How An App Is Made

Crono prototype screenshot

Crono prototype screenshot

Have you ever wondered how apps get made? How they’re dreamed up, designed, coded, and made to work? How apps are submitted to the App Store, and how they get approved (or denied)? In this exclusive, multi-part series, we’re going to follow one app’s development from idea to “on sale,” and find out exactly how it all works.

The app in question is a gorgeous, dynamic new email app for iPad called Crono. (I briefly introduced Apple Gazette readers to Crono a while back.) Crono was initially launched as a Kickstarter project, but has since evolved into a more traditional investor-funded venture, and is on track to launch later this year. The creators of Crono have graciously agreed to give of their time to demystefy the system for those of us on the outside looking in. Don’t expect a training course in writing code or designing graphics; instead, we’re going to learn about the process, from beginning to end.

Part One of our series dives into the origins of Crono, the individuals building it, and how they first imagined how the app will eventually look and function.

Birth

cronoteam2

The Crono team: (l-r) Andrew Rothberg, Stephen Weigel, & Jack Freeman

Crono traces its beginnings back to a little over a year ago, but to fully understand how it got started, you have to rewind to 2006. That’s when Stephen Weigel, Jack Freeman, and Andrew Rothberg met as freshmen roommates at the University of Colorado and discovered a mutual love of technology. “At the time, we didn’t really know that we would all be working together on an app,” says Weigel, now the fledgling company’s CEO, “but we would brainstorm ideas every now and then, hoping we could come up with the next big thing.”

Freeman left school in ’08 to start his own business developing iPhone apps. He saw some success with games and utility apps. After the other two men graduated in 2010, Rothberg poured his energies into pursuing a law degree, while Weigel entered the financial sector. By late 2011, the trio reunited, meeting weekly to talk ideas and try to pool their skill sets into something all three of them would find fulfilling.

Their first app idea was for a Flipboard-esque news aggregator that integrated deeper with social media, email, productivity, and more. It didn’t take long to realize that this idea was too ambitious for their first project together, so they refined their plan until the app became focused on just one major function: email. It was their “a-ha moment.”

“We saw a lot room for improvement that could be made with the default Apple mail app,” says Weigel, “especially regarding search functionality, the handling of attachments, and general aesthetics.” These foundations would become the group’s guiding principles going forward, all the way up to the day the three men became a real business.

Crono prototype screenshot

Crono prototype screenshot

Maturation

According to Weigel, things finally started coming together in 2012. “Once we had the idea, we started our business in March of that year and began brainstorming how we could make the email experience more intuitive, more social, and less of a chore, all while making the app beautiful.”

To symbolize their idea, the trio settled on the name “Crono” as a reference to the various ways their app would save users time. It’s loosely named after the Greek god of time, Chronos, which the group liked because it signified time management, the chronological way that email is traditionally sorted, how email has become a daily part of our lives, and that the app works seamlessly with your calendar.

Wireframe sketch of the "Group" page

Wireframe sketch of the “Group” page

Their first step was to create a “Requirements Document,” which I would imagine is the sort of tool that many developers use. The Crono team’s Requirements Document is a 35-page doc that breaks down every screen in the app with wireframe sketches, detailing what should be on the screen, where it should go, what effects should be used and where, and how each screen links to other screens. Put simply, it’s the app’s roadmap. (I’d love to show it to you, but it contains far too many proprietary secrets for public eyes.)

Wireframe sketch of User screen

Wireframe sketch of the User page

The next order of business was tracking down a talented designer. Great functionality is crucial, as we all know, but a foundational truth of iOS apps is that they never find an audience if they’re ugly. Between June and September of 2012, the designer they hired (who prefers to remain anonymous) went through several rounds of design and refinement to get the app looking as close to the team’s vision as possible. The results speak for themselves: Crono is gorgeous. Its colors pop, its typefaces are modern, and its overall look and feel is clean and intuitive.

With the design complete, Freeman got to work writing the code for the app while Weigel and Rothberg tackled the next major hurdle.

Failure to (Kick)start

It’s an expensive undertaking to build a new app from nothing — especially if you want to create a high-quality, high-visibility app like Crono. To secure the funds they needed, Weigel, Freeman, and Rothberg turned to Kickstarter, the popular crowdfunding website where individuals pledge financial support to big ideas.

Before the Kickstarter campaign could get started, there was one important ingredient yet to be added to the mix: they needed a killer video. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Kickstarter campaigns have to have great accompanying videos in order to get any attention from backers. The big success stories on Kickstarter are the projects that have proposals communicated via pro-level videos. By late ’12, the Crono team had found its videographer and put together a strong proposal video, which you can watch below.

The Kickstarter campaign launched in early January, with a modest goal of $40,000. This would give the team the income and resources they needed to finish the app and get it into the App Store. Kickstarter was hot off the success of Tim Schafer’s groundbreaking “Double Fine Adventure” campaign, which was the first to break the $1 million barrier and would go on to top $3.3 million. Other promising projects were launching all the time, and there was every reason to believe that Crono‘s smart, slick design would make it another successful Kickstarter campaign.

But just the opposite happened. The campaign ended having met just 8% of its goal. It looked like Crono was dead.

But its makers weren’t giving up that easy.

Crono prototype Inbox screenshot

Crono prototype Inbox screenshot

Born Again

Even though the Kickstarter campaign didn’t raise the funds the team needed, it did achieve another important goal: it raised the app’s profile. Several venture capital investors were attracted to the project, sharing the trio’s enthusiasm for building a great iPad email client. They went in for meetings with several of these investors until they finally found the right one.

A deal was negotiated in late February, and Crono was back in business.

In Part 2 of this series, we’ll go in-depth with the Crono team to learn about exactly how an app is built. Stay tuned.

[All images ©2013 Crono. Used by permission.]

About Robin Parrish

Unathletic, uncoordinated tall man with endless creativity stampeding through his overactive brain. Comes with beard, wife, and two miniature humans. Novelist. General blogger and main Gaming Geek for ForeverGeek. Lead Blogger, Apple Gazette.

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