Five Options for Getting From App Idea to MVP

So you have an app idea, a rough idea about a budget, or perhaps you have no budget at all. Chances are, you have no idea where to start, nor do you have a goal to shoot towards. Allow me to help point you in the right direction, towards your MVP (Minimum Viable Product).

I’ve witnessed both sides of the spectrum of application development, a very successful app of 9,000,000+ downloads, and apps with not a single download at all. The most exciting part of the journey is turning the idea into reality.

First, Get Talkin’! Brainstorm!

It’s likely that you don’t want to tell anybody about your idea at all, in fear that some bozo will steal your idea, make millions and walk away with your dream boat. The reality is, nobody is going to put the effort into your idea except for you. You are the only one with the amount of determination to make it happen. So with that cleared out of the way…Get Talkin’!!

Talk to as many people as you can. Talk to engineers, talk to artists, talk to millennials, talk to kids. Throw away the features that received less excitement, or put them in a “version 2.0 box," to be determined later. Then, focus on the features that received the most excitement. This lean approach will help you to launch sooner, for less overhead.

Brainstorm with others. Discover new features you never thought about. One step I found to be valuable, was to make a list of all the data I would have access to, and find new ways to combine that data with other data. For example, the first application I ever designed was called Applaud, the main feature was to show music currently playing on a dancefloor. After looking deeper into the data I had access to, I discovered that I also had ability to collect a list of patrons, to show venue owners who attended their establishment. This provided me with a whole new revenue stream!

Another helpful tip? Talk to older people, people who don't understand technology as easy as everyone else, even if they aren’t your target market. If they understand your idea in the least bit, then you’ve passed the biggest hurdle… The Conceptual stage.

Second, Determine Your MVP

Your MVP may be a fully functioning application, it may be a clickable prototype mockup, or it may just be stick-figure wireframes of your app. However, your current budget will be the determining factor of what your MVP will be.

Odds are that you will not find a developer willing to work for equity. I‘m sure your app has potential to be a big hit. But developers simply cannot afford to gamble and lose precious time, especially at such an amazing time in the tech space. So if you have little-to-no budget at all, your goal is to raise capital, so that you can fund the development process.

If you have a small budget ($0–$9,000), then your goal is to create a prototype MVP that will allow you to pitch your idea, and get investors on board. If you have a medium budget ($6,000–$xx,000), then you have enough to cover a fully designed prototype MVP, you can begin to gather feedback from test subjects in your target market, and you can use this feedback to create a stronger argument for why an investor should fund the development phase. If you are already funded and ready for development ($10,000-$xxx,xxx), then your MVP can range from, a soft Web Version launch, a lean rollout on a single platform, to a full Multi-Platform (iOS/Android/Web) release. Here is a detailed breakdown of your options, depending on your MVP:

1) Pitch Your Idea with Simple Prototyping ($0–$9,000)

There are three parts to Simple Prototyping; Wireframe Design (the layout, aka UX), simple UI Design (what the layout looks like with Text, Pictures and Icons) & simple Interaction Design (a rough idea of what happens when you click something).

For the Wireframe Design (UX), you’ll need to design a layout for every important page. For now, you can omit the less important features, and only focus on the important features (i.e., no need to design your settings page). If you hire a professional UX designer, your napkin mockups help to show the designer your basic ideas, however he/she will most likely throw out the napkins, entirely. They will have a better way of grouping features in sections that will help to simplify the entire layout. Cost for UX design can range from $500–6,000

For simple UI Design, the goal is to gain a better idea of what the app might look like with more detailed information, such as, icons, text, and images. For this simple option, the design can be Lo-Resolution (stick figures).

The level of resolution is up to you, you can use your paper napkin sketches, or you can begin the Hi-Resolution UI design process required for development by hiring a professional UI designer. The cost of a professional designer can range from $500 to $3,000 depending on the amount of pages and quality you are searching for. Just remember, items like calendars, graphs, or anything with large grids/tables will require more effort. Hi-Resolution UI design also incorporates your Branding, style, & color scheme. A Hi-Resolution UI may not be necessary for your simple prototype, but it will help get you closer to the development stage, since a Hi-Resolution design is required for development.

For simple Interaction Design, you’ll need to incorporate a prototyping tool that allows you to connect buttons to pages. It’s not completely necessary to make your prototype clickable, but it’s so easy nowadays, that the value a clickable prototype will provide for your presentation, far exceeds the amount of time it takes to set up.

