Understanding App Development Costs

Ever since we started taking our Dribbble presence seriously, we’ve been receiving a lot of messages from our potential clients of all shades with a predominant topic being the cost of design and development of mobile apps. We’d gladly put out a number… if we had one laid out.

The problem is in the complexity of the process and a lot of variables that come into play once the projects starts. On paper, it might look all cut and dried, but when reality hits you on the head, you get wobbly. That’s why it’s important for our team, our clients, and all potential app startup owners to have a strong mindset about the cost of app development and see how exactly it works.

The reality of app production

In a perfect world, a client comes with a fully-formed business idea, user personas, some real research and data. In that case, we can tailor a detailed estimate, flex it, and ultimately roll out a plan. Other times, we have to start working in conditions of insufficient information. It is a more complicated process but it is absolutely possible. And we can’t stress this enough:

We never bail on projects regardless of how vague they are at the start.

There is an art of giving a ballpark estimate and it is based entirely on history and psychology. Over time, you generate a massive experience in the technical aspect of production so you can recognize patterns of a to-be-product. Along with that, you get to learn what type of client you are working for. Is it a tech-savvy business exec? Or perhaps a dreamer with a purpose to make the world a better place? Is it a person investing their life savings into an application? In any case, we are not allowed to fail any of them.

Estimating the cost is a teachable skill but it can only be passed from the experienced PMs to newbies if based on the right principles of care and respect. That means treating their business goals as the main value and protecting it, sometimes from the client themselves.

We start by pointing out the main concept of the app – a solid foundation to build upon. It’s important to figure it out as soon as possible, as precisely as possible, and stick to it on the later stages. Here’s what we rely on:

  • Interview. Nothing beats a real face-to-face conversation
  • Brief. Where you lay out key points in no uncertain terms
  • UX knowledge. Design is not decoration. Its performance can be measured

Here’s what we come up with after putting those three to work:

  • Product space and placement
  • Users
  • Scenarios
  • Design direction
  • Technologies
  • Limitations/reserves

To an impatient client, this might seem a waste of time but before we can figure out these aspects, there might only be (heavily) approximate numbers. This stage takes time, sometimes half as long as the production itself but this is a fruitful and safe way to do it.

Another case is a client knowing exactly what they need: the number of screens, features, even fonts used. Usually, these clients come from a failed previous project or a project with history which present a whole new challenge worthy of a standalone article.

Understanding App Development Costs | Shakuro

Stages of app production

For a reference, let’s use a generic smart wallet mobile application that keeps a record of your expenses and helps you control your budget in a more conscious way.

The idea of an app takes one sentence to formulate. The rest is the modality and context.

We would start with a high-level client’s goals assessment, take a look at what’s already out there on the app stores, what’s wrong with those and what’s good. It’s also important to receive as much client’s feedback on the competition to figure out which features we need first. After all, it’s the client who’s done the research and it would be a shame to waste all the data. Unfortunately, there is no form to fill for this type of information, it’s an interview gold that’s why it’s so important for us to assign a project manager who can sparkle the process.

Design

This type of research gives us an understanding of what we need for an MVP, gives us strategy to follow and allows us to pass it on to the first tangible stage of production which is UX design that starts with a wireframe, followed by a prototype.

Understanding App Development Costs | Shakuro

Finance App Money Manager by AnzallaDD

Each application screen is a feature or a part of one. Each button is a question answered. Every piece of text is a user problem being solved. Now multiply that by the number of scenarios and you’ll have the body of design work.

Design addresses a sensitive topic like money in a way that invokes trust and makes sure people know what we are talking about. How is our advice any good? We have the data to prove it. How does the app know my pain? The app doesn’t but the people behind it do and we designed this for ourselves included and here’s why. Design respectfully demonstrates care but also expertise backed by some sort of objective truth.

Don’t forget illustrations either. They are more than just decoration when done right. They navigate the mood of the product and explain things subconsciously. That’s a territory you can’t neglect. Money is a sensitive subject and it’s important to make people feel safe about entrusting you with power over it.

Same with animations. A lot of technical limitations can be disguised by transitions and meaningful animation. To do that, design has to have enough time to come up with valuable solutions.     

Design is the stage where we bring out the soul of the app, the reason for people to have it on their phones.

