Interview: Meet Charles Du Who Designed NASA’s First iPhone App

The app story of Charles Du, a product manager, and designer from San Francisco, USA who designed NASA’s first iPhone app which has received 10+ million downloads. Learn how his experience at NASA and later Apple helped him figure out the process to create a great app.

Tell us about yourself and what are you working on right now?

                 nasa app icon

I am Charles Du and I teach people how to become rockstar product managers at Product Charles University. The systems I teach come from having led teams at some of the best technology companies in the world.

I led the design of the NASA’s first iPhone app which received 10+ million downloads and won NASA’s Software of the Year Award. Post that, I was recruited to work for Apple where I helped them scout out high-potential apps and mentored 3rd party app teams.

Furthermore, I have designed Ticketmaster’s mobile apps ($3+ million in sales per day, 2 patents), and co-founded the Airbnb for cars (Techcrunch Disrupt Award, 2 patents).

Additionally, I have taught product management at prestigious universities like Stanford, UCLA, Art Center and General Assembly. I am also a Digital Nomad and have traveled/worked in 30 countries.

You can check out my apps here – NASA App, Bamboo Quotes, Ticketmaster, and Livenation.

You have a very interesting approach to coming up with your app idea. Tell us more about it.

The best way of coming up with an idea is to focus on a problem at hand. An app idea will follow next and it will increase your chances of creating a successful app.

One of the examples is how I designed NASA’s first app for iPhone. Every day I would go to NASA’s website and check out the astronomy pictures of the day. I was curious and wanted to find out when the latest ignition was.

It then came to me that it would be really awesome if I can save all this time and get something on my mobile device. And that was the birth of the NASA’s first iPhone app.

NASA app screenshot 2     NASA app screenshot 1

One thing to notice is that it all started with a problem. The problem was that I didn’t want to go online all the time to get NASA’s content. I wanted that content in my pocket.

How do we come up with new app ideas when the app store is so crowded?

I know the app store is really crowded and it’s difficult to come up with a new problem. But it’s also true that every single year Apple launches a new operating system and multiple new iOS devices.

You get more capability and more hardware/software potential in your hands. That’s a huge possibility to think of new ways to solve an existing problem.

Imagine that you are an architect and you want to build beautiful houses. Every year you get a whole new set of tools and new real estate. You have to just go out there and build.

Every single year your buildings will be new and more awesome because you get access to new tools and more real estate. The same is true for app developers.

For example, when the Apple watch came out, I designed a watch app to get inspirational quotes. I would get down sometimes and an app that sends inspirational quotes every day was a great way to solve that.

Every year a whole new world of possibilities gets unlocked. You just have to use it’s potential.

Did you validate your app idea? If yes, how?

The first thing that I look for in a problem is that if people face it on a daily basis. Larry Page, Google’s founder, refers to it as the ‘toothbrush problem’. It just means that the problem should occur quite frequently, similar to brushing your teeth.

And the second thing that I look for is how painful is that problem.

Let’s say you have a heart problem due to a high cholesterol level and if you don’t take the right medication on a daily basis then you have a serious risk of a heart attack. That’s an example of a problem where the pain is very, very high and it happens on a daily basis.

I see all the problems that I observe which are high in frequency and painful in magnitude. If you can find such a problem then that is the problem to devise an app solution for.

For example, one of my apps is called Bamboo quotes. It was the first quotes app on the Apple watch. You can also get it on iPhone.

       Bamboo Quotes Apple Watch Screenshot

At that time the company I was working for had a huge layoff and lot of my colleagues were laid off. Everyone in the company was depressed. When you are working for a company and half your family is gone the next day, things are in a really shitty mood.

The problem was how can we keep our days going and keep our spirits up. At that moment I came up with an idea for sending inspirational quotes on a daily basis.

I and my developer colleague designed a free app for this purpose. Every single morning it would give you a quote. You can also schedule quotes and get 3 quotes per day.

It was a good example of an app that solved a pressing problem that occurred frequently.

How did you go about developing your app?

For developing an app, I would always start with the app definition statement. It’s a one-sentence statement that includes the purpose of the app and who it’s customer is.

