4 questions you need to ask before building an app

We use apps to solve problems. The problem may be as simple as boredom or as complicated as locating cheap gas prices in Las Vegas. There are no exceptions to this rule. If you want people to use your app, you have to build one that fulfills a need.

Think about the apps you use every day. If you check your email, whichever app you use fulfills your need to get messages on the go. Twitter connects you with friends and celebrities. Flipboard shows you current events. CNNMoney Portfolio sends you push notifications when your stocks dip so you can sell everything and move to Peru at a moment’s notice.

What makes one app different from others that tackle the same problem? That’s the big question, and how you answer determines whether you succeed. The best apps are designed to solve problems in a direct, user-friendly way that hasn’t been done before. In the competitive world of apps and need fulfillment, the best problem solvers usually win.

To any “appreneurs” looking to get started, ask yourself these questions to come up with the best app possible:

1. What’s the problem?

Don’t just set out to build an app because “that would be cool.” Look at your daily life, and see whether you have a regular inconvenience that an app could solve. If you don’t have any problems, go find people who do, and think about how an app could benefit them.

2. Who has this problem?

Do other people in this industry/market/demographic experience the same issue, or is it just you?

Maybe you feel strongly about the quality of pickles on your hamburgers — so strongly that you want an app to track which restaurants provide the best pickles. Does that app exist yet? Probably not. Does it solve a need? Maybe it does for you — but not for anyone else. The problem has to be big enough that regular users will download an app, create a profile, check it regularly, and contribute reviews. Be honest with yourself to save money and heartache.

3. How would an app solve this problem?

Sometimes, a problem is just too big to solve on mobile. Other times, it’s such a minor inconvenience that it wouldn’t be worth the trouble to pull out your phone and open an app to fix it.

No one likes the surprise of a lightbulb going out, but if you design an app for people to log their lightbulb life expectancies, no one will buy it. It’s a problem if your lamp flickers, but not one big enough to warrant app space on your phone. Just because a problem is common doesn’t mean people care about it.

4. Where is the competition?

Scour the app store and research online to find out who’s already trying to solve the problem you want to solve. Didn’t find any competition? Either you’re a once-in-a-generation genius or, more likely, your problem doesn’t really merit an app.

When you find your competition, figure out how to differentiate your product, especially if there’s already a big-name player in the mix. If you open an Italian restaurant across the street from another Italian restaurant with 20 years of business and a four-star Yelp average, you better be ready to steal all of its customers — to succeed, that’s exactly what you’ll have to do.

As you get down to building your app, don’t get discouraged. Your successful idea might not be your first, second, or 27th attempt. Instagram was initially designed to compete with Foursquare and was on the brink of failure before retooling to focus on the photographic filter features.

Keep solving problems and listening to what people need, and eventually, you’ll solve one big enough to get people’s attention.

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