Three years, three months and 19 days ago I released my first iOS App onto the App Store. Since then it’s been downloaded nearly 10,000 times, reviewed both positively as well as negatively and made enough money to support my iOS Developer Program membership fee for the last few years, as well as a few to come. But this isn’t a recollection of how I made an App that was used by millions before being sold to Facebook for more than the GDP of a small country - that case is actually quite rare. In reality, the App Store is full to the brim with Apps that are seen by a tiny majority of all potential customers, yet each one still has a story filled with pre-launch optimism, disappointing figures and unexpected sales from different corners of the world. What follows is my story.
The App itself is called Nagger. The idea was very simple: a to-do App that actively nags you to get a task done before a specific deadline, rather than simply reminding you that a deadline has passed. Having just read that, you’re probably thinking that it isn’t a particularly original or exciting idea (which is because it isn’t), however anyone who has visited the App Store for any amount of time will be aware that this isn’t an issue that many developers decide to take into account, so I pressed on.
The motivation for developing Nagger came from a school project I was doing at the time. Whilst studying my for my AS-Levels I decided to do an Extended Project Qualification, which was essentially a project on a topic of your choosing that could be used as extra credit towards University admissions/whatever. Having just gotten into iOS programming at this time, I decided to create an App, which eventually ended up being Nagger (the name and idea of which was actually given to me by a friend of mine). I never actually completed the EPQ having got bored once I had completed Nagger and being faced with having to do a large write-up of the project, however the App itself was finished over the course of a few weekends.
As you can see, the design wasn’t the best. This is reflected internally as well - the structure of the project and the source code was all pretty shoddy. The number of images used to populate views rather than building them dynamically is shocking, and the fact that most of the images weren’t correctly compressed lead to the initial package size landing at a bloated ~10MB: rather a lot for a very, very simple App. So technically, it lacked in many areas. However as a new developer I took the stance that simply having it work was enough, so once I had a functioning build on my hands, I was content.
The App icon was something I invested a reasonable amount of time into; being the first thing that potential downloaders would see, I wanted to make an effort. I had a basic idea from the beginning - a large ‘N!’ on a graphic background - but my attempts at implementing this lead to many questionable results, some of which I managed to find and display below. I finally reached a design that I was satisfied with, featuring the gaudy green that ran throughout the rest of the App (far right, below).
Evidently, graphic design wasn’t my strong point. I do feel like I’ve improved over the years (I’m actually reasonably proud with how my most recent App UniBudget looks), but back then the idea of green backgrounds layered with multiple noise filters as an attempt at producing a felt effect seemed like the best design ever. So I raced through development, completely dismissed the idea of any form of user testing, and on the 1st of March 2011, Nagger was launched.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect on day one. Initially, I set the price as free, as I was more interested in seeing how many downloads I could accumulate rather than how much cash I could make at this point. I also did no advertising whatsoever - the only people who knew about Nagger prior to launch were those who I’d directly told about it, and the only downloads I was expecting on launch day were from them. Therefore, when I received an email from AppFigures the following morning, I was pleasantly surprised.
OK, so it wasn’t exactly ground breaking, but considering that I was hoping for two, maybe three downloads from people who I didn’t know, I was very pleased with 15-20 (I reckon ~5 people who I had told about Nagger downloaded it on the first day). Having people on the other side of the world in the USA and Canada stumble across my App and decide to download it - even if that collection of people was very small - felt great, and from then onwards checking Nagger sales became a daily obsession. Every morning at about 11am I would receive an email detailing the previous day’s sales figures (again, from AppFigures), and during March and throughout April Nagger did relatively well - for my expectations - racking up a total of 1,028 downloads. What can also be seen on the graph of these sales is a spike of 108 downloads on the 25th of April, the cause of which is still a mystery.
All of these downloads so far were whilst the App was free, so naturally I hadn’t yet made any money from Nagger. So, deciding to experiment, I set the price to the lowest paid price tier available (£0.59 back then, or $0.99), and I waited to see what would happen. As expected, downloads plummeted, and Nagger got 5 downloads over the next 8 days, making a grand profit of £1.93. But still, the fact that someone had decided to pay for something that I had made was a great achievement for me, so I couldn’t complain. Nevertheless, feeling like Nagger was more suited to the life of a free App, I reduced the price back to free on the morning of the 8th of May. Which actually turned out to be a mistake, due to the events of that day.
At midday on the 8th, having changed Nagger’s price to free a few hours previous, I received a Facebook message from a friend.
For those outside of the UK, The Sunday Times is a British newspaper with a reasonably high circulation (~800,000 according to Wikipedia) and out of pure luck they happened to feature Nagger in their weekly App review section. Nagger’s inclusion was really that - complete and utter luck; each week Apps following a different theme were featured, and that particular week the theme was ‘Nagging Apps’. As you can imagine, there weren’t many nagging Apps on the App Store.
