Ask DN: How did you come up with an App Idea?

almost 6 years ago from , Product Designer @ Dribbble / Maker

This post pertains mainly to those in the industry of building apps for mobile devices, tablets, as well as web but anyone can feel free to share.

I've been doing a bit of research lately on building a product (app). I have a long term goal to make a product and I've had success finding some sources for building and launching apps, but what I'm struggling with is the overall idea.

Main question is : How do you come up with a great idea for an app?

To most, these ideas my come naturally but I've noticed that any time I've come up with something I'm back to square one because that "idea" has already been created.

Questions that are always on my mind:

  • Do I take an existing idea for a product and make it the better?

    • Do I continue on searching for something that hasn't been thought of yet?
    • Do I nix the whole idea and focus on the bread and butter of my business (web design, development)?

While I love client driven website design and development (the day job), my long term goal is to great something ( a product) to maintain and author for anyone to use.

A big inspiration and an example is Basecamp. They started as an agency but quickly went into product mode.

Any thoughts on the matter? Thanks in advance



  • Jordan SingerJordan Singer, almost 6 years ago

    "The way to get startup ideas is not to try to think of startup ideas. It's to look for problems, preferably problems you have yourself." - Paul Graham

    20 points
  • Coulter PattonCoulter Patton, almost 6 years ago (edited almost 6 years ago )

    How do you come up with a great idea for an app?

    There's generally three ways people go about generating ideas:

    1. Sit around brainstorming ideas until one sticks.
    2. Observe a market to find and address a need.
    3. Scratch your own itch.

    The first option is what most people use when trying to think up a business/app idea. This option is the worst out of the three because there's no data or context to drive your thought process. I have a feeling this is where most of the "it's like x combined with y" ideas come from.

    The second option is a much better choice. This method requires you to choose a market and observe it for a period of time. During that observation process you're writing down specific information, such as:

    • Their frustrations.
    • Their problems.
    • Their desires.
    • Their language.
    • etc...

    Basically, any data that can be used to come up with ideas for products. This is a smart approach because your ideas are coming from observed data and real people. As a bonus, you also know exactly where and how to reach these people once you have an offering in place.

    The third option is also viable (and how Basecamp came to be). If you've got a problem that's been eating at you for a long time, there's a chance other people have that same problem. Make a product that's exactly what you need.

    This method is riskier than the second method, but I also think it can sometimes generate the most interesting products. When you're designing something for yourself you tend to have very specific ideas of how things should be handled, which I think can lead to some interesting outcomes.

    I'm back to square one because that "idea" has already been created.

    There's very little in life that is truly original. Even great innovations are mostly combinations of previous, existing ideas/technologies.

    Don't be frightened away by competitors – embrace them. They've proven the market for you. All you need to do is make something a little different/better.

    I'll give you a perfect example… just the other day I was in the market for a pomodoro app. If you search for "pomodoro" in the app store you'll notice there's no shortage of apps. So what did I do? I bought all of them and tried each one out (they're all pretty cheap). After trying out ~5 apps I settled on one that I felt had the best combination of design and features. They all do the same thing – the only real difference is the UX and whatever additional features the developer decided to tack on. Some people want tracking features with their timer, some people want a built-in todo list, some people don't want any fluff at all and just want the timer to work really well.

    My point is that people have specific needs and desires. Having options allows them to choose whichever one feels right for them. If a market is big enough, there's plenty of customers and money to go around.

    Anyhow, those are my thoughts. Hope they help.

    7 points
    • Andy LeverenzAndy Leverenz, almost 6 years ago

      Thank you so much for this!

      0 points
    • Dita A SDita A S, almost 6 years ago (edited almost 6 years ago )

      My point is that people have specific needs and desires. Having options allows them to choose whichever one feels right for them. If a market is big enough, there's plenty of customers and money to go around.

      True. True. Just like samsung with it's phones.

      0 points
      • barry saundersbarry saunders, almost 6 years ago

        also sometimes it's a matter of timing, quality, improvement. There were dozens of location apps prior to Foursquare. Realplayer was around for years before Spotify.

