Three Ways Anyone Can Make a Smart Phone App

April 19th, 2011

A referee signal quiz app made with AppInventor

Designers are tinkerers. We like to be able to nudge, tuck, trim and finally throw away our creations and start from scratch. But what about designing for the explosively-growing field of mobile apps?

Increasingly, free tools are becoming available that allow designers to prototype and test rich applications for mobile devices without developing fully-realized apps. In this post I give an overview of an example for each of the three major platforms.


TouchStudio LogoWindows Mobile – Microsoft TouchStudio
TouchStudio allows you to develop simple apps directly on your phone. While it might seem a silly idea at first, the concept of a mini-app developed with TouchStudio as an ‘intant mashup’ or ‘multimedia smart playlist’ is an intriguing one. The would-be-developer still has to write some ‘code,’ although the app does help you along. Unfortunately Microsoft Research dropped the ball with support – little documentation exists and it’s difficult to share code, so it’s doubtful that a thriving community will rise up around this project. TouchStudio is free on the Windows Phone Marketplace.

App Inventor LogoAndroid – App Inventor
Rather than develop a mashup directly on your phone, App Inventor takes a different tack. It begins with an intuitive web-based interface and allows you to build a simple app using a layout editor and patch-style programming interface for programming behaviors. App Inventor seems much more powerful than TouchStudio, and a bit less programming-centric. App Inventor runs in your browser after you run the free setup program

Fireworks LogoiPhone – Touch Application Prototypes (TAP)
Apple is notorious for guarding its ecosystem of apps and phone features, so it’s no surprise that no equivalent development tool exists for iPhone. However, a Dutch design firm called Unitid has come up with TAP, an interesting alternative. It allows designers to develop and test interactions within a semi-functional click-through prototype from within Safari. With a full suite of transitions and effects, as well as the ability to use most browser functionality (compose email, initiate phone call etc,) TAP could be a valuable tool for a visual designer or information architect who wants to experiment with the look and feel of a mobile app before developing full functionality. TAP requires you to use Fireworks and is available for download at Unitid’s website

Got a budget? These three solutions are free of charge. If you find yourself with a working with a large team or needing a solution for ongoing work, consider a paid prototyping tool such as JustinMind, Axure or ProtoShare.

UPDATE: 04/28/11

Blueprint Screenshot

Blueprint Screenshot

Since posting this a few other tools have come to my attention. The most exciting is Blueprint, an iPad app that provides a surprisingly-complete set of tools for creating rich interactive mockups of iPad and iPhone apps, using Apples UIKit GUI elements. Groosoft, the developer of Blueprint demonstrates its capabilities by re-creating Apple’s alarm clock app [video]. If you are interested in learning more, this review gives a good rundown. Blueprint is available for $14.99 in the App Store and is only available for the iPad. A lite version is available for free.

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