So, you wanna build an app?

Part I: What to consider before developing an app

As more survivors are using smartphones and downloading apps, many local domestic violence and sexual assault services are considering whether they should build an app. There are many reasons why they might want to—apps give users immediate access to information and can harness built-in features of smartphones (like GPS), giving additional safety tools to survivors. However, before starting the development process, there are lots of things to think about. This series discusses key issues and concerns programs should consider before developing an app.

Is an App the Best Format?

It’s important before developing an app to assess if it’s really the best medium for what you want to accomplish. There are many innovative ways to distribute information without developing an app (like websites, podcasts, and videos, to name a few). Another reason why you might want to develop an app is because what you want to accomplish requires the unique benefits smartphones and tablets offer, like GPS, messaging, video cameras, and audio recorders. Or perhaps your goal is to make use of the immediacy apps offer. Most people have their phones with them all the time, so if you want to create something that will be at someone’s fingertips anytime they need it, an app may be the way to go.

Is Your Idea Unique?

So now that you’ve looked at whether an app is the best way to help you accomplish your goal, it’s time to find out if your idea already exists. Even though you may think your app is unique, take the time to do some research and check the app stores to see if similar tools already exist. Creating an app is a very resource intensive process (as you’ll find out in the paragraphs below), so the one you want to build should be different or add new value to what’s already out there. If it doesn’t, consider holding off or going back to the drawing board.

Will the App be Useful?

Your primary goal shouldn’t be to build a cool, new tool (though of course those are important characteristics), it should be to create a useful resource for survivors. To do that, you’ll need to evaluate whether survivors will find your app useful. You can do this by talking to potential users and asking what it is they would find helpful in an app – organizing a focus group is ideal. By doing this, you can identify what will be important for survivors (again, ensuring that it’s not something that already exists, or can actually be done easier in a different format).

Apps Are Expensive & Require Ongoing Maintenance

Creating apps—the good ones, anyway—can be an expensive undertaking. To build an effective, functional, and useful app, you could spend more money than what you’d pay to create a new website, implement a communications campaign, or in some cases even hire a new staff person. Building an app is more than just coming up with the content that goes into it. You’re building a product that requires the work of engineers, designers, and project managers with specific expertise.

Depending on what you want your app to do, you’ll need to factor in the costs of your staff’s time, developer fees, and app management/upkeep expenses. (As a reference point, in building our [NNEDV] Tech Safety App our development team included an iOS developer, an Android developer, a database builder, a graphic designer, and a project manager.) And that’s just what it takes to create the app.

Apps also require a commitment to ongoing maintenance and regular software updates. The level of maintenance an app will need depends on the kind of app you create. Each time there’s a major operating system update to iOS, Android, or any other platform your app is available on, you’ll need to roll out a new update to keep it working.

The Key to it All

Most importantly, any app that is intended to be used by survivors should prioritise safety and privacy. If your app creates safety or privacy risks for survivors, those risks will likely outweigh any potential benefit, and could potentially put survivors in danger. To learn more about how to prioritise privacy and safety in the app you create, be sure to check out our upcoming posts in this series: “Know Your Audience,” “Safety First,” and “App Security.”

This series was written by our sister project, the U.S. Safety Net Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence. This series is based on lessons learned when developing the NNEDV Tech Safety App, and in reviewing dozens of apps created for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking.

Read the next article in this series, Part II: Know your audience

Part II: Know your audience

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