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How to Build an App in 9-ish Steps

Updated: Apr 10



The Lunk Alarm

“I decided I didn’t want to deal with that crowd, so that’s when I opened the original Planet Fitness club in Sunrise, Florida, in 1993.” Rick Berks. In 1992, Planet Fitness founders Michael and Marc Grondahl acquired a Gold’s Gym franchise in Dover, New Hampshire. Eventually, they closed that location and opened a new gym called Coastal Fitness. In 2002, they purchased the rights to the name Planet Fitness from Rick Berks. Rick Berks got the name from a school project his daughter called “Fitness Planet.” Planet Fitness reports having 2,400 clubs, making it one of the largest fitness franchises by number of members and locations. The idea wasn’t unique, but they managed to have massive success. How was that possible?


If you’ve ever been to Planet Fitness, you may be aware of the air raid siren called the Lunk Alarm. Many people, such as myself, have heard the Lunk Alarm; perhaps a few have had heart attacks. If you are making too much noise, if you drop a weight, it goes off to alert everyone of your lunkiness. Ironic for a “judgement-free zone,” perhaps, but I’ll let you be the judge.


Nonetheless, that is how they distinguished themselves. Rick Berk wasn’t interested in the typical gym crowd, which can be intimidating or feel judgmental for some. So after capitalizing on this concept, Michael and Mark have found massive success in a saturated market.


Whether you agree or not with the marketing, we can all learn a lesson from how to find your target audience and make them feel like you offer them a tailored and unique experience in your app. Because nothing is new under the sun. Everyone has an idea for an app, and most things we can think of have been done. Yet you can still have success in your journey to create an app and find your unique audience. We see new apps break into the market quite frequently and find success. Perhaps you’re curious about how they did it.


1: Competitor Analysis

From studies conducted by PwC companies that perform market analysis can achieve 69% faster growth. The companies that you will analyze no doubt have performed this step with many eyes and hours invested. The goal is to gain insights into these questions:


  • How have your competitors found success?

  • What pain points do consumers have, and how can you target a unique demographic to fix those pain points?

Competitor analysis isn’t necessarily an exact science. There are likely many competitor websites out there for you to analyze, and there are many data aggregates and reports that you could pore over to learn more about consumer behavior.


When you are analyzing competitors, these data aggregates can give you a bird’s-eye view of what your competitors are doing. You can find out things such as monthly volume, average clicks, related keywords, most viewed pages, paid keywords, user dropoff, and a lot more. This is simply one of many dimensions in the depths of competitor analysis. You may also visit competitor sites, log their user work flows, and step into the shoes of a consumer to understand what you can learn from as future guidelines for your own app.


Consumer trends and behavior in the market are also necessary to understand. You may have began to identify some consumer pain points in your competitor analysis. Additional consumer reports and trend analysis will really start to narrow down your target audience. In addition to this many companies conduct their own research.


This can be done with what we call user personas. A user persona is your own creation indicating your ideal users, demographics, behaviors, preferences, and pain points. This is a segment of the current market that your are hedging your bets on and targeting as your audience. This will help shape your app and brand identity. In many cases this will include surveys, interviews, and focus groups in order to gather user feedback for your new app idea that will address their pain points.


So to help you with your journey here are a few tools for analysis:


  • statista — Insights and facts across 170 industries and 150+ countries

  • google trends — Explore what the United States are searching for right now

  • spyfu — SEO marketing suite, PPC analyzer, Historic data, Competitive analysis, Backlink outreach, Unlimited keyword & domain projects, Custom reporting

After gathering all of these insights you’ll need a well documented gameplan. And you’ll want to pick your team wisely.


2: Project Scope

You have an understanding of what consumers are looking for. You know what your competitors are up to. It’s time to put all that together into a game plan for your app. In this next phase, we are detailing our project based on our market research. This is a document that describes your entire app and key players to help achieve it.


A project scope is the roadmap for your app. This is a detailed phase that can take several weeks to achieve. Typically, you are working with multiple people and meticulously planning. Based on what you have understood from the general features of competitor apps while customizing a new experience based on your target audience’s pain points, you are detailing key objectives or app functionality. And naturally, this requires people to achieve it, as well as infrastructure expenses and much more. Here is a list of key areas of interest for your project scope:


  • Project Title — A detailed title of the project.

  • Project Overview — A brief description of the app.

  • Project Objectives — A list of specific measurable objectives that the project aims to achieve.

  • Scoped Items — This is a list of all items that can be completed within the project’s timeline.