        0 points
  • Pasquale D'SilvaPasquale D'Silva, almost 6 years ago (edited almost 6 years ago )

    I use the concept of a muser. Here's a copy of the post written by my co-founder Jake:

    A muser is a user who, like a muse, inspires you to do great work. It’s hard to build great technology products without a muser. The muser not only adds emotional motivation to the developer’s work ethic; she serves a cognitive function of focusing his mind on the one thing that truly matters: what using the thing is like. Without her, projects disintegrate into scattered bundles of individual features, appealing to the intellect but not the heart.

    Some of the best and most popular products were built by developers who were their own muser. Working on ideas that you passionately want to use is a good strategy because, in addition to the work being high quality, you will continue to work on it through the inevitable hard parts.

    If your muser is a nonexistent theoretical person that your CEO insists will one day emerge, or your muser is an “enterprise” or a bureaucracy, you will never do your best work because only part of you will be devoted to the vision. One of the benefits of working at Elepath is that we build many projects in parallel, each project is led by its own muser, and new products can come from anyone. Some people had a laugh when I started a company without “an idea”.

    In reality, my idea is to slowly build the next great tech company. Products are cheap and last for years, but companies exist over decades (or longer). Our first few muser-led products might be failures, but I believe that, as a long-term strategy, a few winners are inevitable.

    2 points
  • Marc EdwardsMarc Edwards, almost 6 years ago (edited almost 6 years ago )

    To most, these ideas my come naturally but I've noticed that any time I've come up with something I'm back to square one because that "idea" has already been created.

    Many or most ideas have been attempted at least once.

    Total Active App (currently available for download): 1,134,924

    Total Apps Seen in US App Store: 1,350,156

    I wouldn’t let that distract you.

    Do I take an existing idea for a product and make it the better?

    Do you have a new take on the idea? The iOS and Android app stores are incredibly crowded, so getting noticed will probably be your biggest problem, even if you have a good idea and great execution. If you’re going to build something that’s been done successfully, you’ll probably want to approach it from a different angle.

    Are you an expert in any specific fields? Is there something you can do that others would find difficult? Maybe base your idea on that.

    Do I nix the whole idea and focus on the bread and butter of my business (web design, development)?

    I think it depends on your expectations. If you’re planning on getting rich, you’ll probably be disappointed. If you want to learn, it’s a great idea.

    2 points
  • Ivan UvarovIvan Uvarov, almost 6 years ago (edited almost 6 years ago )

    Hi! Don't think about idea too much. The most difficult part is execution, so you should take any idea you have now (even if somebody already did this) and build a product. Even if something exists, you can make it better. But again, execution is the most important part.

    Also, create a list of ideas and update it regularly with all ideas you have (no matter how bad are they). For me, I always have thoughts like "I wish something existed", and then I immediately put this idea on my list. Then, when I'm ready to build something, I open this list and choose best ideas. If you have a big list of ideas, you'll definitely find something worth building. You can't just seat and generate ideas, you'll find them accidentally.

    2 points
    • Andy Leverenz, almost 6 years ago

      I think you're definitely right. I think I'm focusing on specifics rather than what I need to wrap my head around. I'll start making a log of ideas and see what comes of it. Many thanks!

      1 point
  • Diego LafuenteDiego Lafuente, almost 6 years ago

    It's pretty simple:

    1. I find problems that people are willing to pay for if they were solved.
    2. I design the solution, with several iterations.
    3. Quicklaunch to validate.
    1 point
  • Ahmet YalcinkayaAhmet Yalcinkaya, almost 6 years ago

    a TED video about that

    Steven Johnson: Where good ideas come from http://www.ted.com/talks/steven_johnson_where_good_ideas_come_from

    1 point
  • Alson KawAlson Kaw, almost 6 years ago

    Just exactly like what Vignellis said

    If you can't find it, design it

    1 point
  • Conlin "Wuz" DurbinConlin "Wuz" Durbin, almost 6 years ago

    I have a running list of ideas that I add to all the time. Aside from that, some of my favorite advice on the matter is from Hemingway, instead of worrying about all the questions, just do what he says: “The shortest answer is doing the thing.”

