Technovation Challenge

Where are the #girlsintech? Right here at Technovation. Follow these young women entrepreneurs as they create the next great mobile app. www.TechnovationChallenge.org

By: AnnaLise Hoopes, Technovation Director, SF Bay Area

For the past three years, I’ve been working to inspire girls as technology entrepreneurs through Technovation. I started at Iridescent in 2010 when we had 43 girls in the program, and we now have served nearly 1400 girls in 24 states and 19 countries. It’s been an exciting journey, and it has inspired me to start my own company.

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Green & Go: a for-profit company with a non-profit heart

I always saw myself as a non-profit person. I started my first non-profit in the 3rd grade, in the basement of my house with two friends, making crafts and selling them to raise money for our local animal shelter. This trend continued throughout college and graduate school (I founded VEGITAS), but the idea of starting a for-profit company never appealed to me. I wanted to save the world, not make money.

What changed my mind? Meeting entrepreneurs who were saving the world.

In my Technovation career I met so many women who were starting companies to solve real-world problems. The first seed was planted when I attended a Tedx event organized by a former Technovation instructor, and heard a talk by the co-founder of World of Good.  She too had never seen herself as a for-profit person, until she realized the potential of her company to do good while also making a profit. Later, I met Rose Broome who just launched her latest startup, Hand Up—an app that allows users to donate goods to homeless people they meet on the street. Another friend, Gavin Platt, co-founded a company called Lucid (right out of college) that is now transforming the energy usage of hundreds of university campuses and large-scale companies like Google.

So, after a few years of meeting inspiring entrepreneurs and watching high school girls start their own companies, I realized I could do it too. I wanted to create an eco-friendly alternative to the traditional grab-and-go meal. As a working professional, I’ve always found it difficult to find healthy food when I’m in a hurry. Even when I do, I feel guilty about the fact that my meal comes in a plastic, disposable container that will remain in a landfill for hundreds of thousands of years after my fifteen minutes of using it. I wanted to develop a product that people could feel good about eating, a product that would educate people about the impact of their food choices. And so I created Green & Go, a line of eco-friendly grab-and-go meals. Each meal is made with organic, plant-based, locally- and sustainably-sourced ingredients. The meals come in a certified compostable PLA package, which you can throw right in the green bin when you’re finished. In essence, they are as eco-friendly as a grab-and-go meal can be.

I started Green & Go a few months ago, and we are now in 16 stores across the Bay Area. Soon you will also be able to have the meals shipped directly to your home through an awesome company called Good Eggs.

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What lessons did Technovation teach me?

Research

One of the biggest lessons I learned from the Technovation program was the value of market research—early and often. I spent several months ideating product concepts, researching the food production industry, developing recipes, and testing them on anyone I could find. I went to the Berkeley Farmers’ Markets every Saturday for months, collecting survey data to find out what people enjoyed eating for lunch, how much they wanted to pay for it, what was important to them about their food, etc. In true Lean fashion, I spent very little money during this testing phase.

Mentorship 

Anyone who has been part of the Technovation program realizes the important role that mentorship plays in the life of an entrepreneur. So, early on, I sought out my own mentors from the food industry. It turns out the Bay Area is full of incredible food entrepreneurs! I interviewed Minh Tsai from Hodo Soy, Sarah Gill from The Inspired Cookie, and Shannon Radke from Cinnaholic (essentially, a collection of my favorite vegan food startups). I asked them dozens of questions about their experience building their companies, and tried to glean as much as I could from their collective wisdom. Another mentor to me was Sophia Chang, founder of Kitchener Oakland, where I incubated Green & Go for several months until it outgrew the space. It was invaluable for me to meet other entrepreneurs, hear their stories, learn from their challenges, and get their advice on my company.

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 Persistence

If there’s anything I learned from Technovation, it’s that starting a business is hard work and you may want to give up (sometimes daily). My boyfriend, who has watched my journey from a more objective standpoint, has noticed a pattern in my feelings about Green & Go. He has seen me face setback after setback and feel completely discouraged and disheartened. Sometimes in the very next day, however, he’s seen me elated with joy about a letter from a customer telling me she loves my quinoa salad, or a call from a grocery store that wants to carry my products. He’s noticed that the journey is quite like a rollercoaster, and each time I feel discouraged he reminds me that I will soon have an upswing. He’s always right, and that’s how I’ve been able to keep going through the challenges. If you believe in your idea and its potential impact on the world, you know there will be an upswing and you stick with it until you get there.

