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Mobile App Development: A Comprehensive Guide on the World of Development for Startups

Like us, we’re sure that almost everyone you know uses a smartphone. What’s the main draw for everyone to buy these types of phones over more basic ones? The answer is — the applications. In 2020 alone there were 218 billion mobile application downloads globally. Those small icons open up entire little worlds that give the phone more functions. Your smartphone and its apps allow you to watch videos, shop from your favorite store, doodle a note for later, and check out your friend’s most recent pictures to name just a few functions. Apps are quite awesome things!

The reason you’re here though is because you are feeling inspired to develop your own mobile app. You want to bring your unique idea to the ever-growing app marketplace and earn some revenue along the way. You’ve come to the right place! Let’s give over a rundown of what to expect in the development process.

Before You Begin 

There are a few things you need to know before you start the mobile app development journey:

  1. App development takes time. It’s not a quick process, and it never really ends, even after launch. Apps often add more features after launch and need to be continually updated.
  2. App development is expensive. Between research, project management, development, design, and maintenance, it’s a costly endeavor.
  3. Apps are powerful tools that can grow your business financially and logistically. They expand your group of potential customers from the people in your network to anyone with a smartphone, allowing you to be bigger than ever before.
  4. Product validation is the most important step in the development process. Without it, you are wasting your time and money. 

App development is a long process with a lot of variables and people involved, so it can be easy to lose sight of your end goal and fall into asking yourself, “Why is this taking so long?” or “Why does it cost so much?” repeatedly. By understanding that you will spend a lot of time and money building an app, you are able to set realistic expectations for your project from the get-go. However, keeping in mind that that time and money will help your business grow substantially is just as important; it’s what drives you to keep moving forward throughout the development process.

Validating Your Idea

Validation is an important part of product development as you will need to prove to yourself and potential investors that people actually want what you are trying to create. To validate your idea you will need to be vulnerable to criticism and letting change happen as you adapt to your customers needs and expectations.

When you’re validating your project idea it’s good to do plenty of market research to understand the market space you are entering. The first step to that is researching if anyone has already solved the problem you are trying to solve. If they did, were they successful? How is your solution different from theirs? Once you have checked out your potential competition, find out if there were any failed attempts to solve your problem. If so, find out why others failed and what they did wrong so you don’t do the same.

Once you have checked out the competition and you have a good understanding of the market, you can create a proof of concept or model of your product. While this won’t necessarily be a working model, it can be sketches or a powerpoint presentation about your idea that explains what you are trying to accomplish with your product. You can then take that proof of concept and present it to people in your network to begin validating your idea. Through this, you can get feedback from real consumers and see if they would actually buy or use your product. 

Learn more on validating your idea here:

Validation Serves as a Key Role in the Software Development Process

Are You Asking Bad Questions?

From Idea to Done Podcast S2 E12: Validating your App ft. Ben Sailer

Defining Your MVP

Once you have validated your idea, the next step is to understand and determine what your minimum viable product (MVP) for your mobile app is. An MVP is the most basic form of your product that still meets your functionality standards. Your MVP needs to be defined early on because it determines the order of which tasks are prioritized and backlogged when going into the development phase. For example, say your idea is for an online banking app. Your MVP would very likely include keeping users accounts secure and providing basic banking functions. Flashy graphics and designs might not be at the top of the priority list. When heading into the development phase, eye-catching visual design of the app would then be backlogged for a later time, and tasks that work towards making the app secure and functional would become priorities. In this way, defining your MVP early on keeps the development process moving and ensures that the minimum goals of the app are met and not side tracked by other tasks of lower importance. At Codelation, the product owner defines what their MVP is so that the minimum viable product includes their minimum requirements, not ours. We’re not here to tell people what the standards for their product should be, we’re here to turn ideas into reality. However, those standards do need to be in consideration with time and budget.

How Long Does it Take to Develop a Mobile App?

