’ve gained traction

A Purple Cow by Richard Elzey

A Purple Cow by Richard Elzey

9. Leverage Your App’s Traction With App Store Optimization

Every day 300+ new apps get published in the App Store. All the app stores together hold over 4 million apps.

4.000.000 apps fighting over a user’s attention…

The majority of those apps does not have one single rating or review. These apps are called app rot, and you do not want to become one of them.

The App Store is a full and very crowded place. Every app, useful or not, is preying on the attention of potential users.

With App Store Optimization (ASO) you can stand out from that crowd. Using ASO tactics and strategies, you can speak to your target audience in a clearer voice. Moreover, with ASO you can find out what tactics convert into paying customers.

Ideas to get started:

  • Pick a good name for your app and create an identifiable icon for your app. The best app names are short, memorable, and include a keyword that describes your app’s purpose.
  • Create good app screenshots. The App Store search results page shows two screenshots for your app, so make them count. Make sure to include a caption above the screenshot that highlights a pain point and your app’s solution for it.
  • Write a compelling App Page description and do keyword research into the kind of words your users use and search for. One of the best tools for ASO is AppAnnie.

Recap: What’s Your Next Step?

Turn your app idea into a profitable business. Here’s a quick recap on how to get started:

  1. What tools do you need for the job? Start with Xcode and Swift.
  2. How can you meet like-minded app makers? Find a meetup with
  3. Make a stunningly beautiful app design!
  4. Don’t forget to validate your app idea. Is this what your users want?
  5. Discover the best tools and save time with done-for-you templates.
  6. Try out your app with the low-tech pen and paper exercise.
  7. Put your app in front of beta testers to find out what doesn’t work.
  8. Don’t try to make a unique app!
  9. Leverage your app’s traction with App Store Optimization.

Now that you’ve set up a solid plan for crushing it in the App Store, what about building your first app for iPhone?

If you like this post… you’ll love this free guide… check it out below.

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Written By: Reinder de Vries

Reinder de Vries is an indie app maker who teaches aspiring app developers and marketers how to build their own apps at He has developed 50+ apps and his code is used by millions of users all over the globe. When he’s not coding, he enjoys strong espresso and traveling.

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