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You have a great idea for a smartphone app. What is the process of putting it together? How tech savvy do you have to be? And then what is the process to get the app into an app store?

Aside from client work, we've got several successful websites we've built independently. One of them, and my favorite, is Rainy Cafe. Lifehacker described it as, "a simple little site that plays both the bustle of a coffee shop and the soothing sound of gradually increasing rainfall." It's essentially a white noise generator. The site gets around 100K visitors per month. We decided it would be the perfect site to translate in to an iOS app.


Rainy Cafe: Ambient Noise to Soothe and Boost Productivity

We applied for a developer account with Apple. To prove the legitimacy of a business, Apple requires a Dunn & Bradstreet number. This was our first stumbling block. It takes weeks to be verified by Dunn & Bradstreet, and strangely, it takes weeks for Dunn & Bradstreet to update their database with Apple. Just getting our developer account took over a month because of that. During that time, we put the app together. We used PhoneGap to translate our existing web assets in to an iPhone app. It was remarkably simple, within an hour we had a working app. That's spectacular since we previously had no iOS development experience. Adding native features like background audio support wasn't difficult either. PhoneGap community's support is excellent. Any question we had during development was just a Google search away.

Once we had the app built, we needed to test it. While we knew the app worked in Apple's software simulator, we wanted to be certain it worked in the real world. That's where having an approved Apple developer account becomes a necessity. To load an app on to an actual iOS device, the device must first be "provisioned" by Apple. It's a straight forward process of getting the device recognized by Apple, "code signing" the test app, and then launching the app on your own device. It's necessary, not just important, to test on real devices. The iOS simulator is great but imperfect. We have noticed some idiosyncrasies between the two environments.

Since our app was simple, we didn't have any snags when testing, and we're ready to submit our app for review by Apple. It took five days for them to our review app… and reject it. They found that our Rainy Cafe app provides "a very limited amount of content and a very limited set of features" specifically because it "only contains two ambient noises."

Since our app had exactly the right amount of features to accomplish its goal, we opted to suspend development on the iOS app. When we can think of new features that make sense, then we'll resume development. Even if we did, it would still be a gamble. What if we add a sleep timer? Or a new selection of sounds? Would those things really add to the user experience? Would Apple approve the app then? Ultimately, Apple is the gatekeeper to an app's success, which makes building an app a gamble.

It can be tough, frustrating, and even painful to get approval for a design from a client.

Anyone can offer an opinion on design, so they do. Worse yet, these opinions are based on an individual's own subjective taste, not a professional designer's years of objective experience in solving complex problems. Instead of butting heads with the client, try some of the strategies we use at Ethercycle to work collaboratively with our clients.

Become the Expert

I always backup my reasoning with multiple articles explaining why something may not be a good idea, and then offer an alternative.

For example, if a client wanted to include background music on a brochure site, I would write to them,

It's not in your best interest to include audio on the website, users find it a turn-off.

Here are some articles on the subject:
  1. Regrettable User Experience: website background music
  2. Stack Overflow: Web Usability - Background Music
Including a video, if you have one, is a better way to engage users with both sound and audio.

It's easy to say that the designer is wrong, but it's hard to say the design community is wrong. No one likes being wrong, so it's important to offer a better alternative to the client. Part of being professional is remaining positive and helpful.

Reframe their Problem

What if instead of sending a design mock-up, you sent a business solution? The difference is in how you present your design. This framing starts from the time the client initially contacts us.

    I ask…
  1. "Why are you looking to start this project?" to reveal their motivation.
  2. "What problem are you trying to solve?" to determine their pain.
  3. "How will you know if this project is successful?" to find what metrics are important.

While this is very helpful in crafting a brief, it lets me tie my designs back to their initial reasons for hiring us. When I send the design to the client, I present in the context of why they hired us. I might say something like, "Based on what you told us in the kick-off meeting, this is a great solution to X problem and will increase Y metric." For a particularly complex design, I will submit it with annotations describing the reasoning behind certain elements and how they'll help accomplish goals.

Borrow Credibility

Sometimes just telling a client that in your expert opinion a solution will work isn't good enough. That's when it's time to borrow credibility through design testing. If you're truly convinced of your design, test it.Send a survey to between 25 and 100 people and ask their opinion.

  1. Present two designs and ask which is better and why.
  2. Test usability by asking users where they think they should click to perform a task.
  3. You can even test subjective issues by asking how a design makes them feel.

Ideally your test-takers should be in your target demographic, and preferably existing customers. As a business owner, your client can't argue with 50 of their own customers.

It Gets Better

Always remember that the client hired you because they think that you can help them better their business. All relationships take time to develop. In time, you'll go from hired hands to trusted advisor.

Approvly

To help other designers get through design approval process and get feedback better from clients we put together Approvly, an app that takes the pain out of approval. Head over to approvly.com, and enter your email address to follow the progress and be the first to hear when Approvly launches.