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My advice to young entrepreneurs

I’ve learned many lessons throughout my journey of creating Green & Go. Here are a few important nuggets that I’d like to pass along to young entrepreneurs:

  • Identify problems. Good ideas come from seeing a problem and envisioning a solution. For me, it was a problem in my own life that I wanted to solve in order to make an impact on the world. Look around you and identify problems that you see yourself and others struggling with. What unique perspective do you have that might help you generate an innovative solution?
  • Look for mentors. They are everywhere! You can learn so much in life simply by asking others for advice when you need help. Entrepreneurship can be a lonely and demoralizing experience, if you don’t have mentors and role models to guide you through it. Don’t forget that mentorship is a rewarding experience for the mentor, too, and most people will be happy to help you if you ask.
  • Test your ideas. Ideation and market research are critical to the design of a product. Get feedback from everyone who will give it to you—this will help you understand your end user and make your product better.
  • Do the math. In a speech she gave to a group of Technovation students, I heard Angie Chang explain how important it was to pay attention to numbers and “do the math” before starting a company. It’s easy to get caught up in your idea and think it will work out no matter what, but you won’t really know until you write up a business plan and do some number crunching. There are some numbers you won’t know in the beginning, but once you pilot your product you can continuously revise your plan and understand your true cost vs. revenue breakdown.
  • Don’t give up. You will want to throw in the towel on a regular basis. You will hit roadblocks that seem insurmountable, you will have sleepless nights, and you will wonder if it’s even worth it. The answer, in my book, is a resounding “YES.” Even if Green & Go fails, I will never regret a minute of the time I put into it. Starting a company and sticking with it through the challenges has made me a stronger person than I knew I could be.

The road ahead

Tomorrow is my last day at Iridescent. I’m diving in full time to devote myself to Green & Go, which means I’ll be able to focus on some new projects and expand in more directions. My plans for Green & Go include getting into schools, catering for conferences, providing corporate lunches, branching out into farmers’ markets, and starting up a mobile street cart in metro areas. If your school or office is interested in healthy lunches, let me know :)

I will dearly miss all of the teachers, mentors, students and volunteers I’ve met through Technovation and I hope that you will stay in touch. Check out my website: www.greenandgomeals.com and my Facebook page to learn what Green & Go is up to and tell me about your own ventures. 

I want to express my deepest gratitude to the Technovation community for all that you’ve taught me over the years. Thank you for inspiring me to take a risk, dive in, and become an entrepreneur—I couldn’t have done it without you.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

AnnaLise holds a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and Studio Art from the University of Notre Dame, a Master’s in Education from Harvard University, and a California teaching credential. AnnaLise taught elementary school before joining Iridescent in 2010. Over the past three years, she has worked to grow Iridescent’s Technovation program from 43 girls to 1400 worldwide. AnnaLise is passionate about empowering young people with the skills, tools and confidence to make a difference in the world.

This Saturday, June 1st, Explainers and Technovation Challenge were two Iridescent programs among the presenters at the Emoti-Con! NYC Youth Digital Media & Technology Challenge 2013. Over 150 New York City-area youth gathered at the Bartos Forum at the Fifth Avenue Library for the event. Youth participants from MOUSE, Global Kids, the New York Public Library, Parsons Pre-College Programs, Cooper-Hewitt, and other organizations shared their work. The event featured inspiring keynote speeches by Teresa Lynn Rivera, social activist and actor in “The We and the I”, Chloe Varelidi, game designer at Mozilla, and Limor “Ladyada” Fried creator of Adafruit. Team Arrive, the Technovation World Pitch 2013 winners, presented their app, and won the Best Pitch award. Explainers presented their prototype for a solar-powered ice cream truck.

We had a wonderful time at Emoti-Con! and are excited to participate again next year.

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Technovation and Explainers work together to create a game as part of activities at Emoti-Con!. Photo: Alicia Damley

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Krystal and Graciela explain their app to Juan from Global Kids.

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Explainers chat with other youth about their solar-powered ice cream truck.

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Paige (Engineers as Teachers - EasT), Bobby (Explainers), and Angélica (Technovation Challenge) have a rare moment in which they pose for the camera.

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Team Arrive from Technovation Challenge showing off their Best Pitch medals. Photo: Alicia Damley 

We sat down with Technovation 2011 Alumni, Jasmine Gao to catch up and see what she has been up since her with us as a Technovation Droidette. Jasmine is an entrepreneur at heart, a gamer, and a tech-driven insomniac. She is currently a Data Strategist at bitly and an Enstitute fellow.

You were once a Technovation student. Can you tell us what stands out to you most about your experience participating in Technovation?

