A mobile app is a great way to bring new ideas to life, add value for your customers, or boost awareness of your business—but only if you can build a quality mobile experience without breaking the bank. And nailing down the cost of an app in advance isn’t exactly easy. App development costs can range from trivial to extreme, depending on a host of factors such as what your app does, how users will interact with it, and how you plan to staff the project.
In this post, we’ll take a look at a few of the most important cost drivers, and provide some tips for choosing the most cost-effective solution.
Factor #1: How complex is your concept?
Some apps are very simple; they have one or two screens, support only the most basic interactions, and are built for a single standard platform (e.g., iOS). An experienced developer can create a simple app in a matter of days. But more complex apps—e.g., those that store data, function smoothly on multiple platforms, and integrate with external hardware and services—might take a team of 20 or more months to build, and will require ongoing updates and maintenance.
Here are just a few of the factors that can add to an app’s complexity, and therefore its cost:
- Targeting both iOS and Android, and/or other device types
- Supporting multiple screen sizes and/or rotation
- Creating multiple screens with distinct functions and interactions
- Supporting the concept of unique users, i.e., requiring registration and login
- Allowing users to save and share data, and/or sync data between devices
- Integrating with external services, device hardware, or external hardware
- Providing offline access and functionality
An app that does everything on the the list above could be 1000 times as expensive as an app with none, or just one, of these features. Here are a few examples:
Example: Ping Pong Scorer
- iOS only
- One screen
- One function: keeping score in a ping pong game
- Does not save or share data
- Simple design
- iOS & Android
- Social media integration
- Location services & mapping
- Camera integration & photo uploads
- User login/management
- Server integrations
- iOS & Android
- Interacts with GPS, camera, & wifi
- Many server integrations
- Payment processing
- Accompanying website
Factor #2: Who’s doing the work?
When it comes to who actually builds your app, you have three basic options—you can do it yourself, hire an independent contractor, or work with an app studio. Depending on your circumstances, any of these options could end up being your best bet to minimize cost. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each.
Build it yourself
Cost: The value of an hour of your time, multiplied by the number of hours it takes you to define the project, design and develop the app, and deploy to app stores; plus some ancillary costs like your computer and development tools and website, hosting, and Apple Dev Center fees. Add the cost of having less time and energy for other tasks like engaging users or raising money.
Good option if:
- You’re an experienced app developer with enough time to spare, or
- You’re a less-experienced developer with lots of time to invest in learning, and
- Getting the product to market is not time-sensitive
Bad option if:
- You have no development experience, or
- You have other significant demands on your time (e.g. running a business)
Overall: If you’re confident in your ability to handle the project, don’t have too many competing obligations, and are interested in building your app on your own, then doing it yourself could be the right call. However, if you have very little development experience and your team needs you to focus on other things, the DIY approach is probably not the most cost-effective option for you.
Hire a contractor
Cost: Rates vary depending on your location and your contractor’s level of expertise. In most areas of the United States, you’ll probably pay about $100-$200 an hour; some contractors are also willing to work on a fixed, per-project budget.
Good option if:
- You’re building a relatively simple app that won’t require ongoing maintenance, and
- You can find an experienced, reliable contractor who comes with good references, and
- You and your team have experience managing independent contractors, and enough time to do so effectively
Bad option if:
- Your app is very involved, and/or will require ongoing maintenance, or
- Your only options are contractors with little experience and/or few references, or
- You don’t have experience managing contractors, or know you’re too busy to be an effective project supervisor
Overall: If you have a small project to knock out and are fortunate enough to find a kickass contractor to help, this could be a great option. However, keep in mind that you’re going to be very dependent on that individual. If they don’t know their stuff, or if you can’t invest a bit of your own time to make sure they stay on track, the project will likely take longer than expected and may run up quite a bill. You also need to feel confident that your contractor will be willing and able to maintain your app over time if necessary.
Work with an app development studio
Cost: App studios are one-stop shops; they facilitate ideation, design, creation, and distribution of your app, and might even help with marketing. You’ll pay more for those extra management and support services—up to $250 per hour, or a roughly equivalent per-project cost.
Good option if:
- You need to be absolutely sure your app will be finished to spec and on schedule, or
- You have very little knowledge of the app development process, or
- You want to fully hand off the project and focus on other priorities
Bad option if:
- You are building a simple app
- You have development experience or an in-house development team
- You don’t need or want additional design and marketing support.
Overall: Working with an app studio is usually the fastest, most reliable way to get your app built, and can help mitigate the many risks associated with software development projects. This is a good bet if you’re not at all familiar with app development, if you have many competing priorities, or if you just want to make the process as painless as possible.
Factor #3: Do you have a clear vision?
One sure way to drive up your app development cost—whether you’re creating a small, simple app on your own, or working with a studio to build a multi-platform mega-app—is to change your mind about what you want halfway through. Before development begins, make sure you’ve clearly articulated why you’re building this app and how you want it to serve your business and customers.
At Grio, we invest heavily in project definition and scoping with all our clients, and we find that doing so makes for faster development and a higher-quality final product. We also create lightweight testable prototypes for many of our projects. This can save you money and get you to the right product more quickly.
If you’re working with a similar studio or with a contractor, they should be able to help you refine the project vision. Even if you’re building an app on your own, talking through the design and scope with your colleagues and friends is critical. After all, even a cheap-to-build app will be too expensive if it doesn’t deliver value.
Summing it up
When looking to build a mobile app, there are lots of things to consider in determining costs. Hopefully, considering these questions and weighing these options will help you avoid surprises as you get started on your next product. App development can get complicated quickly, so if you are new to the game, I highly recommend working with an experienced partner.