Leanne asks...

How do you handle final payment when the site launch is delayed? We require 50% down payment for website design projects and the remaining when the site is launched. But lately, we have found customers are delaying the site launch thus we don't get final payment. How do you handle it?

We bill 30/30/30/10 with net 15 terms.

A client's payment schedule is tied to their project's milestones:

  • 30% deposit upon contract acceptance
  • 30% on approval of Photoshop document of final design
  • 30% on approval of HTML/CSS files of final website
  • 10% balance due when site goes live

By the time the site is delivered, we've already received 90% of the project fees. We've both mitigated our risk, and attached our payments to our performance. It's everyone's best interest to work this way.

Within 24 hours of Apple announcing iOS7, we downloaded the developer preview to our own phones.

It is the biggest refresh of the OS ever. It's a welcome change as iOS was starting to feel stale, especially in comparison to the animation love-fest of Windows Phone. Every single thing in the OS has been redesigned, so there's too much for us to go over in detail, but let's talk about a few features we've noticed and loved:

  • Accelerator based animations: When the phone is tilted, the icons and wallpaper shift slightly to give the phone a subtle depth. It's both superfluous and amazing.
  • Multitasking: The new task switcher works like the old WebOS from the the HP TouchPad. Swiping an app's "card" up off the screen closes it. Much handier than the old method. Supposedly multitasking has been rewritten to improve battery life, but we haven't noticed anything yet.
  • Camera: The new camera includes a square crop for the Instagram fans, a nifty new interface, and even filters with live preview.
  • Control Center: From the lock screen, swiping bottom-up reveals a new control panel with toggles for wifi, bluetooth, and brightness. It even includes shortcut keys and a flashlight. Finally, a flashlight.
  • Photos: New albums can be generated on the fly according to date or location. It's like iPhoto.
  • App Store: Apps now auto-update in the background (like Android.)

Aside from the new and beautiful interface, there's dozens of new features. It's exciting to see Apple update our favorite smartphone, especially with a design language we hope to see continue in to OSX. Overall, I like iOS7. Admittedly, it's in part because it feels so new and different. It's bright and tries to present itself as fun. It screams, "Computers are fun!" and I'm okay with that.

Dedicating 20% of our time to personal projects and research is the secret sauce that makes our client work successful.

We call it Ethercycle Labs. It’s shaped our culture in to one of open exploration, let us take risks that clients couldn’t, and given us insight on everything from the landslide shift toward mobile to the dynamics of crowd-funding.

To explore projects outside of clients’ demands, we began a Labs initiative in March 2012. The Labs program allows us to catalyze new thinking while getting into the consumer mindset. This research has provided us guidance on what to support for our clients, helped us reach new customers, and just generally been a great learning experience for the whole team.

Sharing everything we do publicly for free has been our best advertising. Our labs projects are almost universally things we built for ourselves that we shared. Collectively, those releases generate up to 1 million page views monthly, resulting in a lot of referrals to Ethercycle, and subsequently new leads or newsletter subscribers.

Explore what you can do with no restrictions, share it, and see what it can do for your business. At worst, you'll have learned something. At best, you'll have made something wonderful.

In 2009, I quit my job to launch Ethercycle. Back then being a consultancy hadn't crossed my mind.

Quite the opposite, I wanted to build an ecommerce SaaS app for bike shops. A little over a year after we started, we realized that our business model was flawed. We had made ourselves too dependent on other people. At the same time, we had met a lot of people who misunderstood what we were trying to do. These new friends did, however, understand that we knew the Web, and they would often ask: "Could you maybe help with our website?" Looking at the problem rationally, it became obvious that we needed to pivot.

Startups typically need to pivot and evolve their business model over time, especially as customers start to use the product or service. In order to pivot and keep your business moving forward, set limits. If a business model isn’t working, you have to set a limit on saving it.

Decide in advance, before your emotions get the best of you, how much time, money, and effort you’re willing to put in to iterating a business model before accepting that it isn’t working. Failure doesn’t have to be scary if you embrace it early, learn from it, and move on to the next thing. The last thing you want to do is rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic.

During the month of March 2013, Calming Manatee received 613,792 total page views. Of them, 26.87% were from mobile devices.

Unique Visitors by Mobile Device

  1. iPhone - 59.45%
  2. iPad - 14.06%
  3. iPod - 3.03%
  4. Galaxy S III - 2.10%
  5. Other - 21.36%

Unique Visitors by Mobile Operating System

  1. iOS - 75.74%
  2. Android - 22.60%
  3. Windows Phone - 0.93%
  4. BlackBerry - 0.62%
  5. SymbianOS - 0.05%
  6. Other - 0.06%

Unique Visitors by Viewport

  1. 320x480 - 45.06%
  2. 320x568 - 16.15%
  3. 768x1024 - 13.77%
  4. 720x1280 - 5.61%
  5. 480x800 - 3.01%
  6. Other - 16.40%

Audience Demographics
Compared with internet averages, the site appeals more to users who are under the age of 35; its visitors also tend to consist of childless women browsing from school and work who have incomes between $30,000 and $60,000. Roughly 90% of visits to the site are referred from social media.

