One of the problems I have when I go looking for an app to build, or any new project for that matter, is that I have absolutely no idea where to start or what to build.  I am not prone to fantastic breakthroughs or insights that keep me up in the middle of the night, I have children for that.  Please note that I have not originated this method, I have borrowed and tweaked it from Chad Mureta who wrote a fantastic book called 'App Empire.'  If you don't want to read the entire post, a summary is provided at the end.

So how should I go about figuring out what my next "Evil Plan" app should be?  My first stop is always the app store.  The iPhone app store is a fantastic resource for learning what people are the most interested in right now.  It lists the top paid, free, and grossing apps in each category on an almost real time basis.  This is a true treasure trove of information that is provided for me absolutely for free.  Once I have figured out what the most common apps are that people are interested in, I'll pick a few that I think I can reproduce on my own in a minimal amount of time and with very few resources.

My next stop is, which conveniently keeps track of app rankings over time.  This site lets me figure out if the app is doing well, is declining in popularity, or is getting paid traffic.  Once I am convinced that the apps I chose from the app store are popular enough on their own without some type of paid marketing campaign, I move on to the next step: download.

Really getting to know how an app works is somewhat of an art form.  I have been building apps for a while now, so I know most of the UIKit views, controllers, and utilities.  I can break down an app into it's various components and work out exactly how it is built.  While this lets me re-create it technically, that's not the only thing I'm looking for though.  I also pay attention to how I feel when I use the app.  Am I frustrated, confused, overwhelmed?  Time to move on.  Am I able to get my task completed quickly and easily?  Is this app so freakin' cool that I can't wait to open it again?  Am I excited when I get a notification from the app?  If yes, then it is worth looking into further.  People make buying decisions on emotion, so understanding how an app makes you feel is critical to recreating that feeling in your own app.

This whole time I've been talking about recreating an app, but that next step doesn't do that.  I have it when people copy my stuff, and I would never do that.  The next step is to spend some time looking for ways to improve on the existing application.  I have found two ways to go about this, and they are both very useful when creating a new app idea.

The first way to figure out how to improve on an app is to look at the comments and ratings that people are leaving in the app store.  If an app has been around a while there should be plenty of these.  You can ignore the 5 star 'this app is great' reviews, they are not helpful.   Look for the 4 and 3 star reviews that actually have something to say.  Sometimes people will recommend upgrades or feature additions to the existing app.  If several (maybe 4 or 5, use your judgement) people request the same update to an app and it hasn't been added by the developer, you know you are on to something.

The second way to make an improved app is to brainstorm simple ways to iterate the existing functionality.  I like to use mind maps and free writing for this since it allows me to disconnect from the flow of information coming from my brain, let it do it's thing, and then step back and see the results from a high level.  It's not always pretty, or legible, but it often leads to insights about preferences and tendencies that you would not have otherwise been able to make.  The choice of my second daughters' middle name was greatly influenced by several free writing sessions in which it appeared multiple times without my realizing it.


So, here is the breakdown of the method I use to get new iPhone app ideas:

  1. Look at the app store to figure out what people are buying.
  2. Determine if the apps are using paid marketing to keep their rankings.
  3. Download and use to app to decide if it can be built quickly and easily without sacrificing user experience.
  4. Research comments and ratings to figure out what is missing from an app that you can add.
  5. Brainstorm new features using free writing and mind maps.

That's all there is to it.  The actual process can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days.  There is quite a bit of work to do, and notes to take along the way.  I have tried to skip these steps before and have met with disaster several times.  I am currently on steps 4 and 5 for my next app idea, which will likely be the subject of my next post.