So, you’ve validated your idea. You’ve done your research. You’ve defined your MVP. Now, you might be asking yourself, “How long is this going to take?” 

Well, it depends on a few different factors; the first of which is the magnitude or complexity of your app, or as we call it, project scope. Ask yourself, “Is the project going to be something that is built and launched? Or is it something that will need continual updates and changes?” For example, a mobile app that is used to order food online would just need to be constructed and launched so that users could buy food. This type of build wouldn’t take too long once the app is constructed because it wouldn’t need constant updates unless the menu changes or a bug fix is needed. On the other hand, a mobile app build that’s a game would need constant updates in order to push out new game content, keep users engaged, and fix bugs as they are discovered. These are two different types of projects with very different scopes, and thus would follow different timelines. 

Another thing that will affect the time it takes to build an app is how many features an app has. Apps that do multiple things will take longer to make than ones that have less features. This fact is a little more obvious than others, but it still needs to be said; if you want an app that does more, it takes longer than something more basic.

If you have a huge budget, you can probably hire a large development company that can churn out a product much faster than if you are limited to a smaller budget and can’t hire as big of a company to do your project. The amount of time it takes to build your app also comes down to how much billable time a company or developer has available in a week; they may have projects for other clients too. 

Your budget will also affect how many developers you can work with at your chosen software development company. More developers leads to more work done in a shorter period of time, meaning your budget can completely change your timeline of completion. Having a bigger budget isn’t always the solution to faster delivery though. As we said before, big budgets typically come with big projects, and those take more time. 

The best thing you can do for yourself when developing a mobile app is hire the right company to be efficient and effective with your budget. Every company has different parameters such as price and availability, so we suggest looking into several different development companies and choosing the one that fits your project’s budget and timeline best. 

Keep reading to learn how to choose the right development team!

To learn more about the development options for building a mobile app, click here.

The App Development Timeline

The app development timeline can vary depending on many of the above factors, but it typically looks something like this: 

  1. Business Planning & Market Research: 3-6 months
  2. Discovery Process: 4-8 weeks
  3. Development and Design Sprints: 3-6 months
  4. Application Launch: 1-2 weeks
  5. Continuous Improvement and Support: continuous

While this is just a ballpark estimate, a majority of projects can be completed within 6-12 months in the startup world. But again, this is just a rough estimate, and if you talk with a development company, they may give you a different timeline depending on their availability. The entire timeline varies from startup to startup depending on scope, features, budget, time constraints, and the chosen developer. To ensure that the project gets done in the most efficient way possible, it’s important to do research in the field, understand costs, and find the right developer. Price and time standards will differ all across the board, but remember, the more complex a mobile app is, and the bigger the project, the longer it’s going to take to develop. App development is a complex, ongoing process, and it’s going to evolve as the world of software development does.

For more details on how long it takes to develop a mobile app, click here.

How Much Does it Cost to Build a Mobile App?

Okay, so you’ve done your homework on how long it takes to develop a mobile app, but how much is this thing going to cost? 

Much like the timeline for app development varies depending on a range of factors, so does the cost. We understand that the numbers associated with custom software development may be intimidating to some, but we’re here to break down the different aspects of cost to help you digest the prices associated with building a mobile app. 

While in theory it may seem easy to create a simple app for your phone to accommodate your big idea, that is far from the truth. Along with being highly complex to build, the cost of a custom mobile application ranges from $15,000-$300,000. Depending upon application type, who builds your application, design complexity, and the model of development used, development price varies. 

