Scoping Your App With a Prototype

Looking to make a mobile app? Here's how to start with a prototype, and learn what your finished app will need to succeed.
Tyler Moore

Tyler helps spread the word about App Press, and helps new customers get started with our software.

Every app project should start with a prototype. Before you spend hours developing your app, building assets, uploading content, and building navigation, you should start small.

Start with a pen and paper. Start with a sketch. Start with something ugly that's easy to change, easy to fix, and easy to throw away.

From a simple pen and paper version of your app, you can move on to something more complex. A mobile app with default screens and placeholder content. Something someone else can hold in their hand, and walk through while you explain your idea.

If you're new to mobile development, you may be tempted to wait until you've got a polished product before showing it to someone. Don't wait. Show people what you're working on early, and show it to as many people as you can. You want to work out obvious problems in your design while those problems are still easy to throw out.

Here's how starting with a prototype will help you scope your finished app.

A prototype helps you understand your app's requirements

You've probably got a good idea of what your app will do, but by mapping out the screen flow, you'll start to understand the functionality you'll need to build your app. Very few mobile apps are built without relying on other services, products, or external requests.

  • ‍Will users log into your app? If so, you'll need login functionality.
  • ‍What about creating personal profiles, or connecting to social sites, like Facebook and Twitter?
  • ‍Are you planning on handling payments through your app?

It's OK if you don't have all of the answers just yet. A prototype is designed to help you understand what your app will need. Start with what you know your app will need, and other requirements will become apparent as you sketch it out, and refine your idea.

We're huge fans of prototyping, and we've written about the benefits of starting with a prototype before. Here's a closer look at how starting with a prototype app will help you publish the best version of your app idea.

A prototype helps define your user experience

Once you've got a good handle on the features your app will require, your prototype can help you map out how your users will use your app.

Let's assume you're working on an app where users will log in, create a personal profile, and then make payments. Once you understand what your app can do, you need to figure out how your users will use it. A prototype will help you understand how your users will move through your app.

For example, what happens when your users sign up and log into your app? What's the next screen they see, and what message do you send?

User experience is one of the most important pieces of making a successful app, and a prototype can help you understand how you want your users to use your app, and how to make it a fun, pleasant experience.

A prototype helps others understand your app idea

During the development phase of your app, you're going to want to show it to a variety of people, for various reasons. Talking to as many people as possible to refine your idea is key to creating an app that drives real business value.

Early in the process, you'll want to show a sketch to members of your team, your co-founder, or other stakeholders. Once you've got a handle on what your app will need, you can create a more polished prototype of your app.

This is a great time to turn your sketches into a higher fidelity prototype using a tool like App Press, and then get your prototype in the hands of actual users. What type of person would use your finished app? Try to find similar people, and show them what you've been working on. At this point, you're looking for as much feedback as you can get from people in your target market.

You can make a lot of progress toward your user experience by mapping out your ideas and discussing your screen flow with colleagues and friends, but the best way to polish your app is by showing it to people who would use it.

The number of people you should show your app to is hard to pinpoint exactly, but you should talk to people until a pattern starts to emerge. Show it to people who might use your finished app until you start getting the same feedback. Customer development is outside of the scope of this post, but research indicates you should talk to somewhere between 5 and 20 people to start.

Finally, once you've gotten feedback from people who would use your published app, you can move on to a highly polished prototype. Once you've gotten feedback from your coworkers or team members, and shown your app idea to potential users, you're ready to start building the final version of your app.

Depending on the complexity of your app idea, the final step is to either turn your prototype into something you can publish directly to the app store, or refine your idea further to show potential investors. Highly complex apps often require additional funding - for example, the company that built Instagram raised a seed round of $500,000 in 2010.

Raising venture capital is much easier if you have something to show investors. A prototype app that looks good, makes sense, and has a sound go to market strategy is much more attractive to a potential investor than an idea for the next big app, with nothing concrete behind it. Starting with a prototype can make sure you're building something people want.

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