Creating an app: “What, like it’s hard?”

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Let’s just say it’s not as easy as the bend and snap.

Anyone who knows me knows that app development has never really been “my thing.” I (sadly) enjoy talking about the Kardashian-Jenner clan, and I love fashion and binge-watching rom-com movies such as “Legally Blonde.” Just as most people don’t wake up one morning and think, I think I’ll go to law school today, as Prof. Callahan speculated about “Legally Blonde” heroine Elle Woods, I am not the type who just wakes up one morning and thinks, I really want to learn how to make an app! Yet, being the the stereotype-defiers that Elle and I are, both of us decided to give new ventures a try — even if others may scoff.

SPOILER ALERT! Elle eventually got into Harvard Law School, and I registered to take a journalism product development class at USC where I pitched and developed an app for my school’s newsroom. I’ll admit, learning how to design a mobile app may not be as impressive as getting into an Ivy League university, but it is an accomplishment for me nonetheless. I was the only female in my class and I didn’t have any background knowledge in the app world — a.k.a., waaaaayyyyyy out of my comfort-zone.

In the beginning, my professors mentioned that the product our class created would be “alpha and beta tested.” I didn’t know what that meant, but, just like Elle, I’m in a sorority, so at least I knew “alpha” and “beta” are Greek letters. That was a start, right?

Well, the class got harder from there. We had to learn about design-thinking principles, understand more app jargon, like the term “gamification,” and work toward a minimum viable product — all concepts I now understand.

Determined to prove that I had what it took to envision a cool, feasible and useful app, I pitched Annie: part app, part chatbot with a humanoid avatar called — what else? — Annie to help make news simple for her friends (a.k.a., her audience of mainly USC students) by providing chat-based story summaries in addition to a list of stories. Annie is also available to take news tips and feedback from readers.

The overall mission of the app is to restore trust in the news, establish empathy with her audience and, most importantly, foster diversity in Annenberg Media’s newsgathering, content and workplace. As someone who feels disheartened by the lack of diversity in newsrooms, I felt it was important that my app represent inclusion and connection. I believe that Elle, too, strived for empathy, inclusion and connection during her time at Harvard. Although, she didn’t physically represent all of that (she is, after all, an attractive, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, wealthy chick), she knew what it felt like to be counted out, not taken seriously and excluded. I think that made her a better law student and an even better person.

Here’s an image of the “About Page” in the Annie app that explains the mission and objectives of the app in more detail.

Once I finally pitched the Annie to my classmates and professors, they loved it and unanimously voted to move forward with the app. I felt just as happy as Elle did when she scored a friggin’ 179 on the LSAT! What’s more, I realized something so personal and important to me also resonated deeply with others. To borrow from Elle: Whoever said people with no app-making experience can’t create an awesome app was seriously disturbed. However, pitching Annie was only half the battle. The following semester, I still had continue with the next phase: building the app. Gasp!

I’ve spent the past semester alpha-testing Annie, which means my team and I were testing a very early version of the app — one without all its intended features — on a small group of users. We kept it to students and professors in USC Annenberg Media’s newsroom, recruiting them through a Google Form and creating a Facebook group to correspond with them and take feedback during the process. If you work in a newsroom and feel as though your involvement with a product or app is about as likely as a fashion merchandising major going to Harvard Law, I’m here to demystify the process a bit. Here are 10 things I learned while creating an app — as told through “Legally Blonde” gifs.

  1. Don’t bother creating an app if there is already a version of it on the market, it’s not useful or doesn’t have a good user experience and interface.

The first step of the design thinking process — empathy — came in handy here. I looked at what other journalism products, such as the CNN app, Washington Post chatbot and L.A. Times website, did and didn’t do well for their audiences. I even drew inspiration for creating a more unique news app from unlikely sources such as fitness and meditation apps. Most importantly, I actually interviewed the type of people I wanted using my app to get their thoughts on Annenberg Media’s content and what they wanted out of a good user experience.

2. Unless you already know how to code and build an app, you’ll recruit app developers to do the physical app building. But you’ll feel very lost and zone out a little when they start speaking “code” to you.

Here’s my advice to anyone who doesn’t know how to code: Have your app developer show you how they code to build your app and explain terms and key processes along the way. Obviously, you may not become an expert, but seeing how Annie was actually coded is something I wish I did more of to understand her internally. Two big things I did learn from talking with Annie’s app developers weekly: 1) You have to factor in coding an app differently for both iOS and Android users, and 2) if your app is coded to pull in features from a main website, your website can’t have any issues that would mess with the app’s interface.

3. Know precisely what the vision is for your app — that includes the mission, objectives, aesthetic, target audience and important features. Down the road, you’ll be be ecstatic when you see the ideas for your app finally come to fruition!

Right from the get-go, I was dead set on Annie being an app that fostered empathy, diversity, inclusion and connection. If any of my collaborators tried to stray away from that while we were building Annie, that’s when I put my foot down. It wasn’t to be stubborn, but without these key qualities, the app wouldn’t serve its intended purpose. What helped me stay focused on what I wanted Annie to embody was having a mission statement. Looking back the mission constantly helped me to make sure the spirit of my original vision was being maintained. This also helps with point 1 — making sure the app has a specific purpose.

