Having your own app is all the rage these days. I don’t know how thousands of people have managed to do it. The process of producing Rome for Foodies (now called Katie Parla’s Rome for Foodies) was catastrophic. I’m not trying to be overly dramatic here, but really the whole thing nearly killed me. I am not a superstitious person, yet at a certain point I found myself tying app-related wishes to trees with red ribbons in the Hidrellez wish fulfillment ritual. Yeah, it was bad. This is my story…
Two years ago I was a
carefree hardworking food and travel writer. I supported myself giving private cultural tours of Rome and southern Italy and in my free time, I traveled, wrote guidebooks, blogged, and filed travel pieces for major print publications. I didn’t know how good I had it.
I then had to go and screw up a good thing by developing an app. As an individual, I didn’t have many options. Most app development is geared towards corporations and is prohibitively expensive. Rather than jump on some app factory bandwagon targeted at individuals, I wanted to develop the whole thing from scratch, own all the content, and have a say in what my future app looked like and how it worked. Most importantly, I wanted all the profit!
Developing an app is an expensive and time consuming risk, but I was determined to give it a try. I never could have predicted that it would test my sanity, destroy my relationship, and beleaguer my friendships. And let’s not even talk about the havoc it has wreaked on my finances.
And now, after releasing an HTML5 app, and several versions of Rome for Foodies for Android, iPhone, iPad and iPod touch, I still don’t have a product I am completely happy with. It is only out of sheer numbness that I am even able to publish this post and talk about the trauma I suffered as a result of this project. My brain literally cannot internalize anymore disappointment, embarrassment, or stress.
Looking back, I think I did a few things right, I’m certain I did so many so wrong, and I kind of wish I had never made an app in the first place. But let’s focus on the positive for a moment, shall we?
The first thing I did right was to create the bilingual English/Italian HTML5 Parla Food Dining Guide, a web-based app, which I produced for very little money, and released in February 2011. The app was/is available for free and works on all browsers (smartphones, laptops and desktop computers alike). While it is nothing fancy and hasn’t been updated in over a year, it served as an important step in understanding what content was needed and whether I should develop a native app in more than one language. The results from user feedback showed I should incorporate photos into the native app and focus on English rather than Italian language apps. In general, Italians just do not respond well to restaurant advice from foreigners, no matter how qualified. Go figure.
Another thing I did right was to hire a consultant. I knew developing an app alone would be a disaster, particularly since I have no technical or code writing experience. I needed help and sought the advice of friends in Silicon Valley. They put me in touch with a former employee of theirs. We worked for several months formulating wire frames, discussing user interface, and agreed to work on the app together. She even helped me find a company on Elance that was suited to my requirements and budget.
Then on the eve of signing contracts with this company B24 e Solutions, the consultant totally flaked on me. She just straight up disappeared and stopped replying to my emails. I later found out she got a better job. She wouldn’t even respond to several attempts to pay her for the work she had done. I can only assume she was too embarrassed for having completely screwed me over. This betrayal has been among the most difficult parts to deal with. Even a year later, I still have a tough time understanding how a so-called professional would abdicate responsibility so entirely. Cue numbness…
So there I was, stuck with a massive project to manage and zero experience to prepare me for it. I should have just stopped right there. I know my life would be better off right now in so many ways if I had trusted my intuition and just given up. But I am entirely too masochistic to put the breaks on a challenge, so I went ahead, working alone with B24 e Solutions, an India-based development company. They created two Rome for Foodies apps for me, one for Android and one for iPhone and other Apple devices, based on my specifications. I provided the design and content, they wrote the code.
The 10 months of development would be the most hellish professional and personal months of my life. I dealt with constant communication difficulties (B24 e Solutions employs a brilliantly bi-lingual sales person to snag you, then sticks you with a not-so-fluent project manager), prolonged delays, and massive design flaws. I was on India Standard Time, even when I was in the States. I wasn’t sleeping in order to Skype with developers and I wasn’t sleeping due to stress brought on by these incompetent people. It was all more than I could handle. I was a wreck.
When Rome for Foodies finally came out on January 4, I was a shell of my former self. And worst of all, I was stuck with an expensive experiment that I couldn’t even promote due to its bugs.
As soon as it was released, several iPhone users reported finding no data on the app after downloading. That’s a pretty significant bug. B24 refused to fix this bug, though they were contractually obligated to repair it. Like my consultant, they blatantly ignored my emails. So in addition to my advice: do not outsource app development I would add more specifically do not engage B24 e Solutions to develop your app.
A final lesson learned from working with B24, though not specifically related to them, was: do not bother developing for Andorid devices. Save your money. The cost to develop is far higher than any potential payback and I probably will never make back the investment. Though it is doing relatively well in Android Market terms, Rome for Foodies is too expensive to maintain on that platform and I will not be providing software updates for the app, though the content will remain available.
Rome for Foodies v1.0: The Aftermath: The emails about user errors on Apple devices began to pour in as soon as the app hit the market. I was stressed beyond belief. I was horrible to be around. I had no idea how to remedy user errors since B24 wouldn’t reply to me and I definitely didn’t want to shell any more money out to those jerks. I was at a total loss.
Then the unexpected happened. I got an email from my ex- (thanks, Rome for Foodies!) boyfriend’s friend’s ex-girlfriend (got that?). She said she loved the app content but wasn’t so excited about the way it looked. She made me a tempting offer: to redesign the app, fix the bugs, and create an attractive, branded product. Her team is way more professional than B24. They have loads of experience in ecommerce and the designer Peter Arnold is creative and designed some really cool assets for the app and blog (new layout coming next week!).
From January to May, we worked together to formulate new user interface and a totally new look for Rome for Foodies. The app even got a new name and clever branding. I think we have a viable product that works well (you be the judge!) and we will continue to improve it with forthcoming updates (v2.1 is currenly awaiting approval in the App Store, v2.2 will be out next month).
After more than two years of sleepless nights, emotional turmoil, and professional humiliation, I can say with 100% certainty that if you want to make an app, you shouldn’t. In my experience it will either kill you or ruin your life. But if you are a glutton for punishment, here is a summary of my advice:
Do lots of research and put your project out on They Make Apps instead of Elance.
Do not outsource (especially to B24!). Pay real money to develop an app in a country where you have legal recourse if the company doesn’t follow through on their commitment.
Make sure you have a contract and have a lawyer look at it before you go into business with developers, designers, or consultants.
Hire a consultant to help you with UI and have a designer create the layout and branding you want.
Don’t underestimate the importance of beta testing.
Realize that creating the app is only the first step. Updating, fixing bugs, replying to user emails, and doing PR are additional money and time consuming endeavors that will inevitably follow.
Find a friend with a Xanax prescription who you can call on when things get tough. Alternatively find the closest pen, paper, red ribbon and tree branch.
Even after all of this, Katie Parla’s Rome for Foodies is a work in progress. It will require a tremendous amount of time and energy to maintain so I really hope it is a useful tool for travelers. You can update Rome for Foodies for free if you already have the app or buy it in the app store here. Version 1.1 is still available in the Android Market. And if you like the app, please leave a nice review in the App Stored. If you hate it, why not send me a message to help me improve it? Thanks either way:)