Have you ever found yourself in the situation of wanting to create a new project but not knowing WHAT to do? As developers, we always dream about finding that million-dollar app idea nobody has found yet. Then we sit down and start twisting and squeezing our brains, only to find… nothing good.
Most developers don’t realize they are using the wrong approach when trying to find new app ideas. But others, like computer scientist Paul Graham, know the right way. Paul is well known in the computer sphere for his developments in language programming and his investments in multiple startups.
This post is based on several of his essays and our own experimentation. The principles detailed here are applicable not only to mobile app ideas, but to any software-related projects and even startups.
Many people think ideas are a black or white choice: either an idea is perfect since the beginning or has to be discarded at the smallest objection. The problem with this approach is it leads to frustration very soon, as your process consists of rejecting ideas on a continuous basis. Besides, you never fully dig into potential secondary paths.
Instead, ideas must be treated as starting points, partial solutions that can be explored and expanded. In fact, an initial idea may lead you to a completely different one (a lot of businesses began this way). So explore ideas in depth and don’t discard them too soon.
Another common wrong approach is to try to find ideas by brute force, like combining concepts at random. This usually doesn’t produce good ideas (or even worse, it could lead to ideas that look good, but they’re not). The chance of finding anything of value here is really small, so avoid the brute-force method like a plague.
Apart from this, remember that a good idea doesn’t have to be something nobody did or tried before. Whatsapp didn’t invent the chat. Google didn’t invent the search. But they improved on solutions that already existed. Most of the time other solutions will already exist, so you should analyze if existing ideas can be improved, leading you to better ones.
This brings us to the subject of competition. Many developers are eager to find an idea so innovative that has no competition at all, but sadly this approach leads them to overlook good ideas again. Think about it: virtually all fields already have competition, and even if you could find a hole in the market, soon other competitors would start copying your approach. So competition will always exist.
In the end, you shouldn’t be afraid of competition, because it means there’s a market for your idea and there might be users already waiting for you. Think instead if you can bring something better to the table than the current solutions. So save this in your mind: competition is good.
HOW TO DO IT THEN?
The short answer is: don’t look for ideas, look for problems. Where there’s a problem, there’s a solution. And there is where your idea resides. If there’s an app you already use and like, chances are it solves a problem or makes a task easier for you.
But for better results, we should broaden our definition of a problem: a problem is not only something that is broken or doesn’t work, a problem is any issue that can be solved or any process that can be improved.
Sometimes, problems are so rooted and accepted as normal that we don’t even see them as problems (for example, any tedious task you have to do on a regular basis can be a problem waiting to be solved). But when another developer appears and improves that process then we think “Why didn’t I think of that?”. So open your mind, problems are everywhere.
The best approach is to look for problems you experience yourself. This is how many great businesses and startups began: they had a problem and they built something to solve it. This has two immediate benefits: the motivation of working on something for yourself and the implicit fact that if you have this problem, chances are others will have it too (that’s how TimeTune started as well, we wanted to manage our own time!).
Look preferably on areas where you have some expertise. Take advantage of your current knowledge, otherwise you’ll have to learn extra things.
A second-best option would be to look for problems others around you have. Can those problems be solved with software? Do people need a solution urgently?
And as a less desirable option, you could look for problems and gaps in the world. There are literally millions of them, but here it’s more difficult to find a problem you can truly identify with and at the same time solve with an app (you can try though, who knows!).
Finally, if you can’t find a solution to a problem, keep in mind there are alternative ways to deal with it, for example attacking the previous step in the process. Be creative and explore different paths to solutions. Maybe the solution to a problem is not having the problem at all in the first place.
VALIDATE YOUR IDEA
Before you go further and start developing your idea, it’s essential to make some validation checks (remember our guide on How To Validate Your App Idea And Avoid Wasting Time as well).
So stop for a while and answer these questions: Who would use this app right now? Do people need this solution immediately? Would users actually pay for it? Contact as many people as you can, make surveys and gather feedback. An idea can be good, but if no one else sees its usefulness or is willing to pay for it maybe you should look for a different one.
Generally speaking, ideas can’t be forced. Sitting on a chair and squeezing your brain doesn’t usually yield good results (in fact, it’s in the shower where you can get the best results!). That’s why it’s important to take notes about problems on the fly and think about solutions later.
Follow these recommendations and you’ll have a much better predisposition to find good ideas:
- Keep your mind alert about your environment, just as if you had an automatic detector for problems or gaps. Pay attention to tedious tasks or things that annoy you, they might be awaiting your solution.
- Take notes about those problems immediately and keep working on what you were doing. You can examine the list of problems later.
- Problems don’t have to be only software-related. Any kind of problem can lead to an app idea (for example, one could think that software wouldn’t help people sleep better but there are apps exactly for that).
- Don’t take the status quo for granted. Question things around you and you might uncover unseen problems (‘Why does this have to be this way? Can it be changed or improved?’).
- Work on projects you find interesting and do it for fun. That’s what hackers do. That’s how Facebook started. Have fun and you’ll find a great source for ideas, challenges and gaps.
If you want to dig deeply into the idea-finding process, we recommend to start by reading these two essays by Paul Graham, they can open your eyes to even more paths and possibilities: Ideas For Startups and How To Get Startup Ideas.
So what’s been your experience so far when finding ideas? Do you use other techniques? Tell us in the comments and help the developer community! 😉