When I was participating in the 2011 Technovation Challenge, what stood out to me was how much access we were given to accomplished women entrepreneurs and technologists. I noticed right away that not only were our team’s mentors two incredibly intelligent Google engineers, but they were also super supportive of our efforts in the program — I remember multiple times when my mentor, Mary Wong took out time outside of Technovation to help us out with last-minute changes to our prototype. Looking back, I realize I met two key people in my career path on the same night during the NY Regional pitch contest: Deborah Jackson, my past employer at JumpThru, and Hilary Mason, my present employer at bitly. If that doesn’t speak to how powerful the connections one makes through Technovation are, I don’t know what does. 

When you were a going through the program as a student, what app did your team create? What was your team name?

My team, The Droidettes, created a prototype for an app called Trending, which was a mobile aggregator that would collect, organize, and categorize trending fashion items. The idea for Trending came out of a problem I had with my email being regularly cluttered with newsletters from various online retailers and fashion outlets that I had purchased from in the past. There was simply no website, mobile app, or convenient medium that allowed avid online shoppers and fashion enthusiasts to digest trend information, find out what the hottest products were as recommended by industry experts, and make purchases all in one place — that’s where Trending came in. 

Why did you decide to pursue a career in Technology?

I’ve been playing video games all of my life and, growing up, my computer was like a third parent to me in that I had learned so much just from a simple dial-up connection. However, up until a few years ago, I had always been a passionate consumer of technology but never thought I could be a passionate producer of technology as well. I also had a long standing interest in entrepreneurship at the time but didn’t know what industry to go into. What changed all of this was my discovery of the NY startup scene while working for Deborah, who was one of the judges on Pitch Night. So in that way Technovation was a catalyst for my career in technology.

What is it like to work at bitly? What was the process like getting a position there?

I got my current position at bitly through my fellowship at Enstitute, which is a two-year apprenticeship program for 18-24 year olds based on the philosophy of learning by doing. The current and first class of fellows consists of 11 pre, mid, and post-college students who have been selected out of roughly 500 applicants to spend two years in NYC working under successful entrepreneurs and executives in technology, media, non-profit, etc. We all live together and many of us, including myself, have actually dropped out of college to do this with the belief that we will get more out of two years working than we could ever going to school. Through a series of interviews with Enstitute, I managed to be paired with Hilary Mason, my first choice, who serves as Chief Scientist at bitly and as a result I work on the science team with her.

Since Hilary has the unique leadership role at bitly of making both technical and strategic business decision for the company, my apprenticeship under her has given me access to the same diversity of projects. In any given week, I could be improving my Python skills on a coding project, leading business development calls with potential clients, phone screening job applicants, playing ping pong, or meeting astronauts. And as Hilary’s apprentice, my work outside of bitly includes anything from joining her at speaking engagements and conferences such as TechCrunch Disrupt, sitting in on government meetings with Todd Park, the CTO of the United States, building communities around data science such as DataGotham, reviewing business plans and proposals sent to her, and picking up insomnia cookies for an event.

What do you like best about your job?

Definitely the breadth of exposure when it comes to my work, which can range from programming to market research to product to sales. The projects I get to work on are varied enough where I don’t get bored from doing the same thing for too long. I think I have the best of both worlds as a Data Strategist since it allows me to apply business strategy to our technical products, APIs, and data.

Who are your mentors? How do they help you?

People I consider my mentors are really just past employers, colleagues, and friends from whom I have grown a lot, personally and professionally, under their guidance. One “mentor’”of mine  is a woman named Stephanie Louie who is a VP of Operational Risk at Goldman Sachs. Stephanie is an alumna of the same high school I went to, Brooklyn Tech, and we met at a Career Fair I had organized there. She has been giving me advice on everything from business to dating since I was 15, and our mentor-mentee relationship has evolved into a close friendship. When Hurricane Sandy displaced me from the Enstitute HQ, where all the fellows live, Stephanie happily opened up her home for me to crash at.

Another person I consider my mentor is of course Hilary since I look up to her as the business-savvy technologist I hope to be someday. Hilary has not only helped me figure out my strengths and position at bitly but she has also given me access to an incredible network both people-wise and internet-wise (when I was sick at home without access to wifi, she didn’t hesitate at all to give me her mobile wireless hotspot for a week).

What advice do you have for Technovation girls who are considering careers in tech?

Become comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. Whenever you are learning something new (programming, for example) or entering into a field in which you’ve had little to no experience (technology, as another example), you’re likely to feel nervous, lost, and frustrated, but that is normal so don’t let those natural feelings stop you. I talk more about this in a Women2.0 article you can read here.

