Doodlemate is the first app I wrote for the iPhone and was released in July 2011. Now it’s over a year old it seemed like a good time to review how things went. Hopefully my experiences will help others working on, or thinking of starting, their own apps.
Doodlemate started life as a personal learning project. Back in 2011 I was just starting out with IOS and XCode and trying to figure out how everything fitted together. Learning, for me, is better with a solid goal to focus my efforts, so I decided to pick an app idea to develop.
After looking at various tutorials I figured a drawing app of some kind would give me a good grounding in both the standard model-view-controller architecture and in custom drawing. Pondering it a while longer, I also decided that a variation on the drawing app tutorial would be good: smaller images with limited palettes, harking back to the days of pixel art on BBC Micro Computers where I started learning programming. It also occurred to me that I could easily string a few images together and make animations, which would be a lot cooler than just drawing stuff.
I sketched up some basic requirements and got started. I think my outline was:
- home screen with list of animations
- preview screen
- drawing screen with animation settings on the flip side (it was in one of the Apple tutorials and I wanted to use the flip effect )
- palette management screen
- colour selection screen
As a learning project went, it was ok. At the time there were only a few animation apps available (that I could find) and most didn’t let you do anything with what you created. I figured animations stuck on the iPhone were ok, but if you could save them or send them to yourself then it would actually be useful. It was then I realised the animation app I was creating fitted the format for animated GIFs, and that there might actually be a market for my little pet project!
After that I shifted my thinking. Instead of developing a learning project to teach myself various concepts, I was developing an app for release to end users. I think I actually learned more about app development from that shift in thinking than from all the other programming problems I’ve encountered in the last couple of years.
First Year Stats
The numbers then. In the 12 months from July 2011 to June 2012, Doodlemate has sold a total of 468 copies around the world.
Personally I find this number amazing. That many people have bought my app and, over the year, it’s gathered enough ratings to get 5 stars on the app store!
The number of sales and ratings did seem pretty low to start with. It’s worth remembering that people are usually a lot more vocal about things they don’t like than things they do. I realised that for my app to have only positive reviews meant it was good enough that people don’t feel the urge to go rate it down. Not the most glowing endorsement, sure, but I must have done something right
Spikes in Sales
The sales saw several spikes over the year which are worth mentioning:
- Release – can’t get any sales if you don’t release your app. Without any advertising or marketing my initial sales were fairly slow and probably consisted mostly of friends and family. Thanks everyone!
- Update – A couple of months after release I finished the animated GIF saving features and made an update.
- Christmas – Well, January really. Not sure why this might be but my guess is that everyone who got a shiny new iPhone, iTunes vouchers as presents or just had a lot of spare time flooded the app store over the holidays!
- Getting a star rating – Getting enough ratings to get a 4.5 star rating on the app store (I think you need a minimum of 5 ratings) caused another jump in sales.
- Getting a 5-star rating – Getting that last half star caused another jump in sales. Apparently there are people who only download apps with a 5 star rating.
There were a lot of lessons learned from developing Doodlemate, and only some of them involved the programming I originally set out to learn.
I Can Earn Money From Apps
Until Doodlemate was released, the idea of actually earning money from writing my own apps seemed like a pipe dream. While it hasn’t exactly made a fortune it has shown that it is possible for apps I write to actually sell.
App Development Takes Time
This goes without saying, but writing a decent app is going to take time. However long you think it might take, double it. That’s a good starting point, but you’re probably still short.
If you’re a first time developer (like me), then there are likely to be a lot of tasks you either don’t know about yet (so haven’t factored them in to your estimate) or that you are aware of but can’t accurately estimate.
Another consideration is whether you’re doing things in your spare time or if you can devote full days to it. Trying to develop apps around a full time job means spending all your spare time doing it. This can be ok for a while but is a hard pace to maintain for long. Life, people and events have a nasty habit of catching up with you so it’s worth factoring in a little ‘me’ time, no matter how disciplined and hermit like you think you can be.
In the end, it will all come down to your persistence in completing your app. Burning out through overwork or getting depressed and stopping after massive underestimation aren’t going to help things.
Get a Star Rating
It might seem obvious but you really must get a star rating on the app store, and ideally a 3 rating at minimum. Getting a star rating had a double effect for me: I got a spike in sales and it slowed the tail-off in purchases. I was getting higher sales figures for months after getting a star rating than I had on release.
Many people, myself including, ignore apps without star ratings, especially if they have a lot of competition in the store. I want to buy useful apps not test and rate new apps, so I leave it to other people. I assume that the crowd will have already tried apps and rated them if they’re any good.
You don’t have to resort to any underhand tactics here. Simply do a bit of advertising with whatever you have available (friends, family, social media, clubs, societies, school news, etc) and prompt people to rate it honestly if they like it.
Aim for a 5 Star Rating
Ok, this might be a hard one to achieve but it should be what you’re aiming for, as a developer making an app and so that you maximise your returns. Essentially this means constantly testing, reviewing and revising your app to improve it as your working on it.
There are books devoted to this sort of thing so I won’t go into it, but I will say that the more testing, reviewing and improving you do before release then then better your app will be. Just remember to be honest about your app to yourself and be willing to accept feedback from others, even when they trash your favourite features. I’ve also found the more people you get involved in testing the better. Remember: you don’t have to like or use all the ideas people come up with, that’s your call as the developer.
Making an update does two things:
- It improves your app. You should have either fixed something or added a new feature to warrant making a new release. The better you make your app the more likely people are to like and buy it.
- It puts you back in the new releases section of the app store. This gives you a little extra visibility and another shot at getting into the coveted featured slot.
The flip side of this is that unless you’ve been very thorough in the original development, there’s a good chance your app will need improving or bug fixing after release. Prepare and plan for this in advance, don’t simply hope that once it’s released it’s all finished and you can stop.
Well, Doodlemate is on hold at the moment. I do have plans for a round of updates and improvements based on all the new technology that’s now available and what I’ve learned from writing my second app. The simplest (and at the same time hardest) change is to make it a universal app. I would love to see it running on an iPad as well as the iPhone, partly because I want to play with all the extra space you get on the iPad display and partly because it opens up a whole new market of people who might like to make animated gif’s again
So there you go: some sales figures from a first time app developer and some things to think about if you’re developing your own app. Hope it helps!