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The 3 Ingredients of Successful iPhone Apps

March 5th, 2011 Jeremy Jeremy

Judging by the response to my recent article for UX Magazine entitled, “10 Surefire ways to Screw Up Your iPhone app“, I figured a lot of folks may also be interested in ways to actually not fail or, in a word, succeed in the App Store. The title of this article is risky, especially coming from a punk 20 year old kid. Presumptuous at best, dubious link-bait at worst. While the link-bait part is true, I don’t presume to know the infallible recipe for success in the App Store. I did, however, start this blog almost two years ago with the express purpose of finding and sharing “how to build successful iPhone apps” so I think it appropriate that my first iDevBlogADay post summarize what I have learned so far. Fair enough? Let’s go.

Success, eh?

What is success? Angry Birds was a success. Camera+, definitely. Yes, it is possible for an indie developer to make a million dollars on the app store — Redlaser is another good example (check out my interview with them) — but it just doesn’t happen that often so we shouldn’t realistically set our expectations that high.

To me, say I put in 300 hours to make an app; I’ll call it a success if I make over $23,000 in the first year.

Big point: that number is substantially less than what I could make doing client work for 300 hours so why is it still a success?

1. I personally don’t really need to make $100-$150/hr (the going contract rate) to live on.

2. Making your own app is a million times funner than making someone else’s. Greater risks. Greater rewards.

3. The non-monetary benefits of making your own app are much greater than making someone else’s because the success of the app is attributed directly to you and not some random company.

Example: Grades didn’t make a million dollars but I made enough to buy a decent used car. Hey, that’s cool but the non-monetary rewards were much greater: getting to write for UX Magazine, being interviewed in an O’Reilly book, getting featured in the Charlotte Observer and on the App Store, running into professors and students at my school who love the app, and multiplying what I can charge for client work.

In a word, street cred. It makes it easier to succeed next time around on a larger scale. What does success mean to you? Please comment.

3 ingredients for success

I’m not going to elaborate here but my formula goes something like this: great idea + exceptional design + make-your-own-splash marketing = success. Not necessarily smash success, but the kind of success we just talked about.

A few words on each.

1. Great Idea

Without a good idea, nothing matters. You fail. A good idea is one that meets a specific and targeted need. It doesn’t have to be for everybody but it has to have either a large target audience or an audience that is willing to pay more for the functionality you provide. Do your research. Don’t enter a competitive market unless you can differentiate significantly on the design and quality of the app. Simple ideas are best. The value has to be apparent in one sentence.

2. Exceptional Design

p.s. The reason I'm using my own app as an example is that I'm too lazy to go out and find better images at the moment

p.s. I use my own app as an example due to laziness.

There are thousands of apps coming out every week. That’s okay. Most of them don’t go the extra mile (or thousand miles) on the design. If you do so, you can stand out. Don’t compromise on this. Be sure you’ve got the design talent. Sweat every detail. Do usability testing. Go beyond usable into the realm of fun, if appropriate. Give your app a personality — the colors, the metaphors, the error messages — it’s these things that make folks fans. And it’s gotta be pretty. Apple won’t feature an ugly app.

3. Make-your-own-splash marketing

You don’t necessarily have to do all the work yourself. If you make your own splash (and you’ve got a great idea and exceptional design), Apple will notice and may very well make you a bigger splash. That’s the goal. But Apple won’t notice you unless you make some waves yourself. The launch is crazy crucial. Apple’s ranking algorithm is based on the past three or four days of downloads. That means that you want all your big boosts concentrated into that first four day period so that you can push your app up the charts before losing momentum. That means that you’ve gotta have a big launch, which means you’ve gotta have a big build-up. As an indie developer you can use Twitter, blog, and attend conferences like SXSW or 360iDev to build connections with other developers and press. These will be crucial for a big launch. Build a fan base with a pre-launch sneak peek website and a massive beta test. Marketing is not something you can push to the end — by then it’s too late. Check out the marketing chapter in App Savvy for some great tips (disclosure: I was a technical reviewer and was interviewed in the same chapter). Given the first two variables, marketing will be easy. If the idea is a dud or the design is lame, no amount of marketing is going to help much.

Doing these three things is REALLY hard. Most apps don’t make it. It’s not impossible though and it’s worth the effort. Also, I wouldn’t say this necessarily applies to games, depending on what you include in the word, “design”. I’ll talk more in detail about these ingredients later. In the mean time, please feel free to disagree and discuss in the comments — maybe we’ll learn something more.


So pretty much all the people I’ve ever wanted to meet are going to be in Austin Texas starting Thursday so I’ma go over there with my video camera and pick their brains. I’ve already arranged an interview with one pretty cool Guy after his keynote and I’m lining up some more. All in the spirit of sharing what I learn about building successful iPhone apps and getting you to subscribe to my blog. Right now.

Coming to Austin? @ me on Twitter and maybe we can meet up (and if you’ve got some cool iOS story or advice to share, you might just end up on this blog)!

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