Photo: Allmy/Shutterstock

How to: Design Smartphone Apps

by Michelle Schusterman Feb 1, 2010
Get started creating and selling apps for the iPhone, Blackberry, and Android smartphones.

The smartphone craze is still going strong, and growing app stores for most operating systems have opened yet another door for travelers looking for ways to live a mobile lifestyle.

From blogging on the road to maintaining your social media ninja-hood, the possibilities for apps are plentiful. But even for an experienced programmer, designing smartphone apps requires taking a few things into consideration.

It’s not your key to riches.

Many play the app development game, few make what could even pass as part-time income from it. You actually might have a better shot at striking it rich as a freelance writer. Hell, just play the lottery instead – better odds.

Download and play with as many apps in your category as possible. Hey, it’s research.

Designing smartphone apps is a great side project for those who have a experience with programming and a lot of creativity. Like a writing career, it takes the right combination of skill, practice, and some luck to turn it into real income.

There IS an app for that.

You have a killer idea for an app. Sweet. Now it’s time to check out the competition, because oh yes, with thousands of Blackberry and Android apps, and the iTunes App Store closing in on infinity, there is something similar out there already. What does your app have to offer that the others don’t? How is it truly innovative?

Just as writers must be readers first, app developers must be app fanatics. Download and play with as many apps in your category as possible. Hey, it’s research.

Pick a platform

Many developers with successful apps started out on one platform, then spread to others when the app sold well.

The iPhone clearly has the most apps by far, although some of them are…well, crap. And plenty of iPhone app developers have some not-so-nice things to say about how Apple runs the store.

However, now might be the time to jump on the iPad development bandwagon while it’s popular – according to CrunchGear, you might help make or break the device.

Blackberry also has a rapidly growing app store, and if you don’t own one yourself, I’ll bet you know at least three people who do. Blackberry users are devoted – they call it CrackBerry for a reason.

And with the release of the shiny new Nexus One, it’s not a bad idea to get in on some Andoid app development either.

The best and most obvious choice is to pick whichever phone you use. Go with what’s comfortable and familiar, not with what you think will sell – because if your app is that bad ass, all three markets will welcome it.

iPhone App Development

First things first: Spend a few days or weeks poking around the iPhone Development Center. Next, hit the books. A few suggested resources:

Beginning iPhone 3 Development


“Assuming only a minimal working knowledge of Objective-C, and written in a friendly, easy-to-follow style, this book offers a complete soup-to-nuts course in iPhone and iPod touch programming.

The book starts with the basics, walking you through the process of downloading and installing Apple’s free iPhone SDK, and then stepping you though the creation of your first simple iPhone application.

From there, you’ll learn to integrate all the interface elements iPhone users have come to know and love, such as buttons, switches, pickers, toolbars, and sliders.”

The Business of iPhone App Development


“The Business of iPhone App Development is a developer’s guide to achieving and managing success right from the start of the design and development process.

This book includes the information to help you, the developer, plan every aspect of your app with an eye toward business success—from design, to implementation, to the importance of early and continued market analysis, and on past launch into support and updates.

And let’s not forget the business of the iTunes App Store itself! This is the book you wish you had read before you launched your first app!”

Blackberry App Development

First things first: Dive into the Blackberry Developer Zone. Next, hit the books. A few suggested resources:

Blackberry Development Fundamentals


“The BlackBerry smartphone is today’s #1 mobile platform for the enterprise and also a huge hit with consumers. Until now, it’s been difficult for programmers to find everything they need to begin developing new applications for BlackBerry devices.

BlackBerry Development Fundamentals is the solution: the first single-source guide to all aspects of development for the BlackBerry platform.

This book thoroughly reviews the BlackBerry’s unique capabilities and limitations, helps you optimize your upfront design choices, and covers native rich-client applications and Web-based mobile applications for both business and consumer environments.”

Advanced Blackberry Development


“With Advanced BlackBerry Development, you’ll learn you how to take advantage of BlackBerry media capabilities, including the camera and video playback.

The book also shows you how to send and receive text and multimedia messages, use powerful cryptography libraries, and connect with the user’s personal and business contacts and calendar.

Not only will you be learning how to use these APIs, but you’ll also be building a program that takes full advantage of them: a wireless media-sharing app. Each chapter’s lessons will be applied by enhancing the app from a prototype to a fully polished program.”

Android App Development

First things first: Study up on The Developer’s Guide for Android. Next, hit the books. A few suggested resources:

Professional Android Application Development


“A hands-on guide to building mobile applications, Professional Android Application Development features concise and compelling examples that show you how to quickly construct real-world mobile applications for Android phones.

Fully up-to-date for version 1.0 of the Android software development kit, it covers all the essential features, and explores the advanced capabilities of Android (including GPS, accelerometers, and background Services) to help you construct increasingly complex, useful, and innovative mobile applications for Android phones.”

Android Application Development: Programming with the Google SDK


“This practical book provides the concepts and code you need to develop software with Android, the open-source platform for cell phones and mobile devices that’s generating enthusiasm across the industry.

Based on the Linux operating system and developed by Google and the Open Handset Alliance, Android has the potential to unite a fragmented mobile market.

Android Application Development introduces this programming environment, and offers you a complete working example that demonstrates Android architectural features and APIs.”

Consider the aftermath

There’s more to this than just designing the app. You need a website, you need a well-written description that will convince people to become customers, you need promotion, you need a good support system.

And as someone who practically downloads an app a day, I’m begging you: be reachable. Discovering there is no website for the developer, or worse, that the website is simply a page with a link back to the app store with nary a contact form or email to be seen…ugh. That dev is off my list.

Your app will probably have bugs the first time around – make sure customers can contact you when there’s a problem.

Figure out the workload

A bigger team doesn’t necessarily mean a better app. I have a few high quality apps I love that I know for a fact were designed by a one-man show.

It’s more about what the app does – some ideas just require a lot more work to carry out effectively. To get your app going, you might need to collaborate.

And if you can handle the app yourself, don’t forget the website, promotional videos and ads, and all-important support I mentioned earlier. If that doesn’t sound like your thing, hire someone that can manage it.

Make sure the price is right

The best advice I can give you is to check out appsfire. In short:

  1. $0.99 is not the key to success.
  2. Quality apps with a comparably high price range make the real money.
  3. If no one complains about the price, it’s probably too low.

So how do you price an app? Fuel Your Apps has a round-up of 9 Must Read Sources on Pricing Your App that you…well, must read.

Like any new business venture, designing smartphone apps takes time and preparation with little to no expectation for financial gain, at least in the beginning. Your time, energy, and creativity will be better spent coming up with something clever and useful than an app so awful it makes news headlines.

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