Creating your own app development process can be daunting—especially if you’re excited about your app idea and just want to start building. But it’s important to be organized and approach your process systematically, with each development phase bringing you closer to launching your app on the Shopify App Store.
So what does an app development process look like? What phases do you go through and how do you know what aspect of your app to work on next? If you’re thinking about building a new app, these are the questions you’re probably asking yourself right now.
This article is a quick guide for anyone who wants to follow a solid process when creating a new product.
You might also like: How to Build a Shopify App: The Complete Guide.
Phase 1: Product discovery and product strategy
Like any great product, all apps start with an idea. So approaching your app development process with a product-development mindset is a great start.
Many product creators think that having a solid idea for a product guarantees product success. In reality, it’s not enough to have a good idea because before you start building, you need to validate your app idea.
"You need to understand what you want to build, for who and why."
You need to understand what you want to build, for who and why.
Product discovery is all about getting to know your end users so you understand their needs, and so you can build the right solution, prioritizing the right features. Creating a product strategy is an essential part of the app development process because it will also help to keep your business goals top of mind as you transform your app idea into a final product.
Identify your target audience
“Who are my users?” This is a fundamental question you need to answer before starting the development process. Conduct user research to understand your target users. Use demographics, motivations, behavior patterns, and goals of your target user to create user personas—archetypes of your product's typical users. Every design decision should be evaluated according to the needs & wants of your user persona.
Conduct market research
Market research will tell you the real demand or interest of the market. It answers the question ‘What kind of problems do your potential users have?’ and ‘How can you help them?’
Life’s too short to build something nobody wants.
Here are a few tips that will help you get started as you conduct effective market research:
- Use Google Keyword Planner. Look for the number of people searching for the solution that you want to create. This will help you understand whether your app idea will solve a common problem with lots of interest, or not.
- Identify direct or indirect product competitors. Look for the number of customers your competitors have and what features customers use most often. A detailed analysis of your competitors will help you understand what features they offer and what they’re missing so that you could include it in your app. Remember that while it’s important to understand your competitors, don’t get caught up in what they’re doing or offering. The key to adding value is ensuring your app is unique and solves a user’s problem more effectively.
- Use the Fake Door technique to validate your initial hypothesis. Are you sure your users are willing to pay for the solution? You don’t need to build a product to answer this question. It’s possible to build a landing page that highlights your product idea and key features and invites visitors to leave email to try it. Measure conversion, such as the number of email signups, to see whether they are genuinely interested or not.
Go deeper: Learn more about validating your app idea in 4 steps to validate your app idea, and get even more tools and resources you need to get started.
Define success criteria
When thinking about products or features, product creators and app developers shouldn’t forget about their business objectives. It’s vital to have a clear business goal that you want to achieve with your app. By identifying and defining clear success criteria in the form of key performance indicators (KPIs) during this phase, you make it easier to evaluate the outcome of the development process.
"It’s vital to have a clear business goal that you want to achieve with your app."
Interviewing stakeholders can also help you define business goals and objectives for the project. Tracking the right app metrics can keep you focused on the KPIs that will tell you whether your app is moving in the right direction, stagnating, or failing, post-launch.
You might also like: 8 Growth Metrics Every App Developer Should Track.
Phase 2: Planning your design and build process
It’s common to want to include every possible feature in your product or app. But it’s important to stay focused on the things you actually need to include vs. the things you want to include. Good planning ahead of time will make it easier to put a shape to your idea before you start the build phase of your app development process.
Consider following a project management methodology to keep yourself organized and all the moving parts of building on track.
Defining the scope of a project
The scope of a project will contain the specifications of what you plan to build. It will include specific use cases that you want to cover in your product and it will be easier to understand what features you need to develop. These cases will be a foundation for the Minimum Viable Product (MVP).
Establish a design roadmap
A product roadmap will help you to define key product design parts and group them into delivery milestones. At the end of the day, you will know what part of your product you expect and when.
In this case, Agile and Lean UX project management methodologies can help you break down all design and development work into smaller milestones and develop your app in a series of iterative cycles. Each cycle should include planning, design and development, validation, and retrospective phases.
You might also like: Agile Design: An Introduction.
Phase 3: Exploring ideation to address project goals
The ideation phase is a time when a product team explores creative ideas that address the project goals. During this phase, it’s critical to find a design direction that a team will follow on the later stages of the development process.
User journey mapping
The first step of your app design process is to determine how the content and features will be provided to the user. A user journey map is a tool that will help you by visualizing the user flow through your app. Typically, it’s presented as a series of steps in which a person interacts with a product.
Here are a two tips for making the most of journey mapping:
- Lay out the flow and features. Show how the user will navigate the app as well as all key features they will use. The more details you cover in your flow, the easier it will be to design and build a product based on it.
- Trim all extra features. Get rid of features that aren’t absolutely necessary for your users. Why? By doing that, you will save design and development resources and are more likely to launch your product faster.