Insights

  1. The Galaxy S3 is clearly the dominant Android device. Consider adding one to your testing suite. Don't spend too much though as it only accounts for 1 in 50 mobile visits. Consider a Bad ESN unit from eBay.
  2. These stats are largely unchanged compared to January. There was no market upheaval this quarter.
  3. New BlackBerry devices became available worldwide, yet their market share has not yet changed. We'll keep an eye on it.

We curated this checklist to make our own website testing more efficient.

We run through it before we launch a client's site. We're sharing it with other designers and developers to make the web as a whole better.

  Businesses fall into a trap where when they have a lot of sales coming in, they don't put as much effort into advertising or marketing.

  It's a combination of two factors. It's the thought that "I have more customers than I can handle right now", and a lack of time to devote to marketing. The danger in doing this is that when you do run out of customers or sales, you have to scramble to resume your marketing efforts to get back where you were. The result for many businesses is an unending cycle of ups and downs, or empty and then overflowing sales funnels. The number one commandment of marketing is to never stop selling. It's easier than it sounds if you automate your marketing efforts.


Automating Your Social Media

  Let's start simple. The first thing that you stop paying attention to, is your social media efforts, right? That's probably the easiest thing to fix. There are two central approaches to social media that we can automate: content distribution and content curation.

  To distribute content, I use two tools: IFTTT and Buffer. Buffer lets me quickly schedule postings to Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn from my phone or my desktop. There are several platforms like it, but I prefer Buffer because it's incredibly easy to use. Once we've added my accounts and setup schedules, I add scheduled updates to it just as easily I would update Twitter, and I can push updates to it through their API. That's where IFTTT comes in to play.

  IFTTT stands for If This, Then That. It's a free service that lets you create "recipes" or simple triggers and actions that leverage the power of other services with APIs. Let's use Instagram as an example. Whenever I post a photo to Instagram, IFTTT sees it and looks for recipes that start with "If new instagram photo by ethercycle," and then it carries out any actions I've specified. I think photos are great content marketing, so I have IFTTT post my new photos Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter. I even have it backup those photos to my Dropbox.

  To get you started with IFTTT, I've shared some of my recipes:

  1. Instagrams to Tumblr Photo posts
  2. New Flickr photos to Tumblr photo posts
  3. New Instagram photo upload a new Photo on Facebook Page Album
  4. Instagram to Twitter
  5. Send interesting business articles to LinkedIn
  6. Buffer my YouTube videos
  7. Download my Instagrams to Dropbox


Automated Content Curation

  We've come up with an easier way to distribute our content, but we need to create content first. To find new and interesting topics and inspiration, subscribe to a newsletter in your industry, and some general newsletters. At the very least, sign up for Dave Pell's NextDraft which correctly claims to have the day's most fascinating news. I've taken content curation a step further, and use IFTTT to send RSS feeds of industry sources directly in to my Buffer account. Once a day, I go through and a delete all but the most interesting or relevant articles. If I have time, I'll try to add commentary to each tweet.


Content Creation: No Shortcuts

  Now comes the hard part. The best content marketing is the creation of original blog posts or articles. Your website has given you homework: you need add 3,000 words of original content to your site every month if you want to stay relevant. As the principal at your business, you're best suited to create the most compelling content. It is hard work, but there are ways to make it easier. The hardest part of writing, for me anyway, is editing. I hate it. I have a freelance copy-editor I pay by the hour to edit case studies and web content. It's easier to get motivated writing when you know you don't have to proofread your work yourself if you don't want to.

 If you're like me, you should now be able to get started on writing. But, hold on, I need to check my email. And Twitter. And feed my cat. You get the point, distractions are the real reason blogging doesn't happen. I have a solution. I sit in my parked car and dictate a blog to Siri. That gives me a rough draft easily, and it's even written in my natural tone. Siri may make some pretty atrocious errors but she's a good listener and doesn't interrupt me.

  If you want to keep your sales funnel full, you need to stop procrastinating, and start marketing smarter through automation.

The trap that many creatives fall in to when marketing themselves is not differentiating themselves.

Saying "Hello, my name is Chris, and I make beautiful websites" doesn't help to sell anything. A tagline like that is only slightly more productive than writing "Welcome to my website!" like it's 1998 again and we're on Geocities. And saying you make "beautiful" anything is like a restaurant saying "Hi, we're McDonald's and we make good cheeseburgers." Yes, it's factually true, but it's also incredibly generic. There's no one claiming they make a bad product in their tagline. It'd be better to say what you make for who you make it and why you make it. For example, "I make mobile websites for non-profits that increase donations." The critical difference is that it's no longer about the creative, it's about the client.