  • Out of Scope Items — This is a list of items that may be done later.

  • Deliverables — A list of the tangible or intagible outcomes. This could include things such as digital assets.

  • Project Constraints — Any dependencies on other projects, teams, or external factors that could affect the timeline.

  • Stakeholders — The individuals or groups involved in or impacted by the project.

  • Team — A List of all the people necessary for completing the project. Project Managers, Engineers, Testers etc.

  • Dates — The start date and projected end date.

  • Approvals — Signatures for approval.



The cart before the horse - Brand Positioning

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung was one of the most influential people in psychology. Carl was a close friend and contemporary of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. Carl is credited with founding analytical psychology. Jung developed several key concepts within the realm of analytical psychology. Two that are relevant to the topic of brand positioning are persona and shadow.


It may be tempting to jump right into UX design, but defining your brand is a very important and necessary step for success. This should be a step that you’ve spent a lot of time trying to define. The difference between success and failure often isn’t the quality of a product but the audience and how effective the brand was in being relatable for consumers. So what about persona and shadow, exactly?


Persona is defined as the social face we have as a result of positive feedback from socially acceptable behaviors. This is what we present to the world — a mask of sorts. Shadow is the hidden aspect of our personality that we are trying to suppress. This is a part of ourselves that we often feel conflicted with, having internal struggles. It is interesting that we often find characters who live into their shadow relatable. We often find ourselves drawn to anti-hero-like characters in comics and movies. Something about their whimsicalness and complete disregard for social norms and gray morality makes part of us identify with that.

Who do you think is more popular in the film, Batman or Superman? While Batman is not an antihero, he does live into his shadow much more. We find him making decisions that are morally gray. His character seems so conflicted, and this struggle makes him much more relatable than Superman. And we would find this to be the case with many comic book characters.


Think about some popular brands out there. I remember the first time I ever saw Liquid Death and being completely curious about what it was. And while it’s just water, it immediately gained popularity, and you can even find it in many commercial gyms. What is so special about another brand of water? When you are defining your brand, you should focus on what makes you unique.


Over the past year, I’ve been listening to Chris Do of The Futur. One thing he said that I very much appreciated was that “individuals are trying to be more like corporations, and corporations are trying to be more like individuals.”. Focus on what makes you an individual, which may also be qualities associated with your shadow. Think about some of the things that may be less generic or socially acceptable, and turn these into positive themes within your brand. Think of a few traits or characteristics people may consider negative; turn these into positive brand themes. Find your originality. After you have positioned your brand, you’re ready to realize it digitally.

3: UX Design

From 2012 to 2019, 25 percent of apps downloaded by mobile app users worldwide were only accessed once after download. Roughly 88% of online customers abandon stores while shopping. PWC research found that more than 32% of customers would leave an app after one poor experience.


You, as an aspiring app builder, have likely experienced this yourself. Perhaps you logged into an app that did not look very presentable. It wasn’t clear or intuitive how to get from a to b. There were too many clicks, or the page itself wasn’t constructed in the way you expect based on the industry. Like many things, when we view apps, we are indeed judging the book by its cover. It’s important to understand the process and make a good first impression.


The UX design process can have many iterative steps. Generally, you start the UX process looking for some general inspiration. This is the mood board phase. The purpose of a mood board is to inspire, evoke emotions, and convey a specific style or atmosphere for your app and brand. It serves as a reference point for designers and clients to ensure there’s a mutual understanding of the visual direction of a project. This matters because it is important to have consistency in the look and feel of your app as it grows.



Next, it is important to define a general hierarchy of the site’s information. This is called an information architecture. More specifically, this refers to the organization, structuring, and labeling of content in an effective and sustainable way. The goal of information architecture is to help users find information and complete tasks efficiently by creating a clear structure for the information presented in your app. Often times, this can actually correspond to your app’s navigation and the features of each screen.



That hierarchy of information allows you to start to scaffold out the general structure of your app’s screens or wireframing. A wireframe, more specifically, is a low-fidelity, simplified outline of an app screen. It’s a blueprint that represents the skeletal framework of your app, detailing the basic structure, functionality, and content placement without getting into the design details such as colors or actual images.



After going through a few iterations and getting feedback on wireframes, it’s essential to create mockups. This is the next step where you fill in the specific content for your app, colors, and themes. There can be several stages to creating mockups, such as low-fidelity, high-fidelity, and final mockups. This step is important because your engineers will turn these mockups into a functioning app. Ultimately, mockups become a high-fidelity representation of your product design used to demonstrate the final appearance of the app.