As a Technovation participant, you have access to great resources and I encourage you to take advantage of everything that is offered. Most importantly, seek opportunities outside of what is directly made available to you. When my team lost the 2011 NY Regional competition, I made an effort to get each one of the judge’s business cards and emailed them afterwards, which ultimately resulted in the internship with Deborah Jackson that led to my application to Enstitute. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for something. You’d be surprised how open people within the technology community are to helping.

Jasmine was recently featured in the NYT: Check out the article here.

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Droidettes NYC, 2011

It’s a great time to learn coding! Everyone from will.i.am to Chris Bosh to Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook are stating the facts: software is now part of all we do, but very few people know how to code. (Check out code.org for more on this). 

 

App Inventor is a great way to start because it lets you program by plugging puzzle pieces together and you get to learn by building cool apps for your phone! Many beginners start by building the apps from the App Inventor book, which are online for free at appinventor.org, along with video of a professor (me!) walking through the creation of the apps. The screencasts are popular with my students at USF and appinventor.org recently reached a million hits.

 

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Build-Conceputalize-Customize-Create

You’ll probably start by stepping through some tutorials rather mechanically, only partially understanding what you’re doing. It’s very important to slow yourself down as you step through and take the time to really understand the language and logic behind what you’re doing. Talk to your teammates about the apps and walk through the blocks on a whiteboard, tracing the blocks and showing how the app’s internal memory (properties and variables) change. Try some of the conceptual questions at appinventor.org (e.g., these about the MoleMash game), or ask your teacher/advisor to ask you some questions. The key is that with programming (or Math) you can’t just memorize, you have to understand!

Once you’ve done some conceptual work, challenge yourself to build something for which you don’t have detailed instructions. The customization exercises at the end of each chapter are good for this, and the video screencasts are setup to encourage trying each part before watching the lesson. The most successful learning strategy I’ve seen is a build-conceptualize-customize-create process.

"The key is that with programming (or Math) you can’t just memorize, you have to understand!"

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Prototype

A prototype is an incomplete, unrefined and perhaps buggy version of the app you’re planning to build. Now your grade school teachers would have never allowed such a thing, but in programming, such an unrefined entity has great value. I’d encourage you to create prototypes of your app as you go, even while you’re still thinking of ideas. It is really hard to describe interactive software with text or words, and even a lousy prototype gives you a tangible (okay, virtual) piece of software, something that can help you formulate your ideas. Perhaps most importantly, the prototype allows you to express your idea to others, whether they be potential clients, users, or angel investors. Software engineers way too commonly build solutions where there are no problems— early prototyping and user/client discussions can make sure you don’t fall into this trap.

"I’d encourage you to create prototypes of your app as you go, even while you’re still thinking of ideas." 

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Remix

 

Another important engineering skill is to steal, whoops, I mean remix. With App Inventor, you can make use of the App Inventor Gallery. Here you’ll find hundreds of apps built with App Inventor, and all the apps are open source, meaning you can download the source code (blocks) and remix them for you own app. This is not “cheating”, as long as you provide proper attribution (e.g. in the about page for your app, specify the apps from which you borrowed). As they say, there is no reason to recreate the wheel, so search for apps similar to yours and for programming samples that can help in your own project. You’ll learn a lot by reading the code of others, and heavy reuse of code is how things work in the real world. Rarely, if ever, do programmers begin a project from scratch.

 

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Code a little, test a little

Perhaps the best advice I can give you is this: test as you go, after every few blocks of code. Great software engineers can shift between the big picture design and minute details, a skill that is much harder than it seems. When you are designing, think big and creatively. But when you code the blocks, assign yourself tiny sub-goals, then code and test each part to completion. SaveAs every few minutes, and always have your phone or an emulator running as you code. Failing to do this will ruin your project and/or give you gray hair!

"…when you code the blocks, assign yourself tiny sub-goals, then code and test each part to completion."

User-Generated and Persistent Data

A major conceptual leap for beginners is when you start to build apps with user-generated data, e.g., apps like Facebook in which the user enters information and expects it to be saved persistently. Suddenly your app becomes more abstract, and you also need to deal with a database. “Persistent” means information that lives on even after an app is closed, and it requires some type of database to save the information. In App Inventor, you can use the TinyDB component to save and retrieve database data. Check out the MakeQuiz/TakeQuiz sample. For an example using Fusion tables, check out the Pizza Party sample.

Have Fun!

Most of all, have fun! Software is changing the world and you can be a leader in this seismic shift! The great thing about App Inventor and programming is that you get to learn by creating, which is the best way. Just follow your instincts, choose a great project that you are passionate about, and always keep in mind that the goal of engineering software is to make someone’s life easier or better. I think you’ll find that you learn a ton and think harder and better than you ever have!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

David Wolber is a professor of Computer Science at the University of San Francisco. He is the author of App Inventor: Create your own Android Apps and the site appinventor.org.

