How to build Android apps

Follow these eight steps to get your app on Google Play

Apps displayed on an Android OS smartphone

If you are skeptical about the idea of your business having its own app, you might want to reconsider your stance.

Once associated almost exclusively with social media platforms, apps, or mobile applications, have become increasingly popular in the last 12 months. This is mostly due to the pandemic, which has caused many people to spend more time online than ever before. 

This increase in screen time has been especially noticeable in mobile device use: during the first national lockdown, it was found that users were spending over a quarter (27%) of their daily waking hours on their mobile device. The number of hours spent on mobile devices is constantly growing and is likely to grow even further as 5G is rolled out across the UK, bringing ultrafast network connections to users’ smartphones.

Even before the pandemic, this was to be expected. The proportion of those using only mobile devices, be it smartphones or tablets, has shot up in the last few years, with Ofcom’s latest Online Nation report finding that they amounted to 81% of all time spent online.

This is why your business should be prepared for an increasingly mobile future. One way to do so is to ensure that your online presence is adaptable to smartphones and tablets so that your clients can access your services on the go. Apps can offer a myriad of benefits for your company, including increased accessibility to customers as well as a modernised business image. In this quick guide, we’ll guide you through the process of creating an Android app, from the basics to the Google Play store.

Step one: Nail down your idea

A hand holding a lit lightbulb against scribbles on a blackboard

The first and perhaps the most difficult stage of a project is to come up with a compelling idea for an app. You may often find that you have a wonderful app idea, only to find that something already exists on the market, or that there just isn’t the demand among consumers that you first thought.

It’s important to remember that you don’t have to come up with the next Uber or WhatsApp to be successful. Basic apps that simply make life a little easier for people can still prove to be popular, sometimes massively so.

Before you spend years of your life developing a groundbreaking idea, it’s first a good idea to consider the basics. Think about the problems within your own personal or work life – are there any areas that could do with a little automation? Perhaps some sort of platform that can pull together all your monthly payments? Something that can make looking after pets a little easier? Maybe there is an app you already use on a daily basis, but which could do with a few tweaks or improvements?

The point is that app ideas can come from all sorts of places, and you’ll never know what will take off.

Step two: Plan your UX

A UX designer using a laptop and a smartphone while planning new webpage layouts

Having completed the arduous task of shaping your idea, you will next need to decide how you would like it to look. It’s likely that you will have already considered some design elements as part of your functionality, but now you need to formalise those ideas into something coherent.

It’s here that you will start to really define your user experience (UX), which should be at the forefront of every decision you make going forward. To build an effective UX you will need to consider how your users are going to interact with your app’s functions, what services will be surfaced and when, and what extra features you might need to make the experience as pain-free as possible. Once you’ve considered this, you’ll have a far better idea of how your application functions in reality.

We would suggest that you use this stage to put as many ideas to paper as possible. Wireframes can be a great way to map out both the look and function of your app, especially if you take the time to detail the user journey, from turning the app on to engaging with a function.

"Consumers of all sorts are becoming more and more fickle when it comes to the UX of the app," says Rob Lauer, senior manager of developer relations at Progress, a global application development firm. "This is why I always say the first step starts with consulting with a dedicated UX designer to map out the path of the customer, nail down how you want the app to be used, and identify any problem areas before you start coding."

Step three: Create a prototype

Mobile application designers test and discuss new app features which are displayed on a smartphone as well as two computer monitors

Once you’ve figured out how you would like the application to look, and you’ve got a clear idea of its functionality, the next step is to create a working prototype. 

"This could be a simple paper prototype outlining your ideas," explains Gumtree's Android app team lead, Claudia Hosu. "Or a digital one with a mock-up of your proposed app."

Feedback is perhaps the most important tool for successfully completing this stage. Your initial ideas may have seemed solid as a concept and may have even looked doable on paper, but not every idea will work well with users in the real world. 

This stage isn’t simply about making your paper plan a reality. You should spend a great deal of time tweaking the features, design, and UX of your app, as well as address any unexpected conflicts or broken functions. If you don’t find any issues, it’s very likely you’ve missed something.

The most valuable feedback will come from a random group of neutral testers, who will be able to provide honest reactions to your work – just be warned that everyone will be a fan.

Step four: Assemble your tools

Google Android figure standing on laptop keyboard with code in background

In order to start developing, you'll need to download Android Studio, Google's software package for Android Devs. Available as a free cross-platform download, Android Studio includes code editor, debugger, build automation and performance testing tools.

It's also handy to have an Android phone around to test your code on. Although you can use a virtualised device, it's more useful if you can see it running on an actual handset. In fact, Hosu recommends having two distinctly different devices, so devs can test how well their code works with different screen sizes, hardware, and OS versions.

Step five: Learn Java

Java script displayed on monitor

Once you're ready to actually build your app, you'll need to be familiar with Java, which is the official programming language for Android. If you've already got experience with other languages, there are tools you can use to repurpose other forms of code to work with Android, but Java is the language that Google recommends.

"Java has the benefit of being around forever, static-typed, object-oriented, and is relatively easy to learn for modern developers," Lauer says. "Since Java has a lengthy history, it's very easy to find code samples online and assistance with solving problems via free online services like Stack Overflow."

There are tons of resources for new devs online as well, such as the excellent Codecademy, which offers free online courses in numerous different programming languages - including Java. It even lets you undertake practical projects, like building games and creating websites.

Step six: Start building

A young woman working in front of a computer

If you're a first-time developer, building your first app may seem like a daunting task - but thankfully Google has a raft of documentation, guides and tutorials to help novice developers through the process.

Step-by-step guides take you through everything from basic functions, all the way to incorporating animated graphics, calling APIs, and building cloud-connected applications.

"In terms of the actual code to write', I'm not sure what to say," Lauer says. "Write good code' is obvious, but individual styles dictate the actual code being written. I can say that there is a vast ecosystem of extensions you can add to an Android app. One of the more popular hubs of Android "plugins" is android-arsenal.com, which provides countless opportunity to extend and expand your native Android app."

Step seven: Release and testing

The Google Play Store application as shown on a smartphone display

Releasing your finished app into the wild is actually fairly easy. Deploying an app to the public via the Google Play store is a straightforward process, and it also includes built-in monetisation tools. However, that's not the end of the story - you need to make sure that you continue to test and refine your app.

Feedback from the first set up users that download your app from the Google Play store is going to be critical in working out how your app is performing, and how well users are responding to it.

"This testing process is essential," says Dan Drummond, Android consultant at mobile app development firm Apadmi. "Bugs and errors in apps are a sure-fire way to ensure that the app is deleted and replaced with something else that does work as the user is expecting. Our own research found that 61% of people would stop using an app if it was slow and unresponsive, and 26% would think less of a company if the app was poorly designed."

Step eight: Start again

Smiling man looks at laptop with a shopping cart and other symbols floating in the air

Assuming your app isn't just a one-off, this marks the point at which you should be starting the development cycle all over again. Whether you're building an entirely new app or merely adding new features to your original one, you should take the user feedback and insights you've gathered over the course of building, testing and releasing the previous version and use it to inform the design of the next iteration.

This cyclical approach to development ensures that you're always learning from your previous mistakes, as well as keeping on top of your user's expectations.

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