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

Recently, 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:

1. 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.

3. 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.

5. Virality – I was very surprised that some of the apps we judged did not make it very easy for me to share with my friends.  Virality is key, and central to the success of any social application. Your application should sell itself.  Your users are your new sales and marketing staff, and best of all, they don’t cost you anything! Make your app engaging enough to make me want to share, and when I want to share, make it as easy as possible, at as many points in the app (without being spammy) for me to share it with my friends. A good judge of social applications will notice this.

6. Get to know the judges – This isn’t an exact science.  The three judges for Bebo’s contest were announced ahead of time.  Our names are all over the place, and we’re all on Twitter, Facebook, and Bebo.  It’s very easy to learn about us, what types of things we like, the quirks we hate in applications, and the types of innovation we’re looking for.  Take advantage of that to get to know the judges ahead of time.  I don’t think a single app developer tried to chat with me and get to know me during this contest. While I probably would not have let it influence me, it could have given them some useful information on what I’m looking for.  This isn’t the case for all contests, so tread lightly (it could backfire), but at the very least, get to know who will be judging your app.

As for me? I was looking for the most useful apps that could be viral and engaging. I like things that change the world, things I haven’t seen before but catch my eye. Surprisingly not many I judged did that, and perhaps that was rightly so since Bebo does target more of an entertainment demographic. With the short timeframe it’s also hard to do that, which I understand. Perhaps yours could have been one of those?

7. Read directions – In this contest, Bebo laid out their instructions clearly.  I don’t know if they turned any apps down due to not following directions, but I bet they did, and you would never have heard of it. Read all the contest rules ahead of time, read them twice, and be sure your application follows them, to a tee, when you submit your application to the contest.  If it does make it through, the judges will notice, and then you’re just wasting the judges’ time at that point.

8. Be original! – Remember that as judges, we’re looking at many applications.  Therefore, those that stand out will be those that haven’t been done before.  I was very impressed, and amused at the Kickmania app, due to the originality of it all, and how at the same time it sucked me in and was very viral. While perhaps not something that would change the world, it was very original in the idea, something I had never seen before, yet wanted to play over and over again. Surprisingly, Bowling Buddies was the same way – while Bowling itself isn’t very original, the way they crafted the Bowling game and the way you play it I thought was very original.

This was a fun contest to judge, and I learned a lot from it. How you craft your application and the amount of time you spend paying attention to these details will make or break your application in these contests.  If you can follow these 8 steps, your chances of being noticed will go up 10-fold.  Congrats again to the winners!