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Hits By Design

by Phill Ryu
March 9, 201116 comments

Royal Flush

We are now nearing three years into a post-App Store world, and the market has crystallized into a largely hit-driven business where most of the wealth is clustered near the top of the charts. On one end you have total one-hit wonders and jackpot apps that appeared at exactly the right time and place, blew up, and disappeared. On the other end you have massively funded companies like Tapulous and Yahoo simply buying up tens of thousands of downloads with services like Tapjoy, or EA staging and massively promoting huge sales and steamrolling into the charts. I think a lot of people are starting to wonder if there’s a sustainable middle ground, where smaller indie studios and one-man teams can produce modest hit apps with any consistency, and without huge resources for marketing.

The reality is the gold rush days of the App Store are long over – that’s not to say there isn’t loads of gold still locked up in the hills, it’s just all the easy gold deposits have been scoured and panned for and found. The market has matured, and App Store customers’ tastes and demands have grown more sophisticated. Success stories these days tend to be of hard earned fortunes and corporate bought victories instead of the parade of indie lottery-winner stories we heard again and again during the App Store’s early days.

You’ve likely been given loads of advice on hedging for success:

  • “Make an app you’d use everyday.”
  • “If it’s good just put it out there and it’ll float.”
  • “Just make something cool.”
  • “Look for a popular app and do it nicer.”

There’s some truth to these sayings but I think what it boils down to is something a little more abstract.

What it really is about is systematically reducing your dependence on luck by building for the audience, and doing absolutely everything you can to improve your app’s chances. And the most influential window for tweaking your luck is right at the beginning, as you go over your available app ideas and pick the one you’re going to gamble with. (Make no mistake, this is high stakes gambling, just with some control over the odds, and as indies you can’t really afford to lose a big hand.)

I think for many developers, selecting a very commercial idea is in itself a vague and difficult decision. And when you’re not exactly sure how bankable your app idea is, you tend to wager on it conservatively and timidly, in turn making it less cool, less shiny, and reducing its chances of success. In an ideal world, you would look at your app ideas, grade their chances of commercial success with a cool eye, pick the one with the best prospects, and wager on it more heavily, betting with confidence instead of trepidation.

The App Idea Quiz

What I’ve done here to help with that decision is try to distill down my years of experience launching (mostly) successful or hit products, and hell, even factoring in the ones that flopped, into a sort of self-quiz for your app ideas on their viability and chances of commercial success. It’s nothing fancy – just a one-page PDF that you can print out and fill out random ideas on to help you pick your winner. There are ten criteria to score, with each being (in my opinion) an important piece of a successful App Store app.

App Idea Quiz
AppIdeaQuiz.pdf

The gist of it is, if your app idea scores really high, and if you are confident you have the resources and talent to execute and nail it, go for it! And go for it big. If something scores a middling rating, try improving the idea or ditch it and wait for something better.

A couple words of warning: Most of these categories are at least somewhat subjective, and require an accurate self-assessment of things like your resources, talents, and how well you know Apple’s tastes in apps to feature. (This sounds incredibly vague, but Apple does have very specific tastes for polished interfaces, strong style and broadly accessible apps.) You may want to pitch your idea to a couple friends or business partners and have them fill this out as well, or just use it as a rough guide to judge the relative merits of several of your ideas.

That having been said, hopefully it works as a useful quick checklist to work through and evaluate at your app idea’s commercial prospects quickly and comprehensively.

If there’s an end take-away, it’s this: You’ll probably be sweating months of hard work into your app, investing thousands of dollars of your time and money, and enjoying countless sleepless nights once the app is out, stressing out over charting and post-launch marketing. So before you start on the hard part (that would be execution) and go all-in, make sure your app idea is rock solid from all angles. You’ll thank me later.

PS, If you’re in Austin this week for SXSW: Interactive, be sure to stop by the App Savvy – Think First, Code Later workshop Sunday morning! I’ll be there with organizer and O’Reilly author Ken Yarmosh and fellow interviewees Natalia Luckyanova of Imangi Studios, David Barnard of App Cubby, and Chris Brown of Millennial Media, talking about the app idea brainstorming process and how to not only come up with lots of neat app ideas, but also pick the right one to gamble on. (And if you attend the workshop, make sure to stop by and say hi afterwards! I’d love to meet you guys.)


tap tap tap is a leading iPhone and iPad app developer and publisher.

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Who linked to this

16 comments

  1. lekkerdingy
    12:13pm, March 9, 2011

    talking about ideas foe excellent apps: looking at the above app icons you guys only have released updates for Camera+ and Voices.

    Digg is gone, Classics and Convert haven’t been updated for months. No bashing but it is really pity for latter 2 apps.

