Dominic Williamson is an app developer who began his career as a psychology student with no prior coding experience. Within six months, he had produced one of the most successful apps on Microsoft's Windows Phone Store. Here are some tips from Dominic that will help budding app developers kick-start their own careers.
My name is Dominic and I’m the creator of one of the most popular fitness applications on Windows Phone: Gym PocketGuide. In 2011, I began a computer science degree program with no prior programming knowledge. After one introductory programming class (six months), I looked for a fun way to practice programming concepts and found Windows Phone development.
After making a few apps, I realized I couldn’t find an easy-to-use gym app that I liked. This one app idea has led to over 1,000,000 downloads and counting. Along the way, I have learned a few easy-to-implement ideas that I think will help fellow developers build better apps that deliver more downloads. So, er, let's go!
Learn to program
Building quality apps will require that you know some programming. Fortunately, you can learn the basics you need to begin building apps in a very short time. Within six months of starting to learn programming at university, I was able to write for the Windows Phone platform.
There are plenty of excellent resources available online. If you’re planning to start the app developer journey with C#, here is a great list of 200 videos starting from the very basics.
The first attempt
Your first app won’t actually be something you’ll release. Instead it’ll likely be a mess of controls as you figure out how to get things working. This is good! It’s where we all start and it’s an important part of the journey to becoming an app developer.
I would recommend you go so far as to build a simple app through to completion and publish it. That way you’ll know the process once it’s time to publish the finished app you've really invested all your time and energy into.
App ideas – start small!
When you start building apps make sure the idea you have is something you can actually deliver. That doesn't mean you can’t dream big, but break up your idea into releases you can roll out as updates. That way your get users’ feedback sooner which will help you refine your idea.
Hopefully that also means you'll get money coming in sooner too, which is great for keeping the lights on and the computers powered.
Friends make great play-testers
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking your app is easy and intuitive to use just because you think so. Put it in the hands of as many people as you can and ask them to complete a task. For example with Gym PocketGuide, I would ask friends to do simple tasks like, “find a bicep workout”. Seeing people use the app in-person is invaluable, but be ready to change designs people struggle with.
No matter how amazing your app is, if you don’t convince someone to download it based on the information you provide in the store you publish it in, they’ll never find it.
When you publish to a major store like Windows Phone, there are so many international markets that could be picking up your app too, not just the country you publish in, and with updates like Windows Phone 8.1 and Windows 8.1, your app will be available cross-platform on phone, tablet and desktop. Make sure you ace the following three factors to promote your app in the best way possible:
- App Title
- The App Tile/Icon
- App Description and screenshots
A good app title should be simple, easy to remember and relate to the purpose of the app. An excellent example is “Cut The Rope” by ZeptoLab. The title is short, easy to remember and it even serves an instruction on how to play the game. Creating the perfect app title takes time. If you’re stuck for a name try answering the question, “what does the app do?” in about 3 words.
The app icon is the single most important image in your app. This is the first and possibly only image a user will see from your app. If you don’t have the graphic design skills necessary to create something professional looking, find someone who does. Another tip is to colour yourself different! One trick I used to stand out was looking at a list of the top apps and observed what colour background they used. Then I would choose something that stood out by comparison.
Another option is to buy a stock image. If you buy an image make sure if comes with a license so it can be used in a commercial setting.
In your app description start with a short sentence or two that’ll catch the user’s interests and let them know why they need to download your app. Do not begin with a feature list or a change log. Provide as many screenshots as the platform store allows. I recommend you take screenshots that tell a story of the experience the user can expect while highlighting the main features of the app.
Above are some of the screenshots I use with Gym PocketGuide Pro. In the first five screens on the Windows Phone Store, I attempted to show a user story of what using a custom program looks like: Main screen -> custom programs list -> program exercises -> recording data -> viewing an exercise guide. This covers many of the new features included in the Pro version.
Pay attention to feedback!
In any app you release I strongly recommend you include an easy to find feedback option. Simply the ability to send you an email is enough. It'll cost you nothing to setup, but the feedback you get from your users will be invaluable. It also tends to be a great source of ideas for new features.
The Gym PocketGuide app is available from the Windows Phone store.