For example, for the Bamboo quotes app – The app definition statement was, ‘An app that gives you a daily dose of inspiration on the go and meant for people who want to get inspired.’

An app is a very focused product where people should think of your app as doing one thing very, very well. And the app definition statement helps you focus.

There are apps like Facebook and Uber that do a bunch of things. But if you think about what these big apps do, they started off small and then they became big. Facebook has a messenger app other than the standard Facebook social app and Uber has Uber Eats other than cabs.

The more focused you can have your product idea the less pain you will have and the lesser money you will have to spend in the product development process.

It’s also useful when you have to pitch an investor. It will allow you to spread your message faster and make it more memorable.

One of the biggest challenges for a lot of app entrepreneurs is that they generate a lot of ideas regarding what to incorporate into the app. Then it becomes a prioritization problem regarding what to focus on.

The best way to handle it is to come up with an app statement. Discuss the statement with your team. If the feature doesn’t fit the statement then let’s deprioritize it.

How much time should spend on app development?

The amount of time required for app development depends on the complexity of the app. But in general, you should spend one month on the app idea, one month on app development, one month on app marketing.

So, 3 months is a reasonable time period to build and launch your app. If you are going beyond 3 months, either your app idea is too big or you will need to raise money to build a bigger team.

For our Apple watch app, it took us 3 months working part-time. There were two of us – me (product and designer) and my colleague (developer).

What is your strategy for marketing your app?

The marketing strategy for your app depends on the type of your app. You have to know who will use your app and where do they hang out. Once you figure that out, it would be easier to come up with an app marketing strategy.

For example, if your app is about a local business then you can use flyers. I have tried all kind of marketing methods including Google Ads, on the ground guerrilla marketing, etc.

But Facebook ads is a marketing strategy with the highest return on investment. Even if other companies are doing it, there is so much ad inventory available today that it is still undervalued in the app marketing umbrella. It will give you the most bang for the buck.

So, I would recommend Facebook ads for app marketing. Here, you will see the value of really understanding the problem. The clearer you are about who will use this app, the better targeting you can do on Facebook.

You can start with 50$ on Facebook and send traffic to a landing page to download your app. It is one of the easiest and fastest ways for people to download your app.

What are the ingredients that Apple looks for in a great app?

I have been an Apple insider and I can tell you there are in total 5 ingredients that Apple looks for in a great app. But in the interest of time, I would like to discuss just one of the ingredients. For others, I would encourage people to take a look at my course – From Idea to App Store.

Course for App Entrepreneur by Charles Du

From Idea to App Store Course by Charles Du

One of the ingredients that Apple looks for is Customer Delight. It looks for if your app pleasantly surprises somebody.

Facebook is the most popular app on the planet. They have many little things that delight the user. For example, if you open the Facebook app there is a little icon of a globe on the tab bar navigation that represents notifications.

Facebook notification globe in North America

Facebook notification globe in North America

If you look at the globe in North America, it rotates the globe so that North America is at the center. Whereas if you open it in Asia, the globe will be rotated so that Asia is at center.

Facebook notification globe in Asia

Facebook notification globe in Asia

It is a little feature that when you discover it makes you say, ‘That’s awesome!’

How can app developers avoid being rejected by Apple?

Having worked at Apple I can tell you that most of the apps get approved within 10 business days.

The most common reason why apps don’t get approved is either they crash or they don’t do what they say they do. It’s very important that your app description is in line with what you are building.

Apple has by far the most vibrant app ecosystem in the world. Also, it has the most money on the platform. So, respect the platform and the ecosystem.

What’s your advice for app disciples who are just starting out?

My advice would be to go look for an online course as it’s the fastest way to learn. Find a course that will help you to learn about how to build an app.

Not how to code it, but a course that teaches you about how to find a problem, look for a developer to partner with or find a freelancer and negotiate good rates.

That will get you comfortable with what it takes to build an app.

Where can we go to learn more about you?

You can visit my website at https://www.productcharles.com. You can also reach out to me on Twitter at @productcharles or check me out on LinkedIn.

What tools/books do you find indispensable for your app business

I would recommend Apple’s videos. Apple shares a lot of knowledge and content to build an app on its beautiful platform.

Apple sends out guidelines, so look at that awesome and free document to get knowledge straight from the source.

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