How to Build an App People Want

Defining and bringing a new digital product to market can be one of the most rewarding -- and daunting -- experiences for any business.

When you’re building an app from scratch, expectations are often vague at the beginning. Deciding to make an app that will “make customers love you” or become the “next big thing” isn’t enough; you need to consider the needs of your future users and what value your app can provide them.

Properly defining your target market and future product is the first step of app development. In this article we’ll break down what to focus on with a three step approach: Immersion, Validation, and Prioritization.

Step 1: Immersion

Since the starting point for product definition can be ambiguous (and the destination is rarely predefined), the first step is always to immerse your team in what we playfully refer to as the “problem space.”

The app you choose to make needs to solve an existing problem for your customers. Whether that’s learning more about your product or company, simplifying ordering, or creating a rewards program, your app needs to be their solution.

Before you dive in, you’ll want to establish a plan to ensure that your findings are shared with team members in real-time.

At Tonic this often means creating a “war room” with our most important materials posted on the walls for the entire team to see throughout the journey. Messaging tools like Slack and project management tools like JIRA can also simplify team communication and make sure that important information can be found in one place.

One of our many “war rooms”

The process will inevitably need to be fine-tuned for your organization, but you should focus your energy on the following three areas:


Use 1:1 stakeholder interviews and team-wide brainstorms to uncover the answers to big questions like:

• What is the business opportunity you’re trying to capture with this new product?

• What specific things will be measured to gauge your success, and have specific targets been set for any of these metrics?

• How specific is the pre-existing vision?

• Are there any business capabilities or resources (existing or planned) that might be relevant to the “problem space” you’re exploring?

• Which customers do you feel are most relevant to the opportunity at hand?

• Do any key project sponsors or influencers have strong preconceived notions that need to be proved or disproved throughout the definition phase?

• Are there any specific technologies you’re leaning toward based on strategic or operational considerations?


Interview real customers (or at least potential customers) within your target market to get an unbiased perspective on the following:

• What challenges and opportunities do you face within this specific “problem space?”

• How do you solve these challenges? How would you improve upon the solutions you see available?

• Do you think that any companies in this space are doing this right? Why?

• If you’re using any tools (digital or analog) today, can you show us how you use them?

Don’t forget to record audio, take pictures, or even capture video from each of your research participants (with their permission, of course!) so you can replay the most relevant sessions for the team.


Although many large organizations don’t involve their development team this early in the process, at Tonic our development team participates in our earliest discussions. Technology immersion gives our developers the opportunity to answer important questions like:

• What technology capabilities are typically used to build out solutions in this space? Do we have the ability to use them?

• Are there any unique or new hardware/software products that need to be researched or better understood?

• Are there any special privacy or security concerns that are closely paired with the problem space you’re exploring? (For example, special regulations and restrictions apply to products marketed to minors, etc.)

• What does the typical development process look like when delivering solutions across the most likely technology platforms?

• Are there any potential licensing or support issues associated with any technologies in the consideration set?

• Will you need to produce a proof-of-concept to validate your ability to deliver against any of the ideas being discussed?

The final step in the immersion process is to bring the team together and create a list of concept briefs that represent the ideas you’re most interested in exploring in the validation step.

Step 2: Validation

The validation step provides a framework that can be used to refine your most promising product concepts, or act as a tiebreaker when you have multiple viable ideas. The key to accomplishing this quickly is to move the conversation out of the office and back into the hands of real user.

At Tonic we like to work in two-week sprints that break down roughly as follows:

Step 3: Prioritization

Coming out of the validation phase, you should have a finalized product concept brief, a firm understanding of the problem space, and a lot of notes from your user research.

Before you go any further though, you’ll need to expand your concept brief into a provisional set of key features and capabilities.

Think about the features and capabilities tested that resonated with your users in the validation phase. Consider what other supporting features are required to deliver a complete product, and other potential extra features you can have.

At this point you don’t have to worry about time constraints or budgets, just focus on getting ideas down on paper.

After you’ve done this, it’s time to define your minimum viable product (MVP). Ask yourself a simple question: “What is the minimum feature set that will still meet our end users’ needs AND achieve our business goals?”

Identifying these features will give you a first look at what your initial launch might consist of and provide guidance for when you start high-level budgeting and planning.


At the end of the process, you’ll have a fully fleshed out digital product brief and roadmap that includes:

• Business Opportunity

• Digital Product Overview

• Target Audience

• List of Features and Functionality (MVP)

• ...And a ton of business considerations, technology research, competitive insights, user-research notes, and product sketches

Keep in mind, no journey is ever a straight shot. This adaptable framework will help you eliminate the guesswork from digital product strategy and form a smart initial product roadmap.

Are you interested in learning more about Tonic's market and product definition process? Contact us at so we can chat.