5 Things That Keep App Developers Up At Night

A hit mobile app can mean a big payday for a developer. But so much about what makes or breaks a product is completely outside of their control. And that means one thing: omnipresent anxiety.

Each of the world's 410 million devices running iOS produces approximately $18.50 in App Store sales, according to Apple—of which $13 goes straight to developers. In other words: A hit mobile app can mean a big payday. But so much about what makes or breaks a product is completely outside of a developer's control, from getting it surfaced in the marketplace to negative reviews and slow download times. And that means one thing: Omnipresent anxiety.

We spoke to app developers to find out what app-related fears cause them to lose sleep.

1. A TECH TITAN MOVES IN

Foursquare must have been a bit freaked when Facebook launched its Places check-in service in 2010, a direct competitor. But while both services seem to be surviving, many developers live in constant fear that a tech titan such as Apple, Google, or Facebook will move into their space and take it over. Some developers even view this as an inevitability.

"I completely expect that Apple's native weather app will basically do what ours does sooner than later," says Eric Stralow, creator of the rain-prediction app Raindropping.

It’s not just the tech titans that startups need to worry about, of course. There is always the possibility that while a developer is perfecting their product, a better-funded and more nimble competitor will move to market first.

"I worry that while we're spending time perfecting things, a lower-quality product with a similar value proposition will come along with more marketing spend and get more share of voice," says Eric Tarn, the technical cofounder of the Onepager app.

What To Do About It

Big companies have big problems, and their entry into a smaller developer's space can legitimize the market—and even serve as a rising tide that brings attention to the original players.

"Focus on making your product different and really good at solving the unique problem you're trying to fix," says Pablo Quinteros, an independent iOS developer and co-host of The Big Apple App Guys podcast. "If you do this, then rarely will a competitor entering your market make you completely obsolete."

"Take solace in the fact that you can move faster and be more creative than a giant corporation. Focus on what you can do that they can't," Tarn says.

2. BUGGY UPDATES

Even an incremental update to an app is an opportunity for new bugs to sneak into software, no matter how much testing gets done before a release. The heavily fragmented mobile marketplace makes it particularly difficult for mobile developers to clear away all the bugs beforehand.

"One of the biggest fears we consistently hear from developers is that on some combination of phone platform, firmware revision, and device their app will crash and cause new users to issue the deadly one-star rating," says Rob Spectre, head of developer evangelism for Twilio. "Development tools on both iOS and Android still aren't robust enough for developers to easily test their code on the thousands of combinations that exist in their users' pockets. Will my video stutter on iOS 4 for everyone with an iPhone 3GS? Will my UI look pixelated on a large, low density screen for Android Gingerbread? Will my login button work on the new Nexus tablet?"

Compounding the stress: The ever-present possibility that a bug will be detected by a journalist, potential investor, or a celebrity with a large Twitter following.

"With each new release, no matter how well tested, you always worry that some VIP will encounter some bug you didn't catch and that will forever taint their perception of your product," Tarn says.

What To Do About It

First step is to minimize bugs in the first place.

"During the development process, using debugging and performance analysis tools, beta testing, as well as unit testing can help discover critical bugs before submitting for review," Quinteros says. "Once an app is live, using crash reporters like Crittercism or Test Flight can help gauge the severity of bugs that made it in the public build. Bug-tracking software can help developers prioritize bug fixes."

Little did we know, Apple had completely changed how it buffered audio and the engine that was working perfectly one week earlier needed to be rewritten from the ground up.

From there, bug damage can be minimized if users feel like they have a developer's ear.

"Take the beta label off your product and keep an open, honest, and humble channel of communication with your customers," Tarn says. "If you are a small company, use it to your advantage. Put your phone number on your page and ask customers to call you for a personal apology."

3. API ANXIETY

Countless apps rely on the data supplied to them by other companies' APIs (application programming interface), such as Twitter. While these services give smaller developers access to data and development tools that would otherwise be outside their reach, it also creates a dangerous dependency.

"We rely heavily on the Google Maps API, and if Google decides one day that we have to use the Enterprise editions, that'll cost us tens of thousands of dollars," Tarn says.

In some cases the API provider itself is shut down or acquired. Developers that relied on data supplied by the facial recognition company Face.com recently found themselves in the lurch after Facebook purchased it. But it can just as easily occur when a company decides that its third-party clients are now competitors. Twitter, in particular, has been ramping up restrictions on how developers can access its data. The scariest part for developers: Such changes can come at any time and with no warning.

"Making an app can be an exercise in anxiety when it relies on third-party APIs," says Quinteros. "We're dependent on so many factors outside our control. Fear that app performance will be impacted by sudden changes to external APIs is always on the back of my mind."

What To Do About It

If a developer suspects an API may change its terms, they can minimize potential damage by moving API interactions to an outside server. 