You might be thinking, “What is a Technovation life and why would I want to live one?” For the last 3 months, I have been a mentor in the Technovation Challenge, a program to encourage young women to become high tech entrepreneurs. This is my fourth Technovation Challenge.  For the participants and the mentors, going through the challenge can be thrilling, exhausting, inspiring, exasperating, and amazing. Now that it is over, as a participant, you should reflect on what you’ve learned and consider how you can continue these learnings even after the challenge is over.  That’s what I mean when I say “live a Technovation life.”

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For all the Technovation participants reading this, think about why you joined the program this year. What did you want to get out of it?  And, what did you get out of it? What do you want to learn next? These are important questions because that will frame what you can do to reap continual benefits.

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Do you want to learn more about technology?

  • Take a Computer Science class at your school or go to a camp this summer where you can learn more about computers.
  • Contact startups or small organizations in your community and see if you can help them with different technology needs. Maybe there’s a small business that could use a website; offer to them build one. You can use free tools, such as WebMatrix from Microsoft, to build a simple website. 
  • Join DreamSpark, www.dreamspark.com, a program offered by Microsoft that gives free tools to students to encourage them to learn and grow.

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Do you want to finish your Technovation app?

Continue to work on your app. Use App Inventor to develop your app to a point where you can share it with your peers. App Inventor has many resources available to help you add features.  Even though App Inventor has limits, you can accomplish many useful things.

Do you want to continue working with your team?

Meet with your team and decide what project you want to take on next. You can participate in the Technovation Challenge again next year!  Encourage your team to work together to further your knowledge so you can build a better app next year.

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Do you want to learn more about entrepreneurship? 

Finding summer intern opportunities is difficult for young people, but with determination and flexibility, you can find them. Contact a startup and offer your services for the summer. Look for companies that make products for you; contact the company and offer your services to test or give feedback for future products. You will learn more about entrepreneurship by working with entrepreneurs.

Although I have many reasons for getting involved with the Technovation Challenge, a key reason I participate in the Technovation Challenge is because I want to increase the number of women who pursue computer science as a career. I encourage you to continue in technology and to encourage your peers to do the same. Technology has changed the world in many ways.  Pursuing a technical career means you help determine the future.

Get involved in something about which you feel passionately.  You will benefit and so will others. Go make a difference! 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Margaret is the founder and CEO of Innovaspire, a startup revolutionizing how people study. Prior to founding Innovaspire, she accumulated 25 years of experience in the high-tech industry including working at industry leaders such as Apple, Microsoft, and Sun.  Margaret has managed small and large engineering organizations as well as led business partnerships.  Margaret taught high school for four years and she created the curriculum and taught the first Technovation Challenge. Each summer, Margaret offers internships to Technovation participants, mentoring them and encouraging them to continue their pursuit of technology-related careers. 

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Congratulations, Technovation teams, you are entering the last week of the Challenge. Below is my general advice for getting the maximum score on each part of the rubric. Our judges are a mix of Technovation mentors (previous and current), previous judges and guest speakers, and industry experts. To make things fair, all judges will only review submissions from outside of their region (e.g. a San Francisco mentor will not judge any San Francisco teams). Reach out to me with your questions or any help editing/refining.

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Is your app a good solution to a problem in your local community?

A good problem is specific and relatable to a set of users. It can also be explained in one or two sentences. For example, the GasBuddy app helps drivers solve the problem of finding the least expensive fuel in their area. With gas prices rising, drivers need to be able to find fast ways to save money. You probably know someone who has shared how expensive gas is — what a problem! Well, here is a solution.

“Finding local volunteering opportunities” is not a specific or relatable problem. When was the last time you heard someone say, “I wish I could find more volunteering opportunities”? More likely you have heard. “I’m bored this weekend… I wish I had ideas about what to do,” or, “Wow, Hurricane Sandy was devastating, I wish there was something I could do,” or, “I was completing my college application essays and realized I have nothing to say for an essay that asks about my community service.” Each of these are separate problems for separate potential users. Instead of trying to create an app that solves a hypothetical problem for everyone, think about how you would solve a real problem for a specific set of users.

 Do you understand the size of your app market?

Who is the market for GasBuddy? Drivers with smart phones. If you wanted to know the size of your target market, you could try finding out from driver societies such as AAA in the United States or maybe even from websites or publications for no-text-while-driving groups.

If I wanted to focus on a market for the problemsimage

I outlined above, I may focus on teenagers with smart phones and add to that information about how many teenagers use apps or websites to find activities or volunteer opportunities.