A user story is a simple description of something that the user wants to accomplish by using a product. When designing a product, avoid adding any feature without a user story that explains why that particular feature matters. Here is a template for user stories:
Phase 4: Design and development
The success of an app is determined based on how the target audience reacts to it. Design is a key step in the app development process because design isn’t just about how your app looks, but it’s about how it works for end users. The app that offers great user experience is more likely to succeed.
"The app that offers great user experience is more likely to succeed."
Sketching and wireframing
When it comes to creating actual screens, designers rarely start with high-fidelity mockups. In most cases, they start with pen and paper to visualize the basic structure of individual pages. Shortly after, they create sketches that satisfy a product vision, and the product team moves to the next phase: wireframing. Wireframes are basically a digital form of sketches—they are low-fidelity mockups that demonstrate individual pages' visual structure.
Your product only has a few seconds to make a good impression on users. And a significant part of that first impression is based on the product’s visual language: typography, colors, shapes, textures, animated effects—all those elements and more. It’s important to apply this language consistently across your product.
The first thing to do is to define foundational design principles—clear standards that help team members make user-centered design decisions. After that the team should invest time in creating a style guide—a document that becomes a single source of truth for both designers and developers. This document contains design standards such as colors, typography, icons that you plan to use in your product. When a team creates a style guide early on in the design process, they reduce the chance of creating an inconsistent design.
Go deeper: Learn more about what to consider as you design your Shopify app—from Polaris and accessibility, to multilingual considerations and information architecture.
As your app design begins to finalize, the product team moves to the next phase—prototyping. Prototypes are used for simulating user interactions with a product. The fidelity of your prototypes should match the fidelity of your thinking. In many cases, you start with low-fidelity prototypes created from wireframes (so-called “clickable” wireframes) and move towards high-fidelity prototypes that look and work almost like a finished product.
"The fidelity of your prototypes should match the fidelity of your thinking."
You might also like: 10 Myths About Prototyping, Busted
During this phase, a product team should define the technical architecture and select a technology stack. If you’re developing an app on Shopify, you can use any language or framework you prefer to work with because the platform is language agnostic.
Most app development projects require back-end and front-end development.
- Back-end development. This part requires creating server-side objects that support functions of a product. This might include development of database structure, business logic for managing data, and API.
- Front-end development. Front-end part is a part of the app that end-users will interact with.
Go deeper: Get the Shopify tools and resources that will help you build a stronger app faster.
Phase 5: Testing your app
The testing phase will help you ensure that your product is functional, reliable, usable and enjoyable. When it comes to testing, you’ll want to focus on two major areas—functional and non-functional testing.
The term “functional testing” means you’ll be testing your app's features and capabilities. Typically this testing is conducted by QA specialists who run a series of tests to validate that the product works as expected (functional, reliable and usable), report bugs, and track fixes for retesting.
To make the process of functional testing more effective, it’s worth establishing a continuous integration process. Continuous integration automates the testing solution every time a developer introduces changes in source code.
Non-functional testing checks its performance or usability. A usability test's basic idea is to check whether the product offers effective interaction design for its users.
Usability testing can be done formally (where a researcher creates a series of tasks, hires participants, conducts usability testing sessions, records the session, etc.) or informally (in a format of guerilla testing).
You might also like: User Testing Your Shopify App: Public App Use Cases You Should Test.
Phase 6: Post-launch activities
App development is an iterative process and it doesn’t end once you’ve launched your app. Once your app goes live, you need to collect feedback from your users, and invest time and effort in creating a better user experience (UX) for them. Not only will this help you improve your UX but it will also help you to gauge whether your app will ultimately be successful.
Use analytics to better understand user behavior
Analytics can help you track user engagement and retention for your product. This knowledge will help you understand what features of your product are the most valuable for your users. This information will also help you strengthen your app business over the long term since you’ll have a better understanding of your users and what new features to add on your development roadmap.
Go deeper: Learn the post-launch app health metrics you should be tracking and how they fit into Shopify’s app ecosystem in App performance management and monitoring.
Conduct contextual inquiries
Contextual inquiry is a type of field study in which a UX practitioner observes users in their natural environment and studies them as they use a product to complete their everyday tasks. The goal of contextual inquiry is to gather enough observations that you can truly understand your users and their perspectives. Mixing qualitative contextual inquiries with quantitative analytics will help keep you focused on the most important next steps of your app development process and your business building.
Build an app development process that works for you
At this point, you should have a solid understanding of the six key phases of the app development process:
- Product discovery and product strategy
- Planning your design and build process
- Exploring ideation to address project goals
- Design and development
- Testing your app
- Post-launch activities
Now, you could break each section down even further depending on the nature of your app, the challenges you’re solving (or the ones you experience yourself), or the specific goals you want to achieve.
The most important thing to remember when creating any product is that the design isn’t for product creators, it's for end-users—the people who will use the product. Successful products have one thing in common: they offer the right features and the right user experience for the right people.
And it's easy to apply this rule in your app development process. All you have to do is define your target audience, research their problems, and invest time and effort in building a product that solves those problems!
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