Last week I launched my first sticker pack for iOS 10 in the App Store. It’s a Valentine’s Day collection called “Candy Hearts”.
In this post I’ll show you how my 13 year-old daughter and I designed and launched a simple iMessage sticker pack product in just a few days. While you may not strike it rich, designing and developing iMessage stickers is a great way to make a few bucks as you learn the ins and outs of iOS 10.
Apple’s iMessage Stickers launched last summer at WWDC 2016. Housed within the existing iMessage environment, the idea behind iMessage Stickers is to make sending simple text messages more engaging and fun. Or perhaps annoying. Think emojis on steroids.
Like emojis, users send individual stickers to each other as visual “texts” within iMessage. They can also “peel and stick” stickers to existing messages and other stickers.
Sticker packs have become very popular and are already big business for major brands and celebrities. It’s also opened the door for artists, illustrators, and entrepreneurs to get exposure for their images and designs through iOS. In fact, as of this writing there are already over 1250 sticker packs in the App Store.
That’s a lot of stickers. But it’s a heck of a lot less than the millions of apps competing for eyeballs and dollars these days. When you combine that with a relatively easy development process, iMessage Stickers are an excellent opportunity to quickly find out what it takes to go from idea to app in the App Store.
Our App Store Adventure Begins
I first heard about making sticker packs while taking Mark Price’s iOS 10 course on Udemy. I’ve wanted to get into iOS design and development for years but was intimidated by the whole process.
Thankfully no coding skills are needed to make iMessage stickers. You just need a Mac, a design program like Sketch or Photoshop, Xcode 8 and some time.
You also need an Apple Developer account and plenty of patience. While the process is fairly straightforward, Apple is very particular about how you need to do things.
You can build and test apps for free once you get a developer account, but if you plan on distributing apps for sale in the App Store you’ll need to shell out $99.00 per year. This seemed like reasonable tuition for a good learning exercise, so I signed up.
It helped to get some advice from people who’ve done this before. A simple Google search returned some awesome articles (see links at the bottom of this article). The absolute best resource for our project was The App Dojo’s online course called “This Is How You Make A Sticker Pack”.
It walked us through everything from start to finish, from downloading Xcode to making sure our images were sized correctly to signing up as an Apple Developer. It’s a very short course at only 32 minutes, but I found myself watching the videos over and over and stopping at certain sections to make sure I understood everything.
The instructor is also very responsive. I emailed him a few times and he answered all my questions promptly.
A Simple Idea
iMessage stickers are also a wonderful way to introduce young artists to the possibilities of iOS development. My daughter is fascinated by digital technology and art, and I thought she might do the project with me if it was fun.
So making it a fun project was the first requirement. Besides art and technology, my daughter is also crazy about hearts. They are her favorite shape.
And Valentine’s Day is right around the corner. I noticed Valentine’s greeting cards and gifts flooding retail store shelves right after Christmas.
I imagined lots of moms getting valentines for their kids and other loved ones in the near future. With that customer in mind, I thought we should make an animated Valentine’s Day sticker pack for our first project.
Animated stickers tend to sell better in the App Store, so that was also a consideration.
It’s important to conduct market research before diving into any design project, so off to the App Store I went. The iMessage App Store is a subset of the big App Store, and there were already tons of Valentine’s Stickers in there.
That was a good sign. It meant there is an existing market for Valentine stickers. A little competition is a good thing, so don’t be afraid of it. Your job is to make a better product than what’s currently available.
Next I searched specifically for animated Valentine stickers. I didn’t see very many, and none that matched our concept. Another good sign. While there were no guarantees, I decided to go for it.
Creating The Initial Design
I wanted to release an MVP that we could launch and learn from quickly, so it was important to keep the design and production as simple as possible.
Real candy hearts are just the same candy in different colors, so I figured we could probably make multiple stickers out of the same basic design. We settled on 12 different animated stickers as our first product.
I opened up Sketch and created an artboard for a medium-size sticker, which is 408 x 408 pixels. I drew what I thought was a decent heart shape, but was quickly reprimanded by my daughter.
Thankfully her design skills are far superior to mine. She made a few adjustments, I exported it as a .PNG and we had our first design.
Making A Prototype Sticker
Now it was time to open up Xcode 8 and dive in. Similar to old-school desktop publishing, Xcode opens with some pre-defined templates you can select to create a project. I chose “Sticker Pack” and we were off to the races.
Creating a sticker pack in Xcode is really just a matter of moving assets from one folder to another – unless you also have animation, which adds some additional steps.
I wanted to make a test animation before creating all of the other animated candy hearts, so we put our “Hug Me” .PNG to the test.
Sticker Pack animations can include animated GIFs or .PNGs. You can also make them within Xcode. These are called “Sticker Sequences” and are pretty easy to figure out. Each animation is made up of a collection of frames. First you determine the number of frames you need, and then and drag and drop your respective .PNG files into a designated sticker sequence.
