The True Cost Of Building A Mobile App

Author

My Say, Contributor

November 12, 2014

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because many mobile apps are free (or nearly so) to download, a good app can be built in an afternoon for the price of lunch. The mobile revolution may have upended how we live, buy and communicate—but one time-tested adage remains as true as ever: you get what you pay for.

In many ways, the mobile age has proven that the cost of creating a product or business hasn’t changed much at all; the infrastructure has simply shifted to a different asset class. Instead of investing in buildings, tools and machinery, capital now mostly goes into software. And just as with more traditional forms of commerce, if you want to capture the attention and wallets of customers, your mobile app—must be better and more engaging than the one your competition offers. It’s that simple.

Serious mobile apps require a strong conceptual foundation, good planning, an excellent ecosystem and top-notch talent in both the design and engineering phases. Scrimp on any of these elements and you risk the value and ROI of your finished product.

The first and perhaps most important step in creating a great app is to do your research. Once you have come up with your app concept, take the time to make sure nothing identical already exists on the market. It also helps to develop a few core use cases, taking into account the target audience and how your app will play out in both the short- and long-term.

Another critical early-stage decision is which platform to build for. iOS, Android, and Windows devices all have their own operating systems and for the most part, different native SDKs and programming languages. By clearly defining your go-to-market strategy and your target market segment for your mobile app, it’s possible to determine which platform you should launch with.

Rounding out your upfront work is to select your creative team. While people can, in some cases, fulfill multiple roles, the strongest teams are comprised of people well versed in their particular specialty—e.g., user experience, interaction design, visual design and so on.

Once your team is in place, conceptual work begins by sketching out the key functional flows, followed by detailed wireframes and then the visual design. These steps can involve a lot of work—as much as two to three months depending on complexity. They can also require significant revision and even rethinking of the initial requirements. Many clients, for a variety of reasons, are eager to move quickly through this phase, but they often regret it downstream when costly revisions are required or a less-than-ideal end product is unveiled. It’s better to work out the kinks early, in collaboration with your design team, than pay dearly for expensive mistakes later.

A great way to make sure your app is on the right track is to get external feedback through usability testing. Lots of tools are available to build a working prototype; the best can actually stitch together screens and actions using the same transitions (in/out slides, flips and so on) and user gestures (swipes, pinches, taps, etc.) as the real thing.

Additional testing can be done through focus groups, crowdsourcing, even through family and/or friends who fit your demographic. The important thing is, don’t be afraid to go back and adjust your prototype as often as needed. Again, it makes no sense to actually code the app until you’re sure it meets your users’ preferences, as well as their needs.

Prototype testing concludes the design phase, meaning it’s time to actually write the software. Just as with the design phase, the success of coding relies on quality people. While mockups are important, it takes pros to turn your prototype into a real, functional app. Moreover, experienced software architects and engineers can keep needless delays and bugs to a minimum, while simultaneously making sure your app is optimized and scales in the long run. They may charge a bit more—but their talent makes them a bargain in the long run.

Before you can actually release your app you need a cloud services provider who will not only host it, but also power and maintain the back end systems. There’s a lot of competition in the cloud services space from Amazon, Microsoft Azure, Rackspace and hundreds of smaller providers. Make sure that your provider can scale quickly as needed. Maintenance is another key consideration, both for your service provider and your development staff. Apps stores are competitive places and bad news travels fast—so make sure your team is available for bug fixes, updates, downstream version testing and so on.

It should be clear by now that building and maintaining an app is not an insignificant task. Despite what many think, it is a major investment of time, money and vision. You should expect to involve a team of six to ten people for about six months or more. Moreover, a high-quality, enterprise-class mobile app will involve not tens, but hundreds of thousands of dollars. Again, it’s essential to be guided by the idea that you get what you pay for.

Remember, mobile apps are no longer simply about quaint diversions and nice-to-have gadgets. They’re serious products that happen to live on the most important innovation to come along in decades: our mobile devices. Everything lives on our smartphones and tablets today—and it takes a lot to build an app that owns the space in its category. Keep this important truth in mind, and you’ll have a business asset that proves its profitability every single day.

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