How Much Does a Mobile App Really Cost?
If you work closely with the software industry, you’ve probably heard it; and if you’ve ever had one of those elusive, Million-Dollar-App-Ideas, you’ve probably asked it. It’s the question that has plagued developer-kind for centuries: “So how much does it cost to create a mobile app anyway?”
Okay, so maybe “centuries” is an exaggeration, but the question has been “heard ‘round the world wide web” since at least 2008 – when Apple opened their mobile SDK to third-party developers. Since then, the impact of the mobile application can’t be overstated, which makes the “cost of an app” question a loaded one – but we’re going to try and answer it anyway.
The Importance of Mobile Apps
Apps are important because they live where people live. Try to imagine a world where people aren’t constantly walking around with a phone in their hand. You can’t. (Unless you dust off your memories from the bygone age of pay-phones, portable cd players, and newspapers). The mobile platform isn’t going anywhere. That’s because apps are to the business world what websites were during the “Dot-com” boom. However, web doesn’t always translate to, nor does it take advantage of the technologies offered by one of the top-selling consumer products of all time: the smartphone.
Many businesses know this and understand that developing a consumer-facing app, marketing app, or business improvement app (e.g. sales force, operations, manufacturing, distribution, services, etc) is a necessary investment that, in order to pay off, must be done right. That’s why you shouldn’t trust just anyone to help develop your app! Cue segue into a brief introduction.
“Wait, How Do You Know?”
Founded in 2008 by Jerry Beers and Kevin Legg, Five Pack Creative (FPC) was built on a foundation of high-quality development. Early on, Jerry and Kevin assembled a distributed, stateside team of top design, development, and quality assurance talent. Over time, our team has had the opportunity to help develop 100’s of apps for startups and Fortune 500 companies alike. Companies like American Airlines, Match.com, the United Way, Tilly’s, Olio City, MultiTracks, and more. Also worth mentioning is our very own Hours Time Tracking app. Hours has had a massive amount of downloads, has been praised by the press, and even featured by Apple on multiple occasions.
We love creating beautiful apps and we’ve been doing it for a long time, but that’s just one of three aspects of our business:
- Custom Engineering (we do it for you) – We partner with you to help plan, design, develop, test, launch, and maintain your app.
- Augmented Engineering (we help you do it) – If you do not need a full custom solution but need a partner to come alongside your team we can do that too.
- Engineering Training (we teach you how to do it) – ALT-U, our innovative, hands-on program, is a more streamlined way to train developers at a pace consistent with today’s market need.
Okay, so how much does it cost to build an app? Well, it varies based on many factors (several of which we talk about below), but if done right, you should expect to spend a minimum of $25,000 per operating system (native iOS, Android, Windows).
Hold on! Before you stop reading, hear us out.
Among the earliest steps when creating an app is the estimation process. Based on your project requirements, our team will use their years of experience to help estimate the hours required to complete each design, development, and QA task. The equation is simple: more project requirements = more hours = higher cost. We’ve all downloaded an app that’s clunky, ugly, or hard to use. Those apps get deleted fast. Your end goal should be a quality app that your users will love to use, look at, and tell their friends about – but those apps take time and skill.
PRO TIP: To cut back on up-front costs for new product development, try developing the “MVP” (Minimum Viable Product) first. That means creating your app to fulfill its primary purpose – minus the bells and whistles – and then release it into the wild. This allows you to focus on proving the concept, gathering user feedback, and iterating so you can release your highly anticipated “version 2.0”.
Our experience says that the vast majority of new projects, if done right, have requirements that necessitate a minimum budget of $25,000 per operating system. In fact, most “version 1” apps live in the $40k to $100k range per operating system. Of course, the price goes up as more features are added – Five Pack Creative has the resources, experience, and talent to help you build a $25k app or a $250k app. But what other factors come into play when calculating the price of a mobile application?
If you’re thinking, “there has to be more to it than hours-to-completion”, you’re right. Here are a few important factors that contribute to the final cost of creating a mobile application.
1. Native vs. Hybrid/Responsive Web vs. Platform/Template
Simply put, a native app is written in a specific operating system’s native language (iOS = Swift or Objective-C / Android = Java), and the benefits of taking the native route are many. Developing an iPhone app in Swift or an Android app in Java allows your app to be fully customized so it can be whatever it needs to be. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination, your budget, and the technology offered by the device. Sorry, we can’t “beam you up”…yet…but native apps do allow you to harness powerful device-exclusive features like GPS, Camera, Motion, Touch, Bluetooth, and more. Much of the time, these advantages prove more important than cost and code portability. When done right, native apps create a unique and powerful user experience, but they can affect the bottom line. Think, “you get what you pay for.”
PRO TIP: Some elements may be repurposed for each operating system (e.g. user experience design, user interface graphics, etc), but for an app to exist on both iOS and Android platforms, that app must be built twice. If a cross-platform support is a must-have, consider completing and releasing one (usually iOS) before beginning work on the other.
Other options might save you some money, but like most corner-cutting techniques, the results can sometimes be less than optimal.