Application Types

Application type is one of the most influential factors in price as it determines the functionality and capabilities of the application. There are 4 main types:

  1. Simple applications are capable of basic functions and do not store data like other applications such as a timer or calculator. Depending on the complexity of the functionality, these applications usually take about 2-4 weeks to create and can cost anywhere from $15,000-$80,000. While that may seem like a high price tag for such rudimentary functionality, the labor that goes into building its operations is no joke.
  2. Application Programming Interfaces (API) require some sort of registration or sign in, which consequently requires the synchronization and storing of user data. This increased complexity and functionality extends the duration of the application build. Ranging from 2-3 months and $30,000 to potentially $150,000, database applications offer more to the user, as well as the product owner.
  1. Multi-featured applications offer various features and amenities which ultimately tailor to the user’s needs. That kind of operational intelligence takes quite the effort on behalf of the developer(s) and consequently increases the price. Additional features all have varying costs that can add up to tens of thousands of dollars rather quickly, and the amount of intention put into the production of a mobile app is demonstrated in the cost as well. Taking up to half a year and anywhere from $50,000-$250,000 to complete, multi-featured applications are for those with conviction (and funding). 

Last but not least, the application type that is most universally familiar are gaming apps. Gaming applications require not only the building of the application, but also the creation of storyboards and plotlines as well. On top of that, the mechanics and features must be in place to ensure a high quality user experience. By being the most intense to develop from both a creative and software perspective, it is no surprise that these applications can cost anywhere from $50,000-$300,000 to create. The timeline and duration of development for gaming applications fluctuates with the overall complexity of the game itself.

Development Models 

The model that your developer(s) utilize to build your application will directly correlate with your final costs. Understanding different development and application models will not only provide you a sense of security, but also help you make the decision of who you want building your application. 

The most frequently used application models are Fixed Rate and Time & Materials. A Fixed Rate model provides an estimate based on the agreed-upon concepts. This upfront estimate can only be accurate with a fixed scope, meaning the development team does not allow on-the-fly changes along the way. Time & Materials provides an estimate initially but charges on a weekly or monthly basis. The scope is determined while the development process is in place while giving greater flexibility to both the developer and the product owner.

So, what does it really cost to build a custom mobile application? According to Clutch, the top 12 developers state it ranges from $30,000-$700,000 with $171,450 being the medium cost. If you are looking at a 12-18 month project, expect at least a $250,000-$500,000 bill in the end. In short, building a custom mobile application varies greatly in cost. Remember that if you want to build a successful mobile app, it’s more than just building the app itself. It needs to be researched, planned, developed, designed, continually updated, branded, and marketed, which is a costly endeavor. However, when it’s done well, you can make your money back tenfold.

For a more in depth conversation about how much it costs to build a mobile app, check out our other blog here.

The Mobile App Development Process

There is quite a journey ahead of someone that wants to take their app idea to market. If you’ve gotten this far in the article, you’ve likely already come to that conclusion on your own. We’re here to tell you that becoming an entrepreneur is a big jump, but it can be quite an exciting adventure to see your app grow, change, and flourish as it goes through development. Let’s take a look at a few of the big mobile app development steps.

Planning

I’m sure your head is chock full of features you’d like your app to have. The only problem with having so many ideas is deciding which are needed and have priority in your development and which would be nice to have later down the line. Some of your ideas possibly aren’t even needed or wanted by your target audience. You don’t want to waste time, effort, and money developing features that go untouched by the majority of your users.

So, how do you begin sorting through the mess of ideas? Start by identifying user needs. User needs are the needs you hear directly from your market research. You should not be sprinkling any of your fun extra features while identifying the user needs, strictly stick to what you are hearing. What are their struggles and pain points that you can solve? Make a list out of the wants and prioritize them based on which struggles you heard most. 

After you cement your user needs, you can translate them into product features that will address the needs directly. Identify the feature ideas that you had in your head prior and see if they align with the wants you heard from the mouths of your potential customers. The ideas that do align can be put in priority order based on the prioritization of the user needs they align with. Now you know which product features are most important and need to be focused on. Depending on your initial budget, the lower product features may be added to your build in a future app iteration.

But what about the ideas that don’t line up with user needs you heard in market research? Don’t toss them in the garbage just yet! Consider leaving them on the back burner. Those functionalities might not be a good fit for your product at the moment if no users sound like it’s necessary to them. You can always perform more market research with your established user base later for a next iteration of your application.