Do you understand your competition and how your app is different?

If you have not done so already, go to Google Play or the Apple store and type all of the keywords that could relate to your app. As you are doing this research, think about how your potential users will find you. As you look at the apps that come up, check the number of downloads, their price, stars, and feedback. For example, you may see that an app similar to yours has comments such as “too expensive,” and, “the button for ___________ is hard to read.” Think about what feedback you can apply to making your app a better version of what those users want.

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Do you convey your understanding of computer programming?

When you explain your app’s features and functionality, feel free to explain how you made the screen and/or workflow on App Inventor. These short comments will also demonstrate that your process and decisions have been deliberate.

Does your Pitch explain your business plan? and Is your Pitch clear and concise?

The business plan explains how you would make your app happen. Eliminate filler words such as “very,” “important,” etc. Educate and explain through information. Not great: “We looked at other apps and we think our app is very competitive and better, and a lot of people will buy it. We plan to share it on Facebook.” Better: “From the 10 similar apps on the market, ours is the only to have the ___________ feature, which allows users to ___________  For this reason, we are pricing our app at $3.99 at the higher end of the range for other apps on the market ($_ - _). We believe that our target user is someone who ___________. For this reason, we believe we can best reach them [at these special interest websites/places/etc.].” Review Week 2: Market Research for ideas on how to investigate your market. 

You may want to write a script before you film your video. Try to make your point first and then explain the logic for that point. Sometimes explaining before you make your point makes the listener impatient. When you make your point first they are more likely to understand and appreciate the logic of what you say after.

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Do you leverage the capabilities of the platform you are using?

An app is a product meant to be used on a smartphone. In general, stick to ideas that make sense for people to use on their phone. For example, you would not probably make an app to use on an airplane, since most of the flight the phone needs to be turned off.

Leveraging a platform can also be realizing that you can do something on App Inventor and using that knowledge to improve the app.

Is your app a good representation of your vision?

As mentioned earlier, make your app specific. For example, ElementQuest, the finalist app for New York City last year, showed how their app taught chemistry by focusing on one element. In their pitch, they explained how a user would learn all about the element helium and showed the screens that the user would see. This specific example helped the judges understand two things 1) what the app looked like and 2) how a user would interact with the app. They were then in a better position to assess whether the app was actually helping students learn chemistry.

Do you have a practical vision for extending the capabilities of their apps beyond the prototype?

Going back to ElementQuest, the team shared how they envisioned creating a screen for each element and having the users purchase a portion of the Periodic Table of Elements.

Does your app have adequate functionality?

Teams will be at different stages in their app development, and that is completely fine. What you have created as far as screens, particularly if they link to each other, please share in your pitch.

Is your app visually appealing? and Is the app user-interface intuitive and easy to use?

When you pitch, explain any key features that have gone through observation and testing.

Review Week 3: User-Centered Design to make sure your app makes sense to users. Have other non-Technovation people (preferably your target users) use the app. For example, if I made an app for an older age group, I might assume that they use their index finger to type (instead of their thumbs), so that may influence where I position the buttons on my screen. I may observe a few people in that age group typing on their phones. Then I would have them try the screen or app I have created to make sure I got the design right.

I hope my advice has been helpful. Wherever you are in your process, please make sure to submit your deliverables by April 13. It is a huge accomplishment to have a product ready to pitch. Give it everything you’ve got and who knows? Maybe I will see you in San Francisco on May 2nd.

Good luck!

Angélica Torres

E-Mail: Angelica (at) IridescentLearning (dot) org

Senior Director, Technovation Challenge

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We meet the Innogators, two Technovation teams from the Castilleja School, as they work on their apps and pitch videos.

So you’re building a mobile app? That’s awesome! Dreaming up a hot new app can be so much fun. There are a lot of steps to learn, like designing, programming, testing, and marketing. One of the most important, but sometimes less obvious, steps to creating a successful app is collecting and integrating feedback. Feedback helps us make apps that people actually use and love!

Imagine this, you spend three months building a tutoring app for your history class only to discover that everyone needs help with math instead – oops! If you had only talked to your classmates before you built the app you might have known. As product designers we want to build apps that people actually use and love! (Tip: If you start with an app you actually want yourself, there’s a good chance others will too!)

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START NOW

So, what’s the best way to start collecting feedback? The most important part is to start now! It’s never too early. You can get feedback on an idea, or with a simple drawing of what your app might look like. Ask your friends, classmates, parents, or whoever you are building the app for to tell you what they think. It is big mistake to wait until your app is designed and built before talking to your customers!