    Just build something. And then if you like it see what you need to do to take it to the next level.

    1 point
  • Matthaeus KrennMatthaeus Krenn, almost 6 years ago (edited almost 6 years ago )

    A lot of good things have been said here already.

    One thing I would add: don't underestimate the power of starting with a tiny idea and having fun building on it. E.g. What ideas can you come up with that start with the question "wouldn't it be crazy and awesome if .... ?".

    You can think of a small, crazy idea as an experiment. Take the pressure of having to solve a serious problem or address an existing market away. Make something small, fun and new and then see if it catches on. If it does, you have an indicator that you might have something cool, you'll be motivated to continue and it'll be exciting. If it's lame, you just throw it in the trash and start over. It was just a silly experiment after all.

    I mean... Wouldn't it be crazy/awesome if there was an app that just said "yo" to its users?

    1 point
  • Pete LadaPete Lada, almost 6 years ago (edited almost 6 years ago )

    From my own personal experience (I am one of the co-founders of Guidebook -- a mobile platform for guides to events and places) we derived the idea by happenstance. We were conducting our lives as we normally would (in this case, attending a conference) and were aghast to find a severe need for a product revolving around a mobile solution to guide you around complex, hyper-contexual spaces.

    Of course, this idea evolved naturally: we started out developing a single, stand-alone app for a specific conference; decided it was far too specific; broadened the scope to a platform; decided the technology is generic enough to be shared across numerous physical places which require the same basic features; etc etc until we arrived where we are now (a company of as-of-this-week 68 people).

    In any case, of all the app ideas I've had or had the experience of hearing about second-hand, they are nearly all stumbled upon while transacting your daily routine in the personal or professional. It very rarely is a lightbulb over the head moment void of context.

    1 point
  • s.maría peña, almost 6 years ago

    Amy Hoy has some interesting and useful ideas about this at unicornfree.com

    1 point
  • Eliot SlevinEliot Slevin, almost 6 years ago

    Most points I'd make have been covered, but I just want to add that having a friend to talk shit about ideas with helps a lot. A bad idea from you can become a good idea from them.

    Also, sometimes instead of thinking of a problem - then thinking about where you can find users, sometimes finding a large potential market of users, then thinking about their problems can help.

    1 point
  • Louis EguchiLouis Eguchi, almost 6 years ago

    In my experience what ever you do try something quick and easy to make. It is easy to get ahead of yourself and think of something that would take months or years to create. Instead think of a smaller thing a minimal viable product and try and get it out there.

    It is much harder to market your app as the area is saturated I would say coming up with a plan to get exposure and people using and reviewing is the hardest try that and quickly.

    For ideas just take something and make it better first something easy maybe possible to make in phone gap rather than investing in the setup of a native project. make an improvement or added feature.

    Not much is original everything draws from or derives from something else. This might be the best strategy to get your head stuck in and making something which for me is the important thing. The rest will follow.

    Last idea is to find a client who will pay for an app to be built perhaps a 'business solution ' this would relieve the idea stress and give you a starting point.

    1 point
  • Omar FOmar F, almost 6 years ago

    Usually the best product you can build is the one you can’t find anywhere else. You don’t have to invent a new thing, but rather reimagine some key features, workflows, or user interface.

    0 points
  • Ryan MurphyRyan Murphy, almost 6 years ago

    be a genius.

    0 points
  • Andy Leverenz, almost 6 years ago

    With all the feedback I did some further research. I appreciate everyone's kind comments. They have been so helpful.

    Another good resource I found for a take on product related ideals is over at http://unicornfree.com/. Read the articles they offer. It's nice to see another perspective on the matter.

    Thanks again everyone. I'll refer to this post a lot in my journey.

    0 points