UX/UI Design

Cropped view of designers planning user experience design with color palette and website sketches on

User experience (UX) design and user interface (UI) design are integral parts of making an app come to life. How will your app look and behave in the hands of your users is what UX and UI design is all about. These terms are often used interchangeably, but they do have two different, distinct meanings. 

UX Design:

User experience encompasses all customer or potential customer’s interactions with a company or product. So, in turn, UX design is all the elements that come together to make up that user experience. It can be used in reference to digital or physical products. It is not about the look of the product, it’s about the overarching feel and journey that someone using the product encounters.

UI Design:

User interface design is all about the aesthetic experience of your product. It is the presentation and interactivity of your product. It can refer to only digital products, like a mobile application. UI design includes the images, buttons, typography, and anything that you need to make up the visual aspects of a product.

How does UI and UX design get implemented into the mobile app development process? There are 3 different types of deliverables that assist in bringing applications to life. Wireframes are built by a designer focusing on user experience design. It’s the blueprint of how the user will adventure through the product. Next comes the mockups. Mockups are where user interface design gets involved. They show off the colors, images, icons and more using the blueprint laid out by wireframes. The final deliverable that is used in app development is a prototype. It takes the UI and UX from the wireframes and mockups and makes an interactive experience. You are able to click and interact with a prototype to see how a user will eventually experience the app build. While a prototype has interactivity, it is not built using code, rather made in a program like Adobe XD or Sketch.

How your users interact and view your product can make or break your application’s success. UI and UX design can set you apart from the sea of competitors too. Even if an app performs similar functions to others on the market, customers will download and continue to support whatever app has the best user experience and the one that matches their aesthetic preferences. 

Mobile Development Frameworks

A framework is a platform that gives developers a foundation on which to build software. They take the code, customize it, and build upon it to fit the client’s needs. Individual frameworks have different upsides and downsides, there is no perfect, one size fits all framework. Why not build an app from the ground up? Using a framework not only makes coding faster and easier (and therefore less expensive), it helps avoid some bugs and errors that a developer might come across if they built from scratch. 

Where do frameworks come from? They’re commonly built by quite a few developers and then adopted by a community of users that collaborate and help report bugs and fixes. Some frameworks are built and funded by big tech companies like Facebook, Microsoft, and Google. The most popular frameworks have large, active audiences collaborating and improving the framework at every turn.

One thing to note is that engineers typically specialize in only a few frameworks that they know and love; not everyone will offer to build an application in any framework. It is a good idea to discuss your app’s desired functionalities with a developer to see which framework would work best for your idea. If you want to do some research and learn more about frameworks, continue reading about them here.

Choosing A Development Partner

When it comes to developers there are four main avenues; outsourced development, freelance development, technical co-founder development, and development shops or companies (like us). Outsourcing your development, typically overseas, is the lowest cost you will find when it comes to building your mobile application. However, you are also taking on a great deal of risk with the lack of transparency and communication that is often otherwise provided by regional developers. Freelance developers cost a bit more than offshore development as they are native to your country of origin. The risk associated with freelance developers is the rate at which work can be completed. While established companies can have multiple individuals, or an entire team, working on your application, a freelance developer has only him/herself as a resource. Technical Co-Founders developers are not only going to build your application but they will personally invest themself in your product subsequently becoming your business partner. When it comes to cost, technical co-founders are paid in equity which decreases the risks involved. The sure fire way to build a great product is to hire a development company. You can have an entire team of individuals that work collaboratively to ensure every element of your application is seamless. Not to mention the quality assurance, subject matter expertise, and organized communication excellent development companies possess.