I immediately rushed out to get a copy of the paper, and quickly found the piece. The small review was reasonably positive, however the fact that a feature that wasn’t actually included in Nagger was mentioned in the review (repeated reminders were never added) made me question how long the reviewer actually spent coming to his conclusion. But at this point I really didn’t care - I had gone from absolutely no advertising to a review in one of the country’s biggest newspapers, and I saw the potential to make some money from Nagger at last. I changed the price back to £0.59 as hastily as I could, and hoped that the change would manifest quickly enough to catch the majority of the downloads.
The same feeling of unknowing that I felt when I first released Nagger returned as I was unsure what impact the review would have on my downloads. I remember over-optimistic thoughts of huge numbers; a few days previous I had just bought my first car, and I recall thinking that I could possibly pay for it with this single day of sales. The only window I had into the sales figures before that 11am email the following day were the App Store charts, which were updated in real-time (I think it was about hourly) with the current downloads. At its peak, Nagger reached 6th in the paid productivity chart for the UK, and about 250th in the overall paid chart for the UK.
But again, I had no idea what this actually meant, and all these numbers served to do was to fuel my ambitious expectations for the next day’s email.
In the end, Nagger did reasonably well from the exposure. Not reasonably well in the sense that the money it bought in would be of any use as an actual wage, but in the sense that as a 17 year old student, the money was certainly welcome. It certainly didn’t pay for that car, but it made £160.91 the week following the review, and continued to make a reasonable amount of money for a few weeks after that. At this point the downloads started to trail off and Nagger’s rankings on the App Store charts fell in the same manner. Pretty much as soon as it had begun, my momentary blip of attention had ended.
I didn’t reduce the price of Nagger back to free following the review. I was getting 1-2 downloads a day, amounting to around £3 a week, which when summed over the entire year was enough to pay for my iOS Developer Program membership fee. This was one of my aims from the beginning; even though my App wasn’t making me rich, it was essentially paying for itself. I believe that the effects of the Sunday Times review hung around for a while - possibly through further word of mouth sales - as this was more than I was making before Nagger was featured.
However this increased exposure did eventually die out, and although I made £296.97 in 2011, 2012 and 2013 bought in a combined profit of £23.89 - about £0.03 a day.
By this point I had pretty much lost interest in Nagger. A combination of beginning university in 2012 and the complete lack of profit meant that I did no further development on the App, even when the iPhone 5 launched with a larger screen in 2012, or the iOS 7 launch in 2013. Both of these events should have arguably required an update to refresh the UI, however my belief that the interest had waned lead me to leave Nagger is a sorry looking state considering the current design trends. Large black letterboxes now graced the top and bottom of the UI when launched on a 4in device and the green felt backgrounds remained as garish as ever. I did at some point slightly refresh the icon, however aside from that Nagger was forgotten.
There was one event of interest in 2013 however. The first 11 months of the year bought a grand total of 4 paid downloads, an impressive profit of £1.76. As stated, I wasn’t even following the sales at this point, and the App remained on the store just for the sake of it. At the start of December I decided to reduce the price to free to see if the Christmas period bought any new downloads. Then, in a single week between the 5th and 12th of December, Nagger received 4,154 downloads, with the vast majority of them from China (nearly 3,800).
To this day, I have no idea what caused this. Keep in mind that before this week Nagger had been downloaded about 5,000 times in nearly three years, then in the space of one week this number nearly doubled. And what really interested me was the location of all of these downloads; something in China caused a massive surge of popularity that subsided pretty sharply after a few days. The best idea I’ve got so far is that Nagger was featured in some way on the Chinese iTunes Store, but the fact that I hadn’t localised Nagger for China in any way made this even more surprising. My attempts at localisation were confined to French, which amounted to running the App description through Google Translate - I apologise now to any French speakers who had to endure reading that.
The spike also surprised me as it showed that people still had an interest in Nagger, even though by this point it was massively out of date. The App still worked of course, however looking at it now I see so many glaring issues (both design-wise and technically), and many things I would do differently if I were to rewrite it.
At the time of writing, Nagger is again free, and still available on the App Store. I have no plans to set it back to paid. It’s still receiving a slow and steady number of downloads, having gotten 50 in the last week, so people still seem to be using it even after three years of no activity on my part. I have considered rewriting the App, however I don’t think I shall. I haven’t done any iOS programming in the best part of a year, and although I’m likely to renew my Developer Program membership in November (which will be my 5th year as a member) I don’t see there ever being any more updates to Nagger.
Since Nagger I’ve released three more Apps - Doodle Dodge, Zombie Blitz and UniBudget - however the combined downloads and profits of all three still fall short of Nagger by a huge amount. I find this surprising; to me, Nagger was the easiest of the four to develop, it’s the worst designed and it’s really not that innovative. However it continues to receive downloads to this day.
Between March 1st 2011 and right now, Nagger has been downloaded a total of 9,807 times in 73 countries around the world. In App Store terms, that’s not very impressive: this is no Angry Birds. However for every Angry Birds there are 1000s of Apps that remain relatively unheard of during their time on the App Store, and I’m proud to have built one of them.
Charts and sales statistics provided by AppFigures