Startup Resources
August 6, 2014 by Guest Blogger

By Nicholas Wright, co-founder and CEO of AppInstruct

When you’re building an app, it can feel like you’re on an adrenaline-fueled rush to the app store. But if you’re serious about your app, you need to slow down: I’ve learned that creating and testing a prototype is a key step.

I promise you, it’s worth the time and effort you’ll spend building it.

In previous posts, I’ve addressed some of the most common questions people have when creating a mobile app — especially the many technical aspects.

But getting your app from concept to launch isn’t just a coding exercise: if you ignore the tried and tested means of building a new software product, the chances you’ll be successful quickly drop.

As I explain below, the prototyping process has been critical for my own company as we get ready to launch our newest application.

What is a mobile app prototype?

A prototype is a version of your application that allows you to show and test its main functions, in the leanest — i.e. involving the least time and cost — way possible.

It’s similar in concept to that of the minimum viable product (MVP), which Eric Ries has popularized over the last few years through the “Lean Startup” movement.

However, unlike an MVP, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to openly test your prototype with your intended market — especially if you’re designing for iOS, where Apple must review and approve your app before it can be circulated.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t test your prototype, just that you’ll probably have to work with a small sample size. You may be limited to your product team, or you can organize a user experience testing day (or days): bring in small groups (5-10 people) of potential users and get their feedback within a controlled environment.

Why a prototype is an important part of app development

A lot of people think making a mobile app is quick, easy and cheap. If so, why go through the trouble of creating and testing a prototype?

The truth is that “quick, easy and cheap” is a myth. Mobile apps are unquestionably a growth market, one that many predict could exceed the size and scope of the Internet. One day, there may be frameworks like WordPress and Twitter Bootstrap to make the process easier — but not yet.

Today, mobile apps are harder to make than websites and there’s heavy competition. To have a realistic hope of success, you need to go through the process in a professional manner; anything less can be an easy way for your efforts to flop.

How a prototype saved our mobile app

We’re in the process of building an app and, knowing the value of testing, we developed a prototype in about six weeks. There was no formal designer input, the developers just built according to a set of functions and a look and feel that I specified. It used open source code and had no cost, beyond time and effort.

What did that six weeks of work earn us?

First, we quickly learned that two parts of the user experience just didn’t work when tested on the iPhone. It was so obvious that they didn’t work, we didn’t need the input or cost from a more formal testing day.

Because we knew this early on, working with a design agency and iOS developer to build the version that will eventually hit the app store has been a much more efficient process.

The second benefit is a little less obvious, but arguably more valuable.

With our prototype, we had the iPhone app hooked up to a server backend, which let users send messages to each other within a test environment. (We used HockeyApp, but testing may be about to become easier; Apple recently purchased another popular third-party testing app, Testflight, and announced that it will be built into iOS 8.)

The prototype allowed us to move from conceptual idea to tangible product; we jumped into creating an app we could get to market. We engaged a professional design team and started building the iOS app from scratch.

In fact, we stopped thinking about the prototype — until investors began asking to see the app’s messaging in action.

Having a prototype isn’t just a product discovery tool for your team, it can serve a valuable purpose in bringing your idea to life for potential investors. It could be the most important promotional tool you possess — of even more worth than the fabled pitch deck.

With the benefit of hindsight, I’d recommend two things:

  • Once you start building your actual app, make sure your development process requires that your app be periodically attached to a server backend and tested.
  • Never disregard your prototype.

To learn more about prototyping and the other critical aspects that go into designing, building and launching an app successfully, AppInstruct’s online course provides all the most critical elements you need to learn how to make an app.

Have a question about creating your own app? Post it in the comments below; we might be able to answer it in an upcoming blog post.

Nicholas Wright

Co-founder and CEO of AppInstruct

Nicholas Wright is co-founder and CEO of AppInstruct, which provides courses on how to create an app. He is actively involved in the startup space, mentoring other founders with mobile, fundraising, and legal advice. Nic’s favorite app is WhatsApp, which allows him to remain in contact with family in America and England.

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