No matter which type of development partner you are interested in, there will always be differences from dev shop to dev shop, freelancer to freelancer. They will have different specialities, different preferred languages and frameworks, different types of project management styles, different time ranges for completion, and different estimated rates among other variables. A good course of action would be to speak to a few different options and see what they have to offer. Since budget is a very important factor for most entrepreneurs, estimated cost for the project often has a big influence on who they choose to work with. Remember that a cheaper estimate doesn’t always mean better end product (and the same can be said for more expensive estimates, it doesn’t always mean you’ll have the best app on the market). Looking at a development partner’s past work offers good insight into their skill as well as if the client would recommend working with them. Some developers are busy and booked out into the future. While this may be a tell that they are busy because of popularity, ask yourself if you’re willing to wait or do you want your app as soon as possible. Paying attention to the factors that you value most can help you decide which partner you wish to work alongside.

Timeline

We have already touched on factors that can affect how long it will take to develop an application, but the style of project management can affect when you should expect to see certain phases of development. Two common methodologies for software and app development are Agile and Waterfall. These are very different beasts that have their upsides and downsides. You’ll typically find that dev teams use one or the other, so it’s good to know some basics about them to understand how your development timeline will look.

Agile: This methodology focuses on rapid deployment using 2-week time periods called “sprints”. At the start of a sprint the team takes note of tasks and deliverables that are top priority to get down during that time from the client. As a sprint ends, the team and client review the progress made and figure out what should be done during the next sprint period. More specific methodologies like Scrum and Kanban fall under the umbrella of Agile methodology. Advantages of this approach include that it’s customer-focused and promotes a lot of communication internally as well as with the clients. Some disadvantages to using Agile include that not every customer has time or wants to be so heavily involved with sprints and there is always the chance that all deliverables don’t get finished in a sprint window, therefore adding additional sprints and costing more money.

Waterfall: This methodology involves taking a phased sequential approach to development. Sadly, this methodology does not have a step where you hike to a secret rainforest waterfall. It does focus on hitting most of the planning at the beginning of the project as all deliverables are agreed upon at the very start. The team goes through distinct phases of work such as design, coding, quality assurance testing, and deployment. The team does not move forward into the next phase unless the last one is completely finished. What are the upsides to using waterfall methodology? Clear, upfront agreements on what deliverables will get done and clear measurements of development progress are two advantages of implementing waterfall. A few downsides are that there is no allowance for uncertainty and testing is done only towards the end of the project, meaning there could be bugs and issues only noticed late in the process.

While there is no perfect flow to bringing a mobile app into reality, taking the time to learn what the perfect fit is for you and your project can be a great way to set your expectations throughout development.

Testing

While we can talk about the importance of every step in the mobile app development process, testing is especially important to make sure your app functionalities are working properly and that everything is secure. Testing can be done along the duration of development or done all at once in a phase towards the end of development depending on the development methodology being used (Agile or Waterfall, respectively). 

There are two types of testing that happen during app development, automated testing and manual testing done by a tester. Who performs manual testing? Depending on the size of the development team, you may see developers testing the app themselves or there may be a dedicated Quality Assurance tester or team. Automated testing is done by writing code to run through a test suite software during development. The software combs through the app’s code and alerts developers any time there is an issue to be fixed. It is common for developers to test functionalities as they are built and added to branch off the main code of the application. Developers can do what is called a pull request where any new branches of code that are to be added are viewed and compared to the main code of the app before automated testing happens.

Testers try anything and everything to break the app during manual testing, making sure that all bugs are noted and fixed before it gets into the hands of your users. Here are some common things that happen during manual testing before an app goes to market:

  1. Tester goes through the app as a normal user would.
  2. If anything is noted as not functioning properly, it gets fixed by developers.
  3. Tester purposely tries to break functions within the app (Ex: filling in forms with incorrect or invalid information to see if the app properly gives an error or accepts the bad information).
  4. If anything is noted as not functioning properly, it gets sent back to the developers.
  5. Final QA testing to check over any fixes made by developers.
  6. Application is deployed to app stores for users to download.

After your app has been thoroughly checked over and tested, it will be readied to deploy and hit the app stores. As newer iterations of your app come to fruition, a tester will have to make another pass checking for bugs in any newly added features.