There are several simple Rapid Prototyping tools out there on the interwebs that can help you get your paper napkin ideas into a presentable (but rough) prototype that anybody can view with a Web Browser. If you have a basic understanding of design, check out Napkin (free), UXPin ($12/mo). These tools provide some common UI elements that can help get your idea to screen quickly. If you already have a wireframe design created, check out InVision (free with 1 project), it’s the fastest way to create quick clickable prototypes, as long as you have wireframes ready and saved as an image file (jpg, pdf, png, sketch, psd). All of these tools allow you to share your app online or via email, allowing you to collaborate with others and present online to investors.

2) Complete Design, Gather Feedback & Pitch Your Idea with Complex Prototyping ($6,000-$XX,000)

Similar to Option 1 — Simple Prototyping, there are three parts to Complex Prototyping; Deeper dive into Wireframe Design (the layout, aka UX), complete UI Design (what the layout looks like with Text, Pictures, Icons, Color and Branding) & Complex Interaction Design (what exactly happens when you click something).

For Wireframe Design, this time I would spend a bit more time with UX research, taking time to understand the user-base, and the competition. This helps to keep you from re-designing the UI over and over again, saving time for future tasks. Full Wireframe (UX) design can range from $2,000–$10,000.

Complete UI Design, as mentioned in Option 2, a Hi-Resolution UI design is required for development. In addition to Option 2, I would finalize the branding and style of the app at this point. This will allow your app to begin to stand out on its own. With complete UI design, this includes fully exporting all of the design assets (design specification, icons, images, & art elements) required for development. Complete UI design can range from $1,000 to $10,000.

For complex Interaction Design, we now begin to enter the world of Animation. Part of complex prototyping is incorporating animations into the user interaction. “What happens after the user logs in? Do we shoot fireworks out of the phone?”, “How does one screen enter another screen?”, “How do elements move when a button is pressed?”, “How do we move the user along the intended path?”, are all questions that need to be answered in complex prototyping (ok maybe not the fireworks part :).

Animation example taken from GC, an app designed by William Harvey Designs

The next addition to complex Prototyping is creating a working clickable prototype that will help us in a few areas; It will help the developer understand the quality and intended animations you are aiming to achieve. It will help us gather feedback from a test market. It will help for a more engaging presentation for your investors and marketing materials, such as animated mockup videos of the app in action.

Since Interaction Design and Prototyping requires a wide skill set, the cost can range anywhere from $2,000 for a simple prototype with minimal animations, to $xx,000 for the most animated of designs. Keep in mind that after obtaining user feedback, any additional iterations to the existing design will endure additional cost.

Finally, as more modern apps begin to adopt a highly animated user experience, I should warn you that the more animations you have planned in your design, the more advanced development efforts will be required, leading to additional development costs. So for those on a tight budget, you may need to postpone your welcome-screen cartoon sequence until version 1.1.

3) Launch a Web Version ($3,500-$XX,000)

A web version requires 4 stages, Wireframe Design, UI Design, Web Development, and QA Testing. You may wonder why Prototyping isn't a part of Web Development, this is because web development isn’t as costly as app development, so you can prototype while developing the site. You can also use some of the simple prototyping tools mentioned in option 1 above.

Wireframe and UI Design is almost identical to option 2, however, depending on the skill level of your developer, you may want to utilize existing frameworks and UI elements to save time. So it’s best to find a designer and developer that prefer common frameworks. Also note that your design will need to cover at least the 3 major Screen Sizes; Desktop, Tablet, and Phone. Wireframe & UI costs can range from $1,000 to $10,000, depending on the number of pages/features.

Finding a Web Development team can be the most daunting of tasks, there are so many types to choose from. Front-End developers deal with coding the elements that appear on the screen, while Back-End developers write code for the database and everything else the user doesn’t see on the screen. If your app doesn't require much data processing, then you may be able to find a Front-End Developer that can handle minor Back-End tasks. Or perhaps you can get lucky and find a “Full-Stack” developer who can take on all tasks. Development costs can range from $2,000 to $50,000 depending on the complexity.

QA Testing can be covered by a small team including yourself, your designer, your developer, and perhaps an ideal user. Remember, its good to get multiple eyes on the app, because after working on a feature all day, the developer may not be able to see a bug after hours and hours of staring at the same screen. I also find it extremely necessary for your designer to run tests, since the designer is the only one who knows how the app should work, inside and out.

As the app becomes more and more complex, and as the amount of possible environments/situations a user can get themselves into, the more testing you will need. It would also be very helpful for your developer to integrate some safe measures into the code, so that you can run auto-tests every time the app is built. Its also beneficial to add some analytic reports to see how users are using your app.

