With the growing marketplace of mobile applications, it seems there isn’t too much room for new ideas. But with enough creativity and planning you may even surprise yourself. The early stages require that you have something intrinsic – some naturally-attractive idea. From there you can mockup various interfaces and test the waters to see how users would enjoy the experience.

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In this article I want to share some ideas for the early planning stages of app development. Before even writing any code you should have a road map to follow. This provides a blueprint so during development you can focus solely on the programming.

Find your Inspiration

In my opinion, you can never do too much research before designing. This means hitting Google to check for related competitors, see what they’re doing, and figure out some ideas for your interface. Even unrelated mobile apps built for the same OS can offer GUI elements you might have never thought about.

Another beautiful design resource is Dribbble where creative artists publish and share their work onto a social network. You can find plenty of app UI design examples for Android, iOS, Windows Mobile Phone, or even tablet devices. Granted you may not be able to replicate a similar design or texture – but understanding how the interfaces look can prove invaluable.

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This phase should be as long or as short as you need. Gather inspiration from every possible source and write down your best ideas in a list. Re-read the list every day and sometimes you’ll find ideas not worth implementing. Weed out the unnecessary items to bring a more solid focus towards your concept.

The Primary Objective

During the search for inspiration you should also try figuring out exactly what this mobile app should do. Why are people downloading your application? At first try to oversimplify the idea. 1-2 sentences about what it does and why people would be so excited to check it out.

Then flesh out the idea some more. Write down possible features and how it would connect into the “primary objective”. Creative projects work out best when you have a primary focus in mind. Sticking towards this goal helps you brainstorm features that should craft a better experience for the user.

Do not get discouraged if you haven’t nailed down the exact specifics right away. This could take days or even a few weeks of planning. But once you have a great idea it will strike you in an unusual way. Make sure you could see a target audience getting excited about this application. It’s also a good idea to research the competition and figure out how you can be different.

There are dozens of to-do task management applications for mobile phones. Same with Twitter clients or dictionaries or puzzle games. But apps with the highest download numbers did something special, which usually catches people by surprise and excitement. This leads to many positive reviews and marketing by word-of-mouth.

Crafting Basic Mockups

If you know how to sketch mockups I’d say a pencil and paper is the easiest starting point. Drawing realistic pictures can be tough, but digital interfaces appear flat and very basic. If you’re more of a digital artist there’s no harm in using design software instead of paper.

This mockup or wireframe should provide the bare essentials. All you need to create are the important elements surrounding the content, buttons, navbars, whatever you need to see when developing. Think of this like your own personal blueprint to follow or change as you move along. I find when doing any creative design work it helps to craft a very basic outline in this fashion.

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Getting started with this process is weird if you haven’t done mockups before. Yet the goal of this process would be saving you time later down the road.

I’ve even seen designers print or sketch basic components of the smartphone UI and cut them into shapes, organized on a single page. So it almost looks like a collage where each individual piece is actually a separate item. Find whatever works best and make sure it’s helping rather than hindering in your progress.

Prototype Testing

If possible, try making a very simple version of your application to show other people. Friends or family would be the easiest people to ask for gathering immediate feedback. This would also give you a reasonable goal – to program the application but stick to the core features.

You’ll gain knowledge about that programming language and the mobile SDK of your choice. Additionally you can let people know it’s just a prototype so they aren’t expecting anything too glamorous. Determine if your app is beneficial, fun to use, and ultimately worth continuing. This early research could save you weeks or months of stressful programming to finish an application which doesn’t gain much traction.

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Another good idea is to gather feedback from the user about suggestive ideas they’d like to see. People who use applications know what they want and how they want it to work. Very early testers can provide suggestions that you may implement for a smoother performance. Keep testing and writing notes until you feel confident about your primary goal.

From this stage it’s all about coding, fixing bugs, and coming to a final v1.0 release.

Final Thoughts

Building any native application will require a lot more study than a simple HTML5 mobile webapp. However both products are in high demand with more people switching to smartphones every month. If you have a good idea organized in the right format people are sure to love it. Also if you have any other related tips or suggestions please share with us in the discussion area below.

Posted by Jake Rocheleau

Jake is a writer & digital designer/illustrator. He writes about all things web and creative. Check out his website for work samples and follow his latest updates on Twitter @jakerocheleau.

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