Marketing & Launching

Marketing Your App 

As you build your app you will have to start thinking about who is going to download it, you’ll need to create a fan base around your app to get people interested in your product and purpose. While you should have set up social media accounts as well as found your 100 allies a while ago this is a continual process before and after your launch. Social media is a great place to connect with your fans and grow your following before the app launches, hyping up the product and teasing features will create excitement and suspense for launch day. Having a following on social media is a great way to interact with potential users and should be used to not only create hype but a community around your product. You can get people who have similar interests (such as your app) to come together and rally around something they support thus turning the casual fans into connected fans into superfans. If you give these followers an inside look into what you do and give them a reason to love YOU and your purpose, you’ll be able to capture their attention and admiration easier and faster. 

One tactic you can use is to have an early adopter email sign up so people can get updates on the progress of the project as well as launch day news so they can be among the first to download it or even get it to download early. This creates a sense of intimacy and shows you care about your customers, in return they will care about you and what you’re up to as well. You can also create an online forum on reddit, discord, or quora where people can discuss the project, give their input and share excitement for your product as well as get an inside look at the development process. Customers want you to open the factory doors, they want to know how it’s made and what it looks like to build an app, especially if it’s something really cool. No matter what you do to market your app, start early, get your marketing channels in place and gain support first, otherwise you launch to crickets. Having your social media and communication channels set up 3-6 months pre-launch gives you ample time to gain fans and get the word out about your app so that by the time you launch, you have plenty of people who will download the app day one. 

Launch Day

It is now time for your app to be launched onto the app stores and online, but while this step may not take long, it is very important to get it right to ensure that your product is successful. The first thing to understand is App Store SEO- optimizing your app for the search engines within app stores so that yours comes up as early in the search results as possible. This is known as App Store Optimization (ASO) and there is a whole plethora of things you can do to make your app store presence the best it can be. 

What Can You do to Help Your ASO

One of the biggest things you can do to help your ASO is to include images of the app, screenshots of the different pages and functionalities within the app or even a short video showing usage and what the app does. Having these will give potential users a good look at the user interface and experience before they download and typically will help them decide if your app is the right choice for them (which it hopefully is). Another big thing that will help is having reviews on your app which although isn’t something you can control, is something that you can encourage your already active users to do as they are the ones who are using the app. You can achieve this by sending notifications within the app or sending the users an email after a month of use. Having a passive strategy is a good way to encourage users to leave a review, if you barrage them with notifications or pressure them into doing it, they will be less likely to leave a good review if any at all. The last thing you can do is keep it fresh, update the app store page often with new screenshots and information and every time you have to send out an app update, change the information so include patch notes to tell users what’s changing. 

What Happens Now? – Managing Your Mobile App

So now that your app is out and people are using it, you may ask yourself what there is left to do. Well now that your product is launched the most important thing to be doing is maintaining hype and gaining users so you can do more with your app. 

  1. Market, market, market. Do everything you can to push people to download the app and gain as many new users as possible. Use social media, improve your ASO, have people share about it by word of mouth, and loads of other things will help people learn about your awesome new product. 
  2. Keep the content up to date. If you have an events app, having new events on there and deleting the old ones keeps people coming back. If you have a cookbook app, keep adding new recipes and content or else the existing content will get stale and people will delete the app once they have consumed it all. Always add new stuff. 
  3. Keeping the app running smoothly and fixing bugs will keep users from getting frustrated when something doesn’t work right. 
  4. Keep the app store page updated when you update the app and get people to review the product so your ASO keeps you at the top of search results.

Doing things to keep it fresh and market it well will help you keep your current users engaged and continue to gain new users. Once you have had a successful launch you can go back into the development lifecycle to roll out new features from your product backlog and build the app bigger and better. While there is no rule that you have to add features and things after you launch your app, being able to improve it and build it bigger can also help to keep users coming back for more.

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