App Development Contests 101 – Tips From a Judge and a Developer

bebologoRecently, I was selected to be a judge in Bebo’s B.E.S.T. Developer contest.  Over 2,000 applicants participated, and after 2 months, 18 were selected by Bebo to be judged.  Frank Gruber, Dave McClure, and I (Jesse Stay) all had the opportunity of trying out each one and judge, based on various criteria, what we thought of them.  The results were all tallied up by Bebo, and the top 5 were announced at an awards ceremony.  Those included Kickmania, Banana Grams, Robokill Trainer, and Solid Sudoku. The winner, Bowling Buddies, by Playfish, deservedly won Grand Prize due to it being a very engaging and visually appealing app with functional UI.

As a social app developer, and author of O’Reilly’s FBML Essentials, I’ve been through these contests before as a participant, often with a blind eye towards what the judges would look for and how I could get their attention.  After all, in this particular contest, over 2,000 applications were competing for the top prize, but in many Facebook competitions there are 10 times that.  You’re a needle in a haystack to the judges.  I thought, after experiencing this and a few other judging opportunities, that I’d share a little on what catches our, as judges, attention:

beboapp31. Functionality – I’m starting with the essentials, and they were very important in the judging process for this particular contest.  Functionality was key.  Believe it or not, even some of the top 18 finalists that we judged still had major flaws, bugs, and issues with functionality. Some apps took several tries to get working after install. Others had bugs within the app itself. I understand you didn’t have much time to write it, but neither did any other developer in the contest, and time is not on the Judges’ side either. That brings me to #2.

2. K.I.S.S. – Keep it Simple, Stupid! There were a few apps that didn’t even have About pages. As a Judge, this is crucial. Remember, some of the judges (those at Bebo, or Facebook, or whatever the host of the contest is) are going through thousands of apps. Others, like me, are going through just 18, but even 18 is a lot to go through on an already very busy schedule. (They don’t call Dave McClure “Master of 500 Hats” because he sits around and judges contests all day.) Your About page is your cover letter – if the Judge never even tries your app, what do you want them to know about it?

Keep your apps very simple, but fun, engaging, and useful. The more you can fit into a small package without being overwhelming, the better. Make it as easy as possible for the judges to get through most of your app, very quickly, and easily.

beboapp13. Visual Appeal – Those apps that were a little more appealing visually caught my attention more than those that didn’t. As an app developer myself this doesn’t matter as much to me, but I did find myself sticking around on apps I could “feel good” in a little longer than those that didn’t spend as much time on visual appeal. It made me feel like the developers cared a little more if they invested in a graphic designer to design their application.

4. Engagement – I highly recommend you try out the 5 apps above.  I rated I think every one of them pretty high, and the Grand Prize winner was definitely my favorite.  Bowling Buddies drew me in – in fact, I wrote on Twitter at the time I was playing it, “The good apps in this contest really suck you in.” I liked it so much and was having so much fun playing it I wanted to share it with others and even brought my 6 year old son over to play it with me. I really wanted to tell others about it.  Spend some time having your friends and family play your app – do they share it with their friends (and not because you sent it to them)? How long do they spend playing it?  Think about the types of things your buddies at work send to you and would waste work hours on (seriously). Engagement is very important.