How app ideas are born

Yesterday I returned from the third Release Notes conference. Like in the previous two years, I had a fantastic time, meeting old and new friends, getting educated and inspired. If you’re in the business of making software, you should definitely check it out.

Release Notes Conference Venue

One of the highlights of this conference is the dine-around — a dinner with a small group of participants that fits around one table. All the participants get split into such groups and go to different restaurants based on their food preferences. This year I was in the group that dined at a sushi place, Tanoshii.

The food and the chat were great. Then came the bill. One bill. What should’ve been 11 separate bills (as Charles, one of the conference organizers, instructed restaurants ahead of time) became one, long, list of items.

I believe that the process of paying the bill took at least 30 minutes and involved quite a lot of fiddling like marking in the bill, counting and passing around credit cards.

Naturally, with all the app developers around the table, this turned into a discussion of how we could solve it faster with an appropriate app. Curtis, who gave a fantastic business talk the next morning, started to brainstorm ideas of how to use latest Apple mobile technologies to build an app to split such bills in a short time. Others have joined. The app now used photo scanning with OCR, face recognition, drag and drop, and ARKit.

Everything seemed to be ready and planned, and Curtis was almost prepared to take on the project during the weekend.

I realized that the app was missing a catchy name. I got an idea, and this was my only contribution to the “project”. In my mind, it could only be named after its inspiration: Tanoshii.

Decision aid app idea

As it often happens, I get a new idea for an application, get excited about it and start to “massage” the idea in my mind to see where it leads me.

One such idea that has been in my mind for a long time is an application for helping making decisions. A decision aid tool, as they’re called. I know there are different applications for the same goal but I wanted to play with my own idea.

Being busy with our other projects, which require much attention, I can’t afford just go and develop it to see where it takes me. I’m also not sure if other people will find the application interesting, if there is a market for this at all. So I’d like to have your input to this idea.

I wanted the application to be visual, looking similar to a flowchart. iPad looks like the best platform for this. Working with a tablet on this also helps because of the focused mode you’re often in while working with them. At the same time the iPad often allows one to work more comfortably, in a state where creative ideas and big-thinking flow easily into the mind. Such a combination of laid-back one-task state can be very productive for system thinking.

So, back to the app. There will be the goal, such as a Yes/No decision. There will also be a number of inputs. The inputs are very important, obviously, and their values will not be simple constants. Instead, they’ll be based on some distribution of possible values, either discreet values with their chances or a range of values based on some distribution, such as a bell curve, which are common in real-life.

These inputs will go through a series of flow-chart like actions, mathematical or logical, which can be connected like a graph, affecting each other, if needed. In the end, they’ll all converge to some decision point. A vision that I had in mind is that it’ll be somewhat similar to a neural network where input thresholds can affect the output of the “neuron” and thus affect other areas in the graph, leading to a different decision.

After the user defined all the input distributions and the graph, the simulation will run over the distributions and see how they all affect the goal result.

In end, you’ll be able to see such results as:

  • What are the chances of success?
  • Which combinations of inputs values bring to the desired outcome?
  • Risk analysis
  • Sensitivity of goal to specific inputs

Such analysis, in my opinion, can help the decision maker on different levels – once when he designs the system, because it forces him to think how the different aspects of the system and its conditions affect each other, and second, when the system actually calculates the chances of success or even gives its suggested decision, supported by calculations.

To be meta-cool, I prepared a simple diagram that demonstrates what I mean – a “flowchart” of decision if to develop this application or not. No input values are entered and the look of it is not exactly how the end result may look like but I believe that it shows well how a visual approach can help and I’m sure you’ll be able to understand what I mean here.

The inputs are yellow hexagons, the triangles are multipliers (amplifiers in the eletronics schematics). The totals add their inputs. This may not be exact or complete diagram, just a visualization of what I had in mind. I also expect the really useful cases to be more complex.

The diagram, by the way, was done on iPad, using the really amazing TouchDraw app – kudos to Jon of ElevenWorks for developing such a great product.

I’d like to know your opinion on this idea. Does it look something that you will use? If not you, maybe other people? Can something like this be useful at all? I never stop thinking that I either miss something trivial or over-simplify this.

By the way, I have no patent on this and I’m not a patent troll either, so if you think it’s a cool idea and have the resources to develop it, go ahead. I’ll be glad to know about it, though, maybe I’ll be able help you with my ideas, too.

Click on the image to get the PDF of the diagram since it’s too large for this blog.

Decision aid app idea diagram