GET FEEDBACK AT EVERY STEP

Here are some examples of ways to collect feedback:

Interviews: Talk to people one-on-one right from the start while your app is still an idea. Ask them about their needs and issues. Ask them what they’re already using for this problem. But keep in mind that sometimes people don’t know exactly what they want or what they will use later on.

Prototype testing: As soon as you create the first elements of your app, get it in front of customers for testing. It doesn’t even have to be coded, you can just show people pictures and ask them to pretend that it’s an app. Ask them what they think the app is for. Ask them how they would use it. Try to not give them all the answers – just ask questions and watch what they do! Remember that no matter how clear and intuitive your app may seem to you, it might actually be confusing to other people, and feedback is how you find out.

Beta testing: Once you have a functional version of your app, get it to a few people for regular use and ongoing feedback—it’s ok if it has bugs because that’s the whole point! Your beta testers might be your team, your friends, your community, or all three. It’s hard to see all the bugs and kinks as clearly as someone with a fresh set of eyes can, so definitely get a second opinion (and third, and fourth…).

Usage data: Asking people what they think about your app is one thing, but actually finding out if they use it is another. As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words! Customers might like the idea behind your app, and like how the app looks, but still not use it. As product designers, we need to know if, and how, people are using our apps so we can make them better. If you have access to analytics tools, make sure to use them. If not, you can ask your beta testers how often they log in and what features they use. At bare minimum think about how often you and your team actually use the app – if you don’t use it, why would anyone else?

Get multiple perspectives: Don’t just talk to one person—what is true for them may not be true for others! If you want to build a tutoring app, talk to students in more than one class. Ask teachers what they think is most needed. Talk to the tutoring center and see if they have advice. Check out other tutoring apps in the app store. You get the idea!

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UNDERSTAND YOUR CUSTOMER

Getting feedback also helps you identify more clearly who your customers are, so you can keep them in mind as you build your app. Ask yourself, “Who is this app for?” and “What problem does this app solve?” Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your app has to be everything to everyone! Start with one specific use for one specific group. Even if your big vision is to make an app as popular as Facebook, it’s best to start small and get that right before expanding to the whole world.

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INTEGRATING FEEDBACK: FIRST THINGS FIRST

After collecting feedback and understanding your customers a little more, use that feedback to make your app better (otherwise, what’s the point?). Based on the kind of feedback you get, it might be really clear what to do next, but often we have a huge pile of feedback and need to figure out what to do with it.

So what should you do? Review the feedback with your team and figure out what is most important. Then make a prioritized list of the changes you want to make. In the beginning, big ideas can help you decide which direction to go with your app. Later down the line, more specific feedback can help you decide which bug fixes and feature requests to work on to take your app to the next level. In any case, focus on big wins and don’t get bogged down in the details. You will not be able to respond to all the feedback you collect—that’s just how it goes!

ITERATE AS YOU GO

This process of taking feedback and applying it to your app is called iteration—it’s like evolution for technology! The key to iteration is that it’s not just one step, it’s a continual process you use to improve your app again and again. So don’t just apply feedback once and then stop. Your work is not done! The best products continue to grow and change over time.

Here’s how iteration works:

1. Make something

2. Get feedback

3. Make it better

4. Repeat

Yup, that’s it! So help your app evolve by continually improving it with all the wonderful feedback you collect and new information you gain as you build your product.

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IF YOU LOVE IT, LET IT GROW

When we design and build an app we can become really attached to it. It’s natural to think of it as our baby! After all, it takes a lot of passion and dedication to get a new product off the ground. But we need to be careful not to hold onto our expectations too tightly. Try to stay open to new information—don’t let your perspective, or bias, stop you from taking in tips that would make your app better.

Imagine that as you are getting feedback about your tutoring app you find out that people are actually using it to ask questions about their personal relationships and career options more than for help with classes. If you step back you might see that what you actually have is an advice app instead. Ask your team if they are ok with that and consider loosening your grip a little and letting your app change direction from tutor to advisor! This process of changing direction is called pivoting, and it is very common.

TAKE IT WITH A GRAIN OF SALT

Keep in mind that your app may not click with everyone, so don’t get discouraged if a few people don’t like it or don’t understand it. Also, try not to take feedback personally. When people give critical feedback about our products and how to make them better, we can sometimes feel protective and defensive. Remember that it’s not about you—it’s about the app! Think of it as “feedback not failure” and take it with a grain of salt. Even the best products have bugs and unhappy users, so do the best you can, and don’t sweat the rest!

WRAP IT UP, SHIP IT OUT

I hope by now it is clear why collecting and incorporating user feedback is so important. You can’t wait to start talking to your customers, huh? I knew it!

Let’s end with lightening fast review so you can get on with making a rockin’ app!