If some features pop up after the fact, they can sometimes require architecture adjustments that can double the time estimated for design. The design stage is where the application takes shape and it’s important to pass it on to the developer as a solid piece. Design is a business-oriented stage as well. But only if the business aims at bringing real value.  

Overall, the design stage from ideation to deliverables takes 120-160 hours or 20 days.

Development

As the design becomes more and more familiar with the features of the application in their entirety, it can be moved into the production stage. Depending on the methodology selected for the project, we organize the implementation sprints. At this stage, a client must not feel like we are doing art or decoration or prototyping. This is where they get to ‘touch’ the apps for the first time.

Understanding App Development Costs | Shakuro

Personal Financial Assistant App by Shakuro

Depending on the depth of design research done during the pre-production, mobile developers can accurately estimate the time and cost of their work. A financial assistant app is rather complicated in terms of production and might take a couple of weeks to implement.

The process does not have to be linear though. Once the visual language is defined and clear, developers can start putting the design into code while the design work is still in progress on some screens. With that said, we take the designer-developer interaction seriously. That means designers do the groundwork by providing all the icons, buttons, shapes, fonts, and all the tiny little things developers put to work through code.

The development phase is a fascinating stage of production. We get to work with multiple technologies for native, cross-platform, or hybrid mobile application development. The end product is defined by the quality of code and the ability of an application to perform on various devices with minimal limitations.   

The production is followed by testing and deployment. To get the application to the store, it has to meet the store requirements, have a proper onboarding, UX copy, descriptions, and a media campaign to support the launch.

A solid mobile development agency is not just technicians. It is responsible for the way the app is accepted by the public.

To do that, we need to have a voice and a trust backed by real data and experience. In our work, we rely on a variety of tools which help us automate the process. For example, we use standardized version control, unified task management, different staging environment test devices, and visual tools to communicate without detaching from the product. Figma allows the design to be created, iterated, discussed, and prepared for implementation without exporting them into other software.

Overall, the development stage with coding, testing, and deployment takes 160-200 hours or 25 days.

Core features of a mobile app  

Simple navigation and menus.

Friendly UX copy and interface text.

Personalization and smart notifications.

Built-in analytics.

Sensitive feedback tracking and timely updates.

Understanding App Development Costs | Shakuro

Financial Assistant App Animation by Shakuro

What affects mobile app development costs

Feature robustness. Clients often see the success of their application as their ability to satisfy as many users as possible. Because of that, they tend to dissipate the core value of the app by adding extra functionality. This means extra time and extra costs. Depending on the budget, it makes sense to either stick to the MVP or invest in the quality of the core features.   

Availability of multidisciplinary team members. The more versatile the team, the lesser chances of employing freelancers. Apart from the consistent quality of the product, this can significantly reduce the costs. For example, an illustrator on the team can work together with a designer and a writer to come up with better metaphors.

Application platforms. Building an application for one platform is quicker and cheaper, however, we’ve been promoting cross-platform and hybrid development coupled with IoT options. This approach might be more expensive in production but is inherently more profitable in the long run. The app does not have to rely on the platform it works on. Rather, the experience the apps bring has to work on all platforms.

APIs. APIs allow applications to only work as a middleware between cloud-based back ends and front-end features delivered via those APIs. There is no need to reinvent functionality which has become an integral part of other apps that people are accustomed to using.

Third-party integrations. We can use services like payment engines, location trackers, and other proprietary features. All of them are paid and can be integrated at every stage, however, to lower the cost of the MVP, it makes sense to focus on the custom core features of the app and update it further on.

P.S. Don’t conceal your budget

Finally, the cost of mobile application development does not depend on whether we know your real budget or not. Your budget is the main reference point for us to help you get what you want and what your users need.

The value won’t come in cheaper if we don’t know how much you really have and want to pay. It will just be a cheaper value. At the same time, knowing the budget will help us leverage the features of your app that will bring you money. In the words of the great Mike Monteiro:

“I’ll tell you what you can get for that amount. Then we can talk about whether you actually need that much design or not. But most of all, what that number tells me is how to guide you toward the appropriate solution for you, and to stay away from solutions that are outside of your price range.”

Written by Moses Kim
June 06, 2019