4. When it comes to the process of recruiting alpha testers, you’ll think everyone will want to test it because 1, your product is ah-mazing and 2, you’re a likable person. So it shocks you when people barely sign up, and you take it personally.

In the beginning, I struggled a lot with getting people to sign up to alpha test Annie. My approach was very lax in the beginning, but eventually I realized I needed to be more persistent, so I posted in our Slack channels almost daily and went up to people in person several times to remind them to sign up. I also tried to appeal to people’s sensibilities as either a friend, a fellow journalist or person who has been slighted by exclusion in our newsroom. So for me, a combination of persistence and appealing to people’s emotions worked. As much as you can, try to explain the mission of the product to your newsroom and build a culture of excitement around it. Another pro-tip: You must be engaged with the people who you expect to test your product. Otherwise, you can’t expect much of them.

5. You’ll get mad when people you’ve already asked 10 times promise they’ll sign up to test your app, but they never do it.

This lesson taught me how to deal with my emotions when it comes to disappointment. The product development process has ups and downs. There were a lot of people I begged and begged to sign up and test Annie, and when they didn’t do it, I took it personally. Gradually, I realized you have to roll with it and can’t take it personally, even if you put your heart into it. People are busy. So you have to move on and focus on the people who will care about what you want to do and help you build excitement.

6. Once people actually start using the app, you’ll feel victorious when they think it’s cool and take the time to provide you with constructive feedback!

I created a Facebook group called “Annie App Alpha Testers” that would house all feedback, questions and concerns about Annie. I was tasked with posting questions in the group to guide our testers in giving us information we needed. And once people started responding, the feedback was pouring in! For example, one tester’s critique was that Annie isn’t as intuitive as she could be for non-journalism students. This tester said it should be like Facebook in that it explains what to do on the app initially. Another student suggested we list the news genre above each article so they know what kind of news story they are reading. These are now things we’ll try to incorporate into the beta version of the app.

7. During the alpha-testing phase, one or multiple testers will definitely suggest a bomb idea you never thought of that’ll make your app even better.

For example, one alpha tester suggested that Annie should have reaction buttons for each story featured in the app so users can have a more active experience. It’s now my job to sift through creative ideas like this and see which ones can easily be incorporated into the app’s next build.

8. App developing can get frustrating, between planning the release, alpha testing, receiving critical feedback and, oh yeah, building the darn thing. You might doubt if this sort of thing is really for you and start to consider your back-up passion projects.

I’m not afraid to admit I thought about how much easier creating my own podcast would have been. A podcast would have operated on my schedule, and it’s more of a solo or small-team project, whereas product development is a huge collaborative effort. As I said before, the process has its ups and downs. For me, the most frustrating part was sparking the same passion I had for Annie in others. At times, it made me want to quit working on Annie, but I knew that if this app does fulfill its purpose, it can set a new standard for what engaging journalism can be. In the end, I don’t think a podcast, while it could be great for some things, could offer that same impact or engagement as Annie could. So always keep your mission in mind when times get rough.

9. Because the app-making process can be frustrating, get you a team that can be helpful and supportive. Having great great teachers and/or mentors to coach and motivate you along the way is major!

If it weren’t for my professors, there would be no Annie. They thought of innovative ideas, such as contests and prizes to entice alpha testers to provide feedback in our Facebook group, and they let me rant whenever I got frustrated with the process. When our original app developer couldn’t continue working on Annie, they quickly found another one so we wouldn’t fall behind.

10. AND FINALLY! You need to have faith in yourself. Sure, creating an app will be hard, particularly if you have no idea what the hell you’re doing. But, that’s kind of the beauty of it: By the end, you’ll see just how far you’ve come!

Overall, I would say that my personal experience with developing Annie was a successful one! I was surprised to see how many alpha testers gave such insightful feedback and loved Annie’s goals. I am so proud of this app, because, according to some alpha testers, Annie is an easier and preferred way of reading Annenberg Media stories. So in that regard, Annie is able to provide utility to her audience. But what I am most proud of is that the app is a reflection of me physically and mentally. Annie’s avatar is an African-American female that represents wanting to make news for all types of people and be your friend at the same time. So many of my peers have embraced Annie’s avatar, objectives and potential to help our newsroom with open arms. It makes me even more excited to show them what else Annie has to offer next semester!

After going through this journey of making my app, I have a new-found appreciation for “Legally Blonde” and the trailblazer that Elle Woods is. She taught me that just because something seems difficult or wouldn’t be your forte, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a try. You might surprise everyone — including yourself — and be good at it. (Anyone down to try Harvard Law in addition to creating an app?)

At the end of the day, this Kardashian, fashion, rom-com lovin’ girl with no previous product development experience was able to create a mobile app that will hopefully be used by students for years to come. And I got to say, I think Elle Woods would be pretty proud that I, and anyone else in an under-dog situation, believed in ourselves enough to do something most people wouldn’t expect us to do.

Creating an app: “What, like it’s hard?” was originally published in Media Center Lab on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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