Get feedback at every step and from multiple perspectives

Understand your customer—you can’t be everything to everyone

Prioritize your feedback—focus on big win

Iterate as you go—help your app evolve

If you love it, let it grow—let your app be its own person

Take it with a grain of salt—it’s feedback, not failure

imageABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Rose Broome combines her love of data with the power of technology to create health, happiness, and positive transformation in the world. Currently, she works as a data and research consultant for technology, health, and academic organizations including a collaboration between SuperBetter Labs and UPenn’s Positive Psychology Center. Rose likes to mix it up, and previously worked with Inigral Inc., Stanford University, and Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

We sat down with Slow Life Games Co-founder Dorothy Finnigan to learn about her path to game development. Slow Life Games recently released their new game Ivory Tower Defenders and are proud to announce that it has made its way to the top 50 Strategy Games on the App Store.

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Tell us about Ivory Tower Defenders. What inspired the idea for this app? Were there others like it on the market?

College was one of the most dramatic times I can remember. Everything about it was epic: the buildings, the Professors, the stress. But it wasn’t just students like me who were stressed about keeping up with classes and activities and friends, it seemed like Professors were stressed about getting published and earning tenure.

We set our game in a University with Professors and Slackers as characters because it was even more exciting to us than a fantasy setting. I don’t know of any other games that used the same theme and tone that we did.

There are other tower defense games on the market. But we added something to the design of our tower defense game: instead of having “runners” try to get across the screen and off the other side, our runners try to take their seats on screen. The result is a lot of variation in gameplay because one student taking a seat can alter the playing-field dramatically.

 How long did it take from coming up with the idea to creating your first prototype, and what did that look like (e.g. did you make it on paper first)?

It took about 2 months to create our first interactive prototype. We didn’t do much paper sketching. Instead, we used GameSalad. Our first interactive prototype didn’t have any graphics to speak of, it was just a shape walking on screen to a designated location while another shape threw projectiles at it.

What features took longer to get right? Can you walk us through some of those features? What can you tell us about learning from failures during the development process?

The pathfinding was the most difficult programming puzzle to solve. We have different rules for different students: Straight As always try to sit in the front row, Slackers always try to sit in the back. When a student is defeated on the way to a seat, all other students need to recalculate their trajectories. It got complicated!

Memory leaks and memory management were also difficult to deal with. We actually started development on Ivory Tower Defenders over 3 years ago using a game engine called iTorque. When we were nearing the finish line with iTorque, we ran into major memory leak issues that prevented us from completing it. We then switched to Corona and had to start building the code again from scratch.

Corona has turned out to be great and it’s able to create apps for both iOS and Android. We learned that picking the right platform is critical. Find a community that has a lot of energy behind it and a lot of active users on its developer forums. That way, you have people to turn to when you need help. And in the case of Corona, their developers are always working to fix bugs and make their tool better.

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How did you decide how much to charge for your app (our teams have to create a business plan along with their app to compete in our program)?

We wanted to get as many people playing our game as possible while still charging something. That’s why we picked the lowest price possible: $0.99. Our goals is to be able to make more games, and we hope that by gaining fans for Ivory Tower Defenders we can do that.

You have a unique background in things you’ve studied and done. What were the experiences that helped the most in getting you where you are today and creating this app?

I performed as a juggler on the street and paid my way around the world when I was 18. Street performing is like the app marketplace because there’s nothing between me and the audience. I get to make something people will find entertaining; I put it out there, and if they like it, they can choose to pay.

And, like street performing, I like that people don’t have to spend much to be entertained. What makes street performing work is that you have a lot of people in your audience, each paying a little. The same is true for app development. If we can get a lot of players, then no one has to pay more than $0.99.

What is your advice to middle and high school girls that are participating in Technovation Challenge?

Don’t give up.

Many more people start games than finish them. It took us over 3 years to get this game published. But I’m so glad we didn’t give up when the first game engine didn’t work out.

In the past, women were prevented from learning to read and write in order to keep them them from gaining positions of power within society.

In the modern world, technology is power.

By studying technology, you’re gaining the skills to be one of the builders of art and creators of culture. We need you!

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Dorothy grew up traveling in a motor home with her family, teaching juggling at schools around the country. As an 18 year old, she street performed solo around the world, then, settled down to become a Yale student. After a few years at Yale she decided to pursue other interests. That’s when she founded “Slow Life Games” along with her partner, Django. Check out Ivory Tower Defenders on the App Store or Google Play! Contact Dorothy @Slow_Life_Games or Dorothy(at)slowlifegames(dot)com

Why Technovation? Hear it straight from our girls!