Telling a developer what you want your app to do (challenges and strategies)

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Telling dev post

A common challenge of non-technical people building web platforms or mobile apps is that they struggle with how to tell a developer what they want. Defining your product is part of the requirements writing activities in the software development process and it’s an important part of building your app.

Imagine you describe a feature to your developer and when it’s ready, it doesn’t do what you want it to.  Sound familiar? It’s actually not uncommon for this to happen. So, in this article, I’ll explore why this is the case and provide some strategies for overcoming it.

A different skill…

Explaining and describing things is a skill and so is writing. These are skills that we all have - most people have written an email or told a story. However, it can be a lot harder when you’re trying to articulate what you want your product to do.

Imagine you want to buy a house and you’ve engaged a real estate agent to find you one. When asked what you want, you might say that you want to live in a particular area and you might mention the number of bedrooms and bathrooms that you’re looking for and may be a price range. The agent finds you a bunch of houses and you go and look at them. You then realise that you forgot to mention that you want a single-storey house and that it should be detached and have a pool and a lockup garage, etc. The real estate agent comes back with another list of properties – and you realise again that there are some more things that you want.

 This example illustrates what happens in app development projects all of the time! People are constantly adding to their list of “wants” and all of a sudden, the project takes longer and costs more than you anticipated.

Have you also noticed that we very rarely talk about what we want in life at a detailed level? When we’re asked to do it, it can take us a while to come up with a really good answer. It takes even longer if we’re asked why we want what we want. When we’re documenting what we want our product to do, we’re doing just this – and if we haven’t practiced this skill, then it takes a lot more time and effort to do and we might not be able to do it very accurately.    

A different audience...

There are a lot of people that write for a living – newspaper journalist, author, screenwriter, songwriter, technical writer, website content writer, etc. All of these people fundamentally do the same thing, but they write different content and for different audiences.

Telling a developer what you want works the same way – which means you have to write for your audience. 

It feels like it should be easy – but it isn’t. Developers generally have minds that work a bit differently – and so they should. It’s what allows them to do the great things that they do. It also means, that if you don’t tailor your content in a way that a developer understands, it’ll be a lot harder to end up with the product that you want.

Different content...

The final reason as to why it’s so hard to tell a developer what you want is that you’ve probably never have had to talk about this kind of stuff with anyone before! Building an app is likely a new experience, so you might not realise that there are some things that you were meant to tell your developer.

For instance, did you know that you have to tell your developer your expectations for how many people will use the app? How quickly you think your platform will grow, etc.? What information do you want to collect in a form? What kinds of reports do you want? What fields should display on those reports? These are the kinds of things that you probably don’t think about when you’re defining your product.  

Like any profession, developers come in different forms – some are purely coders and follow instructions to the “T”. This is where the level of detail in your content is very important. You can also get developers that are a bit more adaptable and will ask questions for clarification. However, you still need to give them enough content so they can understand what you're trying to do. Remember, any time they have to clarify something, that’s time taken away from coding your app.


So, with all of these things working against you, how do you effectively tell a developer what you want?

Learn the skill:

Defining your product and what you want it to do is a skill. In apps and software development, it’s actually quite a specific and difficult one. There are people that get paid 6-figure salaries in large organization to do this. I know this, because I was one of them! So, how do you learn this skill without years and years of experience?

First start by understanding what information you need to provide and how to structure it. You can look for some examples of how others have done this before (search for “good business requirement examples”). Model your own writing after these examples – and then keep going. Odds are the examples that you find are going to be high-level ones, so you need to dive a bit deeper to get the level of detail that you need for your app.        

Know your audience:

Developers are coding programs for a computer to interpret so start to think like a developer. How you describe your product to a developer is going to be very different to how you might describe your product to a potential customer, so adjust accordingly.  

Start by being logical and systematic in what you write. Use “if this, then that” language to describe how someone will interact with the app and how decisions should be made. Write in bullet points and avoid long paragraphs. Draw diagrams to illustrate concepts. Find examples of existing apps that can illustrate what you want your app to do.

Write it down:

Basically, if you want your product to do something, then you’re going to have to document it for your developer. They can’t guess what you want – and if they did, chances are, it wouldn’t be the same as what you imagined. Think about your experience with an online tool or app - what happens normally? What happens when something goes wrong? If you want the field on a form to be a drop down, then you’re going to have to state that in your requirements.

To make sure you have the right content, think about all of the processes required to make your product work. Think about all of the people that will use your app and how they will use it – I’m talking about all of the support functions that will be needed to run your app too. Also, spend some time thinking about the detail – use workflow diagrams to map your person's journey and then consider, in detail, what happens at each step.

Building an app for the first time is quite a feat. There is a LOT involved – and you have to tell that developer exactly what you want. It’s a very good bet that if you don’t, you’ll end up with something you didn’t want. That’s just human nature – we make assumptions based on what we know – but those assumptions may be different from someone else. So, if all else fails, write it down!

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It can be done!

If you haven’t guessed already, I’m pretty passionate about this kind of stuff. Web platforms and mobile apps get built all of the time, so people have found a way to get past these challenges! But how much time did it take and how much did they have to spend?!

My aim though is to get you to the other side without wasting time and money having to clarify what you want or extending your project because there were things that you forgot to include. I hope my strategies will make it easier for you to tell a developer about what you want them to build.

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