Creating a web application
In part one of this guide to creating a web app I looked at generating ideas, finding a market niche and specifying your new web application, and now I want to move on to the development process proper. But before I do that, I’d like to touch on the thorny issue of funding. While it’s possible to create a worthwhile web app for far less money than any physical product, it’s still going to cost you something. Your first priority should be to minimise development and marketing outlay as far as possible without compromising your original vision or quality; there’s no point developing an application that costs next to nothing but lacks the features needed to succeed.
There are, broadly speaking, three sources of finance. If you run a company, try to develop your web app out of existing cash flow, investing the profits in a new venture rather than taking them out in salary. If you have personal savings or a rich relative or friend who might lend you the money, you’re in luck. But I strongly advise you not to give up equity in your company to anyone. Instead, offer a good rate of interest, so everyone wins (there’s nothing more frustrating than having other shareholders taking dividends and sharing control years after their initial investment). You’ll also find it much harder to take the risks necessary to succeed if you have shareholders to placate.
If you don’t have the personal assets to finance development, the next best approach is to go to a bank. However, bank loans are notoriously hard to get unless you have an established track record, and they’ll normally require a personal guarantee, even if you’re a limited company.
The last resort should be third-party investors, including venture capitalists. Such finance is, again, very hard to get hold of and it always involves giving up equity. A venture capital investor will expect to have a say in how you design and run your business and application, which can lead to a watering down of your vision as they seek to minimise their risks.
So you’ve scoped out your application and are now ready to put it together. The first step is to design the site. Now, “design” can mean many things, but mostly it relates to look-and-feel and, second, to how the site works. Good design isn’t about showing off what a clever graphic designer you are, it’s about making your customers’ experience as efficient as possible. Your customers and potential customers are becoming more sophisticated, demanding and impatient by the day and, while it’s possible to compete on features, the real battleground in web application design (indeed in technology in general) is over user experience. As long as a feature set is sufficient for the job in hand, it’s all about how easy it is to use your application. Basecamp (www.basecamphq.com) is a good example of this maxim – it may not be beautiful, but it’s certainly efficient.
The iPod is a great example of user experience being more important than features, but my favourite example of all is Nintendo’s Wii. Nintendo made a conscious decision not to compete on features with Sony and Microsoft, but boy did it ever revolutionise the user experience. In so doing it’s drawn in new audiences, including women and older people, for whom the Wii will almost certainly be their first console. Choosing not to compete on features let Nintendo divert resources into developing the user experience, and to build its console at much lower cost than the PS3 and Xbox 360 because bleeding-edge chips weren’t required. In my view, provided your application has an adequate feature set, investing in the user experience is far more important than adding B-list features. The best way to generate word-of-mouth recommendations is to serve your customers in such a way that they actually enjoy using the site because of its excellent design. It isn’t about prettiness, it’s about efficiency.