I played with the sticker sequence within Xcode to figure out how many frames would work for our concept. Luckily we just needed 2 frames – a full size .PNG and another scaled at 75%. That made our production effort a whole lot easier.
The initial “heartbeat” animation I was going for was way too fast with the default frame rate. After a few tweaks we settled on a repeating loop of 2 frames at 5 frames per second. That made our “Hug Me” heart look like it had its own little beat.
Now that we had a proof of concept we could go forward with producing all the creative assets. The production process took the most time by far and is glossed over in many other articles.
Make sure you give yourself plenty of time for producing final assets. The more stickers you package together, the more time you will need for production. Making a prototype sticker first helped me accurately estimate how long it would take to pull everything together.
Animated stickers require more time depending on how many frames are included within each animation. The finished sticker artwork was exported as a collection of .PNGs – 2 images for each sticker.
Creating The App Icon
Next it was time to create the app icon. Designing a high quality app icon is one of the most important aspects of any iOS development project. It has to be designed well and stand on its own amidst the sea of competitors in the App Store.
It’s also a very tedious process, since you have to export the finished icon to fit multiple iOS devices. Thankfully I found a very useful tutorial and the Sketch template above at applypixels.com.
The goal of our icon design was to capture the playful animated effect of our app without using any text. Hopefully we achieved that.
iPhone and iPad Testing
Even though Xcode provides all the behind the scenes coding for sticker packs, you still need to thoroughly test everything prior to submitting to the App store. The good news is Xcode has several device simulators. You do need to have at least one device such as an iPhone, but you don’t need to have multiple devices on hand.
iTunes Connect and Submission to the App Store
Once your Xcode project is thoroughly tested in your development environment, you’ll need to setup an account with iTunes Connect to prepare it for submission to the App Store. iTunes Connect is a suite of web-based tools for managing content sold on the App Store and iTunes. It’s only available to paid Apple Developer Program members to manage apps, agreements, tax and banking information, sales reports, and more.
Make sure you have the following items ready to go before logging in to iTunes Connect:
- Final Xcode project
- Final App Icon assets
- Screenshots for both iPhone and iPad
- Marketing Keywords (so your app can be found within search)
- Keyword Optimized App Title and Description
- Marketing and Support URLs
iTunes Connect is a pain to use, so get something to eat or take a walk around the block before submitting your app. You’ll need to cross-reference your Xcode project file with the form fields in iTunes Connect to make sure a few things match up. So take your time and be patient.
After iTunes Connect is all setup, the actual submission process takes place within Xcode. You upload your app to the store, receive a confirmation message, and cross your fingers that it gets accepted.
Apple is working hard to condense their app review times to a 24-hour window, but it can change depending on overall submission volume. Appreviewtimes.com is a great resource to check while you’re waiting.
Initial Sales and User Feedback
It’s really exciting when people pay money for something you made, even if it’s just a buck. Our first few sales rolled in from family and friends over the weekend which was awesome. Yippee! Market validation!
It’s important to remember that iMessage Apps are different from regular Apps, which is probably one reason why they are in a separate store. When a customer buys your sticker pack they will naturally expect an App icon to magically download onto their phone. It doesn’t work that way.
Instead, the iMessage app gets downloaded into a “sticker drawer” within iMessage. This new feature will take consumers some time to get used to, so be ready to handle inquiries. When a few customers emailed me about this I created some screen shots to guide them to the app, which worked fine.
Candy Hearts launched on the App Store on January 20, which meant we had a little less than a month to promote it before Valentine’s Day. Besides promoting to friends and family, LinkedIn and Twitter, I also paid 20 bucks to prMac to issue a press release.
The release went live today. Hopefully it will boost interest and sales. But hey, it’s just a sticker pack. It’s not going to change the world.
Looking At The Numbers
At this point we’ve only made enough money for a modest lunch at McDonald’s. Honestly we’re in the red right now, but that’s ok.
Here’s a breakdown of net revenue and expenses to date:
- Paid Developer Account: $99.00
- Devslopes iOS 10 Course: $10.00 (with coupon)
- App Dojo Sticker Pack Course: $10.00 (with coupon)
- PRMac Cost: $19.95
- Total Expense: $138.95
- Total Time Investment: 15 hours
I’ll update this post with final numbers after Valentine’s Day. If sales do well we may release other seasonal sticker packs throughout the year. And since I’m no longer afraid of learning Xcode and Swift I’m also planning to develop my first game.
Whether or not we make a profit, I’m truly excited about the potential of iMessage Stickers as an entry point to iOS app development. It’s loads of fun and the barrier to entry is quite low.
Here are some of the most helpful links that helped me get started:
Check out Candy Hearts on the App Store using the link below. As always, thanks for reading!
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