Hybrid and Responsive Web apps utilize more economical methods, but they often fall short. These apps (created by tools like PhoneGap, Ionic, and Xamarin) are typically unable to take advantage of device-specific technologies, they often rely on web-specific UI not ideal for smaller screens, and updates to the operating can lag in support. Despite initial costs of hybrid apps being lower, they often end up being more expensive in the long run due to necessary workarounds – workarounds that can leave the app feeling sluggish and less integrated.
Template and Platform apps are a great compromise that will give you a native app for a much smaller price. The catch? Templates are just that: existing structures repurposed to fit your application. Platform apps are templates that augment an existing business system like Salesforce, SAP, Oracle, or Microsoft. Because your need fits the app and not the other way around, template apps sometimes result in cutting features that the existing structure is unable to support.
Between these three options, we almost always recommend a native application. Through our years of app development, we’ve seen too many businesses choose a cheaper option only to be burned by it down the road. In fact, most end up rebuilding the product as a native application anyway. A great deal of money could have been saved by developing native first, instead of wasting resources on a subpar solution.
2. Functional Requirements
To save time and money, it’s important to have a clear list of functional & technical requirements for your application before the project launches. This list will help prevent costly development “surprises” and should consist of answers to questions like:
- What features should my app include?
- Does my app have or need back-end support?
- Does my app need an internet connection to work or can it work offline?
- Do my users need to create an account to use my app?
- Do I want an expanded design for tablet/iPad?
- What operating systems (and subsequent versions) do I want to support?
- Should my app use custom layouts and controls or should I use the packaged interface?
Of course, our team can use years of experience and expertise to help polish and expand on your functional requirements, helping prevent costly “surprises” during the development process.
3. User Experience (UX) / User Interface (UI) Design
If your app was a car, the user experience would be the steering wheel, dashboard, and pedals; and the user interface would be the glossy, candy-apple-red paint job. Take away those elements and that car is an ugly frame with an engine: basically useless.
A good user experience design allows users to navigate through your app easily, enjoyably, efficiently, and intuitively. Interface design makes that experience pleasing to the eye and will determine whether the user wants to continue looking at the app. Your app’s design is the user’s first impression of your product – and you know what they say about first impressions.
Having a solid user experience fleshed out before any code is generated can also provide developers a clear picture of what the app should be; and while the “guts” are being built, the designer can polish the interface. Designers and developers working in tandem like this is a huge time (and money) saver. Most high-end development agencies have UX/UI design resources readily available. The same is true for Five Pack Creative! We love to work with clients in order to design a beautiful experience from beginning to end.
4. Quality Assurance
Another important and often-overlooked piece of the puzzle is quality assurance. Thoroughly and professionally tested software is the only way to ensure that your customer gets the best possible experience, free of bugs and defects. In fact, cutting corners at this phase can result in an application’s damaged reputation and costly, on-the-fly updates to fix the offending issues.
A good QA team will also help maintain the vision and scope of the final product by creating test cases and acceptance criteria based on your functional requirements.
5. Fixed Bid vs. Hourly Rate
On the business side of the process, you will find two main options when outsourcing development work: fixed bids and hourly rates. Understanding what these options entail is key to choosing the one that works best for you.
Fixed bid projects are exactly what they sound like: a developer looks at your project requirements and offers to complete it for $X. This might seem like the most affordable method – until you factor in a couple of standard fixed bid procedures:
- Change Requests – You pay extra any time you need to deviate from the detailed requirements (delivered up front). This includes even minor changes to technical requirements, user experience, and so on.
- Padding – Most fixed bid developers pad their estimates to ensure they make money. This usually ends with you paying more than you should have, especially if the project is completed in less time.
Hourly rates allow you and the developer to make important decisions together during the development process. Because requirements often evolve, the flexibility provided by a time and materials-based project is invaluable. In our experience, estimating an expected range for a project and then managing the schedule closely is the best way to achieve a cost-effective process with limited surprises.
6. Offshoring vs. High-End Agency
Everyone knows the risks of contracting work overseas. While “low-price = low-quality” may not be true for every offshore company, much of the stigma is rooted in reality. With a high-end agency like Five Pack Creative, you know what and who you’re getting: quality, vetted designers, developers, and quality assurance analysts who are passionate about creating beautiful apps!
In addition to quality, it’s likely that at least one of our 50+ remote, stateside team members are in your vicinity, meaning fewer communication and scheduling barriers. Scheduling, another aspect of development that can impact cost, is a delicate process that shouldn’t be trusted to just anyone. Matching the appropriate team size to a schedule is an art as much as it is a science. Try to accelerate the project timeline by adding lots of resources and the cost goes up. Too few resources, the project takes longer to complete and the price goes up. Add to that the inherent communication latency and subsequent additional cost that comes with an offshore developer, and that small, up-front price tag turns into a much larger total cost.
All things considered, the efficiencies of a high-end agency far outweigh the “benefits” of the alternative.
Now that you know what an app costs and why, you’re ready to take the next step. So why not drop us a line? Five Pack Creative is the premier mobile development agency in the Dallas market and beyond and we would love to talk with you about helping bring your mobile strategy to life!