A look at the evolution of an app from idea to product

As of March 2013, Portio Research forecast 82 billion apps will be downloaded worldwide in 2013, and by 2017 there will be more than 200 billion downloads per year. (Photo illustration: NET News)
Marge Daboll is one of the citizen tour guides for the in-development app "Personal History Tours," created by a trio of young Omahans. (Photo courtesy of Personal History Tours)
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August 29, 2013 - 6:30am

The number of apps, or software programs for mobile devices, has ballooned to more than 800,000 each for both Apple and Android products. Using a trio of friends in Omaha working on their own app as an example, NET News examines the evolution of an app from conception to completion.


It’s just another normal day, and you’re waiting to order a meal, or trying to decide what to do this weekend, or maybe just walking down the street, when suddenly, it hits you: A brilliant idea that would make a killer app.

Sound familiar?

Worldwide app usage

For many, that’s as far as it goes. After all, you’ve never coded anything before, and your design skills are nonexistent. (You were just happy to get your Netflix account connected properly to your Xbox.)

But for some, like Omahans Cody Peterson and Ellen Wilde, that initial spark was just the beginning.

“We just started thinking about historical city tours” while vacationing in San Francisco two years ago, Peterson said. “We started talking about how usually, in a city, the interesting stories are not necessarily about the historical places. They’re the actual stories from the people that live there.”

This summer, Peterson and Wilde joined forces with fellow Omahan Lindsay Trapnell and decided to make their idea a reality. They’re calling it “Personal History Tours.”

“I think what interests us for this project is time and place in one person’s life,” Peterson said.

When finished, the app will use maps, photos and audio to lead the user on a personal tour of Omaha sites that hold meaning for a particular citizen tour guide. The group interviewed their first guide, 82-year-old Marge Daboll, in May.

In an excerpt, she recalls her memories of the Bell Hotel, a business open at 14th and Dodge streets in downtown Omaha from 1934 until 1963.

“I was supposed to be asleep. I wasn’t,” Daboll says in the interview, a hint of mischievousness in her voice. “Dad and his buddies were playing pinochle and got to laughing about the Bell Hotel being a whorehouse. I was probably six, maybe seven, and the way they talked about it, I knew it was not a nice thing to be.”

Listen to Daboll’s full story:

Peterson, Trapnell and Wilde said they’ll use Daboll’s interview to build a prototype of the app; they’re collecting as many submissions as they can to find the best personal tour guides to include with the project.

“After we interviewed Marge, Lindsay and I were talking about how this is awesome because it gives you the perfect excuse to talk to a bunch of strangers about their sweet stories,” Wilde said.

“Yeah,” Trapnell said, adding, “it gives you license to just walk into someone’s house and ask them about their childhood.”

Peterson develops mobile and web projects for a living, so that’s one major hurdle the team has crossed. But for those with the idea but not the tech background, what are their options?

“Fear, I think, gets in the way, and not technology,” said Sourabh Chakraborty, an undergraduate computer engineering student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and student leader for HIVE, a collaboration of students and faculty that offers free or low-cost community workshops on doing things – like “How to Build an App.”

His advice? Draw what you want your app to look like and pass it around.

“You can just start it out on paper and have people sort of role-play the paper idea … and give you feedback,” he said. “And once you have that feedback set in stone, then find a coder or a designer to help you.”

Student coders or designers can be found through university or community college engineering departments; Chakraborty said HIVE members can create apps for clients for a nominal fee, or can help walk you through the process if you want to learn yourself. If you think your app idea could be an actual business, he recommended checking out a creative agency in your area.

The New BLK in Omaha is one such agency.

“People that have a really good idea, (but) don’t even know where to begin, we welcome those people in and walk them all the way through,” said co-owner Matt Linder. “Thinking out the idea, expanding that into what use cases you’d have and then really diving into the app design and feature design and development.”

After all, technology is just one component of many when it comes to apps, said fellow New BLK co-owner Eric Gautschi.

“The first thing is, be prepared to have the idea vetted, to have somebody poke holes in it,” he said. “That’s hard to do, especially as you get emotionally attached to your idea. You kind of have to develop a thick skin.”

The two said you don’t want to create something people use only once, which means building interactivity into the app and keeping the content fresh. Social media integration is also key, like being able to post high scores from a mobile game to your Facebook page. And it’s important your app fulfills a need, that it’s not just a copy of something already out there. What are your goals? Will you need funding? Is your idea best suited for an app or just a website?

“Often, I think, in the excitement that’s been built around mobile, we sometimes forget to ask these questions and really explore them and get some answers,” Gautschi said.

And depending on what you want your app to do, Linder and Gautschi said, it can take a lot of work to get off the ground.

That’s the biggest challenge for the Personal History Tours creators: finding time to work on it.

They said they plan to start small, launching the app with maybe six different tour guides and then growing it from there.

“Hopefully you’ll take an afternoon and you’ll just follow that story,” Cody Peterson said. “I mean, the actual stories will only be a few minutes, so you’ll have time in-between that to walk and discover neighborhoods and see stuff you haven’t seen.”

Wilde agreed.

“They might look at a place differently after hearing a story,” she said. “I think that would be a cool thing to see happen. And then maybe see people value places in Omaha more.”

But while Omaha is the starting point, the trio said the model could easily be adapted to other cities. They hope to finish “Personal History Tours” this winter; it’ll be available for free download via the Apple app store. 

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