  2. Phill Ryu
    12:16pm, March 9, 2011

    Email me at phillryu@me.com with your UDID if you’d like a private retina display build of Classics with a few new books as well. Kaz and I aren’t sure if we’ll ever release this, as the app and work on Classics 2 was discontinued after the release of iBooks.

    Convert 2.0 is on its way.

  3. sami
    1:05pm, March 9, 2011

    Thanks a lot for this helpful post.

  4. Todd
    2:15pm, March 9, 2011

    This is good stuff. I think some more discussion and direction around each question would be helpful for people new to this type of exercise (most devs, sadly). More of this type of guidance: Apple has a strong preference for “polished interfaces, strong style and broadly accessible apps”

  5. Paul Zimmer
    2:41pm, March 9, 2011

    Hi Phill,
    This is an amazingly pertinent post for me (given that Apple just featured us and we hit #3 briefly) as we try to sort out which direction to go with our next app, or whether to build it at all. Thanks a bunch for taking the time to write the quiz (I gave BallFallDown Deluxe an 84, by the way ;)

  6. Jeremy Olson
    2:57pm, March 9, 2011

    Excellent post. Some would have us believe success on the App Store is all about luck. It’s not. Of course there is some amount of “luck” involved but if your app really does score high on this quiz (minus personal bias inflation), and you have the skill and patience to sweat the execution to match those ideals, and you follow some basic marketing principles given in books like App Savvy, your chances as an indie are much, much better than most. It’s hard but not impossible.

    Thanks so much, Phil, for the quiz - I will definitely be using it and recommending it to others. Looking forward to seeing you at SXSW.

  7. @millsustwo
    3:35pm, March 9, 2011

    I’d say chances of an app making more money than it cost to create is about 0.05% these days.

  8. Phill Ryu
    4:02pm, March 9, 2011

    I’m glad this was helpful sami and Paul. :)

    Todd, I do plan on expanding on those points during the workshop, but maybe a followup post might make sense.

    And see you at SXSW Jeremy!

  9. Vince Angeloni
    4:08pm, March 9, 2011

    Excellent post. Some valuable information in it plus the added quiz is a real treat.

  10. Phill Ryu
    4:23pm, March 9, 2011

    @millsustwo Statistically speaking the reality may very well be some shockingly low percentage like that. But once you start cutting out the ‘app developers as content farms’, foreign market targeted apps, developers who are just doing it as a hobby, needless apps contracted for by random companies, apps that are no longer supported or marketed, etc. until you are left with a small slice of total apps as the REAL competition, your chances start to look better.

    Don’t paralyze yourself with the App Store’s raw numbers. It’s only a lottery if you’re playing as a totally cynical developer with no intention of working towards quality and towards improving your app’s chances.

  11. José
    4:56pm, March 10, 2011

    Phill, you made my day! Excellent post. I’m evaluating now some mobile apps I want to develop, this post came at the right time

  12. AndyC
    10:00am, March 23, 2011

    Thanks so much for this article. We have been deliberating about this very question over the last few days, since releasing our third app.

    We have found it distinctly hard to get traction whilst being limited in resources to do heavy marketing activities. We are preferring to think about faster execution and better idea selection. This latter part is bewildering.

    Our criteria was quite loose, but some kind of starting point: broad appeal, in the style of AppStore gamers tastes (i.e. a look at top grossing games show a pattern of simple/fun/colourful/cheap), executable in a short period, extensible.

    Thanks for your insights.

  13. Donald
    4:39am, March 27, 2011

    I was looking for instructions on how to use camera+ which I did not find. Nevertheless, your blog posting gave me a better understanding of the apps ratings, top to bottom. I would like to see one of you geniuses come up with a app to FIND YOUR HIDDEN GEMS in the 10s of thousands apps. Now, it is luck and this could be a good marketing tool for the smaller app developers. Anyway, good luck to the total quality (hint) people.

  14. Scott
    12:44pm, April 15, 2011

    So what you’re saying is, the easy money is over. I say “Great!” No matter what the industry, creating your product is 10% of the work - marketing and selling is 90%. Now that the Gold Rush is over, the playing field can level out and those who made money just by showing up can be culled out to move on to the Next Big Thing. That makes space and time for those of us who really want to put something useful in people’s hands and don’t mind working hard to do so.

  15. Raymond
    9:49am, January 6, 2012

    What marketing do we need to do actually? Thanks.

  16. Ian
    2:30pm, February 17, 2012

    Thanks for all of the insight! Not that you guys have the time, but it’s been a while since this post and you have several apps out there now. I’d be really curious to see how you would score your own apps with this criteria. Camera+? Voices? Faces?


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