Make it Happen: How to Design Your First iPhone App

People love chatting snappily on the Snapchat app, so much so that the two-year-old company’s been valued at $860 million. People share photos constantly on Instagram, which is why Facebook spent $1 billion to acquire the program as a standalone app. It’s safe to say that the app market is booming.

And, and it’s easier than you think to get in on it—even if you’re not a developer (or a “technical founder,” as they say in Startup Land). If you’ve got a great idea and are good with the business side of things, there are plenty of learning resources and outsourcing opportunities to help you with actually creating the next big app.

Here’s a rundown of the basics you need to get started.

Get Your App Store Developer Account

First things first: You can’t sell an app you can’t list. Getting your account set up with the Apple App Store costs about $100 per year, but it’s necessary unless you’re developing apps under another company or name that will be paying you from the revenues.

And even if you won’t launch your app for a while, this is good to do now—an App Store account provides access to helpful development tools and resources.

Map Your App Out

What information will people find on the home screen? What pages will you need? What will users expect? How will the app flow?

Before you actually start building your app, you’ll want to consider what the user experience will be like and start creating a visual representation of it. You don’t have to know exact aesthetics, but get something logical and representative together. Crafting a detailed “wireframe” of the application using either a hand-sketched drawing on paper or a digital wireframing application like Balsamiq will help you organize your thoughts or communicate the app’s functionality with the rest of your team. On that note:

Put it Together

The next step in getting your app development wheels turning is actually coding it. But don’t let that intimidate you! If you’re willing to get your hands dirty, digitally speaking, plenty of developers are bringing their expertise to the internet to lend self-starters a hand.

If you’re working a full-time job and want to capitalize on your idea fast—or if you’re building something that’s very complex—you can also hire someone else to design and code your application for you. Here’s a rundown on both options.

Option 1: Learn to Code Yourself

Here are a few of the internet’s best resources for DIY coding. With diligence, many people beginning coding basic applications within the first month.


  • Treehouse: Treehouse is an incredible resource for all things app-coding. Here you can find online tutorials and intensive classes that guide you through the process of learning how to code.
  • Skillshare: Don’t learn well in the online tutorial structure? As the name suggests, Skillshare is a place for experts to share their skills with others. The site includes basic overviews and multiple course types that allow you to learn online or in-person locally (if available).
  • Stack Overflow: This free service bridges development novices with questions to experts with answers. It’s not the most comprehensive way to learn, but it fills in the gaps between tutorials if you don’t understand something.


You’ll also need to have and be familiar with the following:


  • Photoshop: Photoshop is the standard of digital image design and creation. Anyone looking to handle design themselves will absolutely need this software.
  • Xcode: This is Apple’s coding simplification software. It’s integrative and easy to use, it tracks any coding errors as you code, and it can even fix errors automatically.
  • Phonegap: An alternative to Xcode, programs like this help you easily create acceptable applications with only rudimentary knowledge of CSS, HTML, and JavaScript.
  • A Mac Computer: Seems basic, but if developing on the iOS platform, you’ll need an Apple computer.



Option 2: Build a Team

If you want to hire others to build your app, you’ll need to line up several skills and personnel types to draw from as needed. Though some contractors can be skilled in multiple fields, don’t expect to find all of these skills in one person. Depending on the complexity of your app, it’s likely you’ll need to outsource a whole team or even hire an agency with comprehensive offerings in-house.

Most importantly, understand the exact skill sets you will need from your team. UX Designers (who design the app’s functionality) should understand layout fundamentals, information architecture, and elements of user functionality. Graphic Designers (who design logos and other visual elements) need to understand the visual elements of branding and brand continuity and how color and font schemes contribute to branding. Developers will construct the foundational database for the app, and should have specific experience in doing this for iPhone apps. Developers will be the ones putting your idea and design into action and can help submit it to the App Store successfully.

Here are a few places to look for designers and developers to fit any budget:


  • oDesk
  • They Make Apps
  • Elance
  • GroupTalent


A service like oDesk or Elance will be the most economical approach, as rates range anywhere from $10 to $50 per hour for overseas talent, versus working with a U.S.-based full service agency, where rates typically range from $75 to $200 per hour. (In total, you can expect to pay $5,000-$10,000 when working with freelancers, or anywhere from $20,000-$150,000 when working with a firm.) If you decide to take this path, be sure to read Derek Sivers’ article about outsourcing first.

Also remember that, when working with a team, communication is paramount. From updates to instruction, from relaying ideas to getting input, you need to have tools in place to make sure you keep in touch with your team. Project management tools like Basecamp are some of the most useful tools out there for sharing and organizing ideas. Think of it like having a remote-access whiteboard in a digital conference room with everyone on your team.


Ready Yet?

As you can see, there are plenty of options to design and build your dream application without finding a technical co-founder to join you. Now, take that idea and run with it.

What other resources have you found to help bring your iPhone app to life?

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