"This way, developers can handle unexpected API changes more gracefully and quickly than if they have to resubmit and wait for an update to get approved, says Quinteros. "Of course, it's also more work."

Developers should also have a back-up plan in mind, just in case a vital API is completely cut off.

"If you're relying on an API for a specific piece of functionality, make sure you have an understanding about how it works and create a plan to bring that functionality in-house if needed," Tarn says.

4. PLATFORM SHIFTS

In the mobile playground, the OS is king, and even subtle changes in how the basic tools of a smartphone functions can leave apps inoperable or filled with unexpected bugs.

"We had just released our location-aware album for Central Park when Apple released their last major overhaul of their iOS," says Ryan Holladay, whose band Bluebrain recently released a series of experimental app-based albums. "Little did we know, Apple had completely changed how it buffered audio and the engine that was working perfectly one week earlier needed to be rewritten from the ground up."

But while Bluebrain's developers were able to fix this problem and issue an update, under-the-hood changes to platforms have the potential to completely sink an app.

"Platform changes can cripple the way your app works—like when Facebook changes how apps publish or promote to users," says Jon Lazar, an independent mobile and web developer.

What To Do About It

This one is simple, but can be a strain for small staffs: Developers should download and test against OS updates as soon as you can.

"Fortunately, Apple and Google in particular have committed to a fairly transparent release process for big platform updates," Spectre says. "The best thing you can do is install beta versions of their OS updates early and often and always develop against them. Often you get months to see how your app will perform with a new update."

5. TRACKING THE NUMBERS

Once an app has been released, tracking daily downloads and user reviews can be an anxious addiction. Many developers told us that the first thing they do when they wake up is to check on the previous day's downloads.

"You worry about the numbers," Stralow says. "Every day. How many people downloaded the app yesterday? How many people visited the site? How many good reviews did we get? How many not-so-good reviews did we get? How many articles were written about the app? How many support tickets did we get?"

"It gives me heart palpitations when we release new content," says Geoff Warren-Boulton, creator of the iOS humor apps Oldify and Stache-ify. "Making any kind of change takes a week or more to actually go live and even if a tiny percent of people don't like something, it has a dramatic and immediate impact on our reviews."

What To Do About It

For iOS developers, numbers-related anxiety is often exasperated by a simple fact: Despite the fact that Apple is known for designing some of the best user interfaces in the world, the web-based dashboard they use to give developers their download stats is notoriously difficult to dig through. To help developers, a cottage industry of analytics tools (examples include AppViz 2 and App Annie) has popped up to parse download data.

From there, all developers can do is sit back and avoid obsessing over daily numbers.

"There will always be rises and dips, but the idea is to just take a more general view and see how the overall product is being received and seeing how a longer term, more general rise can be achieved," Lazar says.

Seth Porges is a New York-based writer and editor. As the co-creator of the iOS fashion app Cloth, he knows how much anxiety apps can cause. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

[Homepage image: Lee Nachtigal; top image: Flickr user Matthew C. Wright]

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6 Comments

  • Kate Matsudaira

    This is a great list of potential worries and tips for how to avoid them. Your suggestions for handling these issues are so useful and insightful. Thanks!

  • Robi Ganguly

    In the point about buggy updates, one of the things that is worth adding in to the conversation of options is the fact that taking ownership of your communications with your app customers can really substantially help your ratings and reviews. 

    App developers can do more to prompt happy customers to rate their apps, while intercepting unhappy customers, giving them a voice to speak directly to the creator of the app. It's possible to create your own solutions to these problems or to go with one of the off-the-shelf software services like what we offer at Apptentive. Regardless of your choice, every developer we've met who has invested in making it incredibly easy to engage with their customers from within the app has seen substantial increases in retention and app ratings, even when problems arise. Robi Ganguly, co-founder, Apptentivewww.apptentive.com 

  • Patrick

    Got to agree with you that tracking downloads is 1 one of the things that keep developers up at night. Developers are really obsessed with numbers.

  • gbacoder

    I'm moving into app development and these concerns are real. Informative extra info in addition to all the more obvious thing to consider. Thanks for this. 

  • Adam

    This article should have been titled "there is this thing in the world called competition, if your app isn't the best, it won't win"

    Everything the author is basing his solutions on are the most elementary of problems. If these are the thing that keep developers up at night, they should seek a different job (or just develop for iOS instead of android as many of the issues he mentions are Android-centric)

  • gbacoder

    I don't think your comment is well thought out. As a programmer of many years I can say that most of the issues are IOS related as much as android. And the competition, while being obvious, is covered, see the point about finding a niche. I think going niche and doing it well is good advise as the no. of apps expands. This article is from someone who really knows his stuff if you ask me.