Further user research is often performed with mockups. This can be referred to as user testing, where you will create surveys based on your mockups and gain information about how your potential consumers feel about your new app.

4: Project Management

Early in my development career, I remember working for a bond company as a contractor. On day one, after getting a bit of onboarding, I recall speaking with one of the project managers.


Project Manager: “Hey, how’s it going? We’re excited to have you here. We have a lot of work to get done and a short period of time to get it done.”


Me: “Awesome. I’m looking forward to it. So how do you guys do your project management?”


Project Manager: “Oh, we do scrum.”


Me: “Great, what ceremonies do I need to be invited to?”


Project Manager: “We just do standups.”


Me: “Scrum, I do not think that word means what you think it means.”


Your project scope is really just an overview of your app, and you have also ironed out details for budgeting and team members. You still need to break down the features of your app with specific details on how they should behave in good scenarios as well as bad scenarios. You need to understand all the technology required to create your app and whether it is available or not. You need a project management plan. I’ve often worked with Agile, so I’ll speak about it here. But there are many viable options for planning and executing on your project scope objectives.


Agile development is a methodology used in software development and project management that emphasizes flexibility, collaboration, customer feedback, and rapid iteration. In Scrum, a type of agile I’ve used frequently, your project is broken down into small, manageable units called sprints, typically lasting two weeks. Each sprint involves a cross-functional team working through a full software development cycle, including planning, coding, testing, and review, which results in a working product increment.


Scrum prefers communication over documentation. This can have ceremonies like the infamous standup, sprint planning, sprint retro, grooming, and review meetings, all of which help keep the team aligned on the goals for the sprint.


The customer or end-user can also be heavily involved in this process. By involving the customer in the planning, review, and feedback loops, the development team can make adjustments and improvements to the product in real-time, ensuring that the final product meets the customer’s needs and expectations.


This may or may not work for you, and in recent years, there has been controversy around Agile. Be flexible, and only adopt the project management processes and tools that you need to get your app out there.



5: Hiring your talent

Hiring professionals costs a lot, hiring amateurs costs more. Knight Capital Group was an American global financial services firm engaging in market making, electronic execution, and institutional sales and trading. In 2012, Knight was the largest trader in U.S. equities, with a market share of around 17 percent on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) as well as on the Nasdaq Stock Market. Knight’s Electronic Trading Group (ETG) managed an average daily trading volume of more than 3.3 billion trades, trading over $21 billion daily.


On the morning of August 1, 2012, a minor mistake by an engineer who forgot to copy their new Retail Liquidity Program to one of their 8 servers cost the company 440,000,000 in minutes. That amateur mistake, which was easily found in hindsight, caused the system to generate a massive number of unintended stock orders. For 212 incoming parent orders processed by this defective code, Knight Capital sent millions of child orders, causing 4 million executions in 154 stocks for more than 387 million shares in the first hour, for a loss of approximately $7 billion dollars.


It’s important to try to find expert talent for your early development phases. It may seem tempting to hire amateur or cheap labor but that will cost you in the long term. As the term goes, you get what you pay for. In my experience I have worked with companies that could not rapidly release new features. Sometimes an app would become so brittle and hard to update that it would take twice as much time to develop a feature, and much longer to properly test the app before releasing it to users.


The issue? Apps had very poor code quality and either weren’t testable or couldn’t be properly tested within the time required to complete the feature. As a result in some cases app defects became new features. This was not new functionality to create something new that users would enjoy. This was recreating something existing altogether so that it would function properly. An not being visually pleasing isn’t the only reason a consumer might walk away from your app after one bad experience.


Spending a little more on highly skilled engineers will allow a lot of foresight and good planning in your app. Potential issues will be found much earlier. From the beginning, your app will be created to be maintainable and extendable with modularity. All of this means it will be easier for new engineers to work rapidly on your codebase on new features rather than spending half of their time fixing defects.


6: Marketing

Marketing is the name of the game. While I can’t claim to be much of a marketing expert, I have learned some interesting things about marketing over the past year listening to Chris Do of The Futur. One thing he said that I very much appreciated was that “individuals are trying to be more like corporations, and corporations are trying to be more like individuals.”. Email campaigns, social media, event promotions, partnerships and SEO — you’ll be spending a lot of time doing all of these things. I can’t claim to be too much of an expert in these areas to give you specific advice. What I can say is: be yourself and be vulnerable to your audience.