I spent 8 years as a QA tester before moving onto design, and I found a great formula for calculating the necessary time to spend on testing is approximately 1/4 of the total development time spent. Lastly, you can also run a soft launch to a limited amount of users in a targeted location before launching to the public. This is a great way to test and make changes early. QA costs can range from $500 to $10,000

4) Lean Launch Strategy ($5,000+/wk)

The most effective way to avoid burn-out and bootstrap your budget is to launch quickly. You’ll need a team dedicated to work closely together, with the common goal to achieve a lot within a short amount of time. In order to achieve a lean launch, you need to cut your app’s feature-set down, so that you are only launching (and then testing) the meat of the app. Choose one operating system (iOS or Android), one screen type (Phone or Tablet). Spend minimal time on research, limit your design time to only a few hours per screen. Limit the amount of animations to only a few key areas, such as the splash screen, or the most important action button of the app.

As the designs are being drawn out, your development team should already have started on the basic framework of the app. Developers should divide features into sub-tasks that will yield a full deliverable feature within a time limit of one week, called “Weekly Sprints”. Simultaneously, testers should be testing each sub-task as they are handed in throughout the week. So whatever has been finished after one week, should be tested and ready for delivery, and can be released to the public for immediate feedback.

Lets look at a quick example. Say the feature for this week is to take a picture. Your sub-tasks will be,

  • Display a Take Picture button on the home page,
  • Access Camera,
  • Display camera options while displaying live shot,
  • Save picture to disk,
  • Display photo in viewing screen,
  • and Display options to save or discard picture.

Perhaps one of these sub-tasks will put your total dev time over a week, now its up to you to decide which sub-task to remove and postpone until the next week’s sprint. Just make sure your feature can be released as a fully functioning feature, so for this example, you may need to skip the Save/Discard options task until next week, and simply save the photo automatically.

The hardest part is devoting your team to launch and release within that week. This strategy is not for perfectionists, but will help perfectionists get over their hurdle of waisting time attempting to perfect something you can easily fix next week during the next release.

Once you begin to receive feedback on your release, you can begin to measure the success, and create a list of lessons learned. Then use that list to decide which modifications and additions will make it into the next week’s sprint. Then repeat until you have a fully featured, tried & tested application. …Actually to be honest, you will never stop repeating, this process will go on forever. :)

Costs for a lean launch strategy will vary depending on the size of the team and the budget you have to cover each week. A team of 1 designer, 1 developer, 1 part time tester can average $5,000 per week.

5) Full Multi-Platform Launch Strategy ($10,000-$XXX,000)

Although this approach is extremely rare, I provide this option for your reference. A multi-platform launch requires an elegantly choreographed dance between, you, Project Manager, Designers, Developers, QA Testers, and Marketing. The likelihood of launching everything together at the same time, on time, is against most odds. So for that reason I say, don’t expect a fully synchronous multi-platform launch.

Thankfully there have been some advancements in software development strategies. These strategies take a more agile approach, similar to the Lean Launch strategy mentioned in option 4 above. The key is to launch quickly and launch often.

The team structure is important; You’ll need a design team that works across all versions of your applications. You’ll need a lead architect to help organize how data is stored and distributed throughout all the applications. It will also help to hire a lead developer that can oversee all application development. You may be able to find a strong developer that has experience in Android and iOS, and Web. This will help to share common code throughout all platforms, and save time overall. However this unicorn is hard to find, so you may need to hire a junior developer for each platform.

As the development begins, you will need QA to begin testing simultaneously (remember the rule, 1/4 development time should be spent on QA). As a launch date is established, you marketing and sales team should also begin to hold your developers accountable to this date. However, it’s important that your marketing team never interfere with development decisions, and visa versa (this is a whole other blog topic in itself :).

A full multi-platform requires a lot of resources, a release can cost anywhere from $10,000 up to a million dollars. One thing I have learned after 10 years in Tech, is that the app design and development cycle never ends. As hardware improves, operating systems adapt to new hardware, old apps become slower, it’s a never ending cycle. You must prepare your team for a long battle. The best advice I can give to you is, release quick and release often.

If you have found any of this info helpful, please feel free to comment and let me know how I have helped or how I can improve. Let me know how your app progress is going. Or if you’d like to brainstorm about your app idea, shoot me an email. And lastly, all of the options I provide above are available through my design services at williamharveydesigns.com , now get talkin’!

William is a product designer, specializing in audio and entertainment application design.