7: Post Launch Analysis

After your team has put your app together and it has launched, you’ll want to start gathering data to help determine if you’re meeting your goals. In this stage, you want to track user behavior with analytics software. This is the big brother is watching you step. You want to start to understand if your hypothesis was correct and if you’re gaining any traction with your targeted demographic.


Gathering user analytics is crucial for enhancing the understanding of how users interact with your app and providing actionable insights through KPIs to help improve their experience. This can include apps such as Google Analytics, Amplitude, and Optimizely.

This step is also important because it can help you to understand what may be most profitable to focus on next for your app’s features. These apps will be able to offer large amounts of data with visualizations for you to analyze user trends. Naturally further user testing comes next.


A/B testing is the next step. This is a way to compare different versions of the same feature — an experiment and a control — to determine which one performs better. This is fundamental for a data-driven decision-making approach, which can be invaluable for improving the user experience in your app and increasing conversions. You don’t want to go crazy testing every single thing in your app. This is generally reserved for larger pieces of functionality. An A/B test might be something as simple as testing app workflows. Did your app experience higher conversions with a sign-in process after checkout as an experiment? Or did your app experience higher conversion with a sign-in when users load up your app? Did users spend more time in the store with the experimentation of your new marketing tiles? Or did users spend more time in the store with the control of your existing marketing layout?


Finally, you also want to monitor application performance with monitoring software such as Datadog or others. Your application’s health is very important. Slow performance, application crashes, and other issues can make you lose visitors and customers very quickly. Application monitoring software will make you aware of these issues so that you can quickly make a game plan to roll out defect fixes and performance enhancements.



8: Scaling for the Future

A wise man once said, “Back then, they didn’t want me; now that I’m hot, they all on me!” If you’re finding success and getting engagement, you may find that you need additional infrastructure to maintain quality performance for your customers. If you’re a gamer like me, I have a great example for you. Hell Divers 2, a third-person squad-based shooter created by Arrow Head Studios weeks after launch, had to limit its concurrent users to 440,000. When you’re doing your numbers, you don’t want to be limited by your server capacity.


Scaling up infrastructure is very common, especially because you likely budgeted a specific amount for the engagement that you anticipated. This is where scalability within your app’s architecture matters. App scalability refers to an application’s ability to handle increasing volumes of work or its potential to accommodate growth without compromising performance.


Scalability is a crucial aspect of app development and architecture. Here are just a few ways you might scale your app for better performance:


  • Horizontal Scaling — Adding more machines or instance to your pool of resources.

  • Vertical Scaling — Adding more CPUs, RAM and storage to your existing servers.

  • Load Balancing — Distribute incoming network traffic across mulitiple servers.

  • Caching — Storing copies of files or results of expensive computations in temporary memory.

  • Database Optimizations — Improve Database query speeds, shard databases into smaller pieces, implement read replicas.

App crashes and poor performance can significantly reduce revenue for that time period. To put that into perspective, one research project conducted at Wayfair, the furniture and home goods online giant, concluded that “the business impact of a crash has shown that they can reduce revenue from engaged users by 89%, inducing a period of reduced user engagement that does not fully recover.”


Application availability may also be another important piece of non-functioning architecture. You may want to ensure that no matter what unexpected outages may occur or natural disasters, your app has 100% uptime. This is achieved with Kubernetes. In my experience you can think of this as a Rube Goldberg machine that controls a shell game.


9: Case Studies

A case study is something of a testimonial. This may or may not be necessary, depending on your app or the services that you are offering. You can think of a case study as a bit of a resume for your app. These can be in-depth studies for different customers on how your app has improved their operations. Often, these will have before-and-after stories. These are ways to create credibility for your initial hypothesis, the reason why you created this app.


After using your app, users have noticed benefits and can detail these with statistics and other information. These can take a lot of time and coordination. It can also include content such as short videos and images. And it can be worth the investment to help improve your reach and marketing.


Oh Yeah…

At the outset, we learned a bit about the power of finding your unique audience and how a gym that offers pizza and donuts stands out as one of the most successful gyms out there. Everyone has good ideas, but it is execution, planning, attention to detail, and teamwork that make the difference in success. I have worked as a software engineer for 13 years. I have seen success and failure. I’ve worked on maintaining apps; I’ve worked on making massive new features for apps; I’ve created entire apps from scratch; and I’ve worked in each of these steps hand in hand with CTOs and CEOs. There are just a few of my learnings, and if you want to build an app that helps solve issues for everyday people, then I want you to be successful. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me here at prphilosphy.com.



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