Get into the nitty gritty of app development: designing an app developing it, and shipping it off to the app stores. We’ll also discuss the costs associated with mobile app development. Finally, we discuss scalability and future planning so that you’re ready for the next big thing in technology and business.
Mobile Apps 101
Mobile apps are small, self-contained programs designed to run on mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets. Not only do they tend to be lighter than comparable programs for laptops and desktops (since mobile devices typically aren’t as powerful as their more stationary counterparts), the UIs of apps are optimized for use on smaller screens and touchscreen-style controls.
The Growth of Mobile Apps
Consider the following:
- By 2025, Sensor Tower estimates that app store revenues will exceed $270 billion.
- Statista recorded 230 billion mobile app downloads in 2021.
However, as robust as the mobile app marketplace is based on the statistics cited above, there is still plenty of growth waiting to happen.
How Do You Build a Successful Mobile App?
Understand the principles behind building an app
Here are some things to keep in mind as you go through the app-building process.
Build a solid idea
The most important thing behind a successful app is a solid idea. You might think that your idea is the best thing since sliced bread, but a little market research and testing ahead of time can keep you from pursuing an idea that no one else finds interesting.
You should be able to describe your app in only one sentence. Apps are pretty disposable — if something doesn’t meet a user’s needs, they have no qualms about deleting it off their phone or tablet.
Identify your audience
To build a successful app, you need to know who your target audience is. In addition to helping you narrow down the feature set you include in the app you ship, knowing this helps you determine your potential revenue streams.
Determine your app design
There’s a reason why the most popular and most successful apps are well-designed. To get started, we recommend familiarizing yourself with the guidelines by Apple and Google:
The visual experience is important. Your colors should be appealing, your images crisp, and so on.
The best way to see if your app design works is to put it in front of real people. Can they figure out how to use your app? What parts do they find confusing? How does your expectation of what a user does compare to what a user does when they pull up your app? If you conduct such tests (and they don’t have to be big productions — they can be simple affairs) early and often, you’ll see improvements to your product continuously.
Determine your features and priorities
While it’s nice to have lots of bells and whistles in your app so that there’s something for everyone, it can be difficult (or impossible) to achieve. Each additional feature you include adds to development time, increases costs, increases complexity, and, if executed poorly, can impact your users’ experiences with your app negatively.
As such, you should decide ahead of time whether something is essential to your app or if it’s just “nice to have.” For example, if you’re building an app that allows users to purchase items from your online shop, you’ll need the following:
- A product catalog to view information about your items.
- A shopping cart to hold the items people want to buy.
- A payment processor so that people can pay for their items.
It might also be nice to have buying guides. But these are almost certainly extras that can wait.
Map your flow and prototyping
When we say “map your flow,” we refer to the flow of actions taken by your users. For example, the flow for a shopping app might be:
- The user opens up the app
- The user browses the product catalog
- The user opens up a product page to learn more about the product
- The user may opt to add a product to their shopping cart
- The user may view their shopping cart and its contents
- The user may purchase their goods by initiating the checkout process
- The user provides their billing information to the payment processor.
By listing out such steps, you can see clearly what types of screens you need. This informs the tasks you’ll need to complete when you build prototypes for the screens your user will see throughout your app. One great way to do this is via storyboarding.
When building a prototype, you can take the simple, low-tech route with pen and paper. Alternatively, there are many prototyping tools, such as Balsamiq, Invision, and Proto.io, that can help you create digital mock-ups. There are pros and cons to all of these options, but what’s important is selecting a tool that works for you (pen and paper probably aren’t a great idea if your design team is fully distributed, for example).
Plan your development cycle
The decisions you make impact every aspect of your development cycle (not to mention its final success). Map out what needs to happen and when to determine what deadlines you have, how long development will take, and when you need to start certain parts of the project.
Know the cost of app development
Building an app is expensive. Sorry. However, that doesn’t quite tell the entire story. If you’d like a quick, back-of-the-envelope calculation, use a tool such as How Much to Make an App. This will get you an estimate of the cost of your app.
Consider continuing development costs
App development costs aren’t a one-time thing — it’s best to think of the upfront cost as the tip of the iceberg.
The biggest cost concern might be due to the frequency with which apps are updated. On Google Play Store, 196 of the top 1,000 apps are updated every week, and 631 are updated every month.
Hire designers and developers
First, you’ll need to decide if you need a designer, developer, or both. Generally speaking, the designer is the person who decides what your app will look like; essentially, the deliverable will be some type of mockup or design file. The developer is the person coding your app. Sometimes people will offer both services, but it’s important to be clear about what you’re looking for and hire appropriately. More often than not, you’ll have to hire at least two people (or teams).
Here are some things to keep in mind when hiring a designer:
- If you have design ideas in mind, include these in your job listing so that your candidates know what you’re trying to achieve. If you don’t, you can present design samples that you like.
- Be clear about the features you must have in your design, as well as what styles you like or don’t like.
- Provide a project timeline so that your designer knows what you’re working with. There’s a big difference between a three week period and a three-month period, and it’s only fair to be upfront about this to the best of your ability.
- Look to see if they have the technical skills to handle your stack. They don’t have to be coders, but they should be familiar with your environment so that they don’t create designs that your developers can’t implement.
- Ask to see examples of their previous work.
The above suggestions also apply when selecting a developer. However, the developer’s technical skill, which is of the utmost importance, can be hard to judge unless you’re familiar with the language itself. As such, you might need to rely on proxy indicators to see if the person you’re working with is capable of executing your project.
Generally speaking, experience costs more money. However, before you balk at the extra expense, it might be penny-wise and pound-foolish to opt for the less expensive person. More experienced developers tend to be easier to work with and manage, have faster turnaround times, and know, from experience, how to ask the appropriate questions to prevent roadblocks and keep the project moving.
Develop your app
At this point, you’ve thought through your app idea, drawn up prototypes, conducted usability tests, designed your UI, and hired your development team. Here’s a bit more on what you can expect regarding tools used and development environments based on what type of app you’re building. Note that these are just generalizations — depending on your company (as well as your developers), one or more aspects of your tech stack might look different.
Native iOS apps
Most of the offerings in Apple’s App Store are written in Objective-C with Xcode (which runs only on MacOS) as the IDE of choice. Both Xcode and the iOS SDKs you need for developing apps are available free of charge, but to publish to the App Store, you’ll need the appropriate developer account. This costs $99 per year.
For full information on developing iOS apps, see Apple’s App Store Developer pages.
Native Android apps
You can easily develop Android apps in any ecosystem, including Windows, Mac, and Linux. All development tools are available to you free of charge, though publishing to the Google Play Store requires a developer account. To obtain your account, you’ll have to pay the one-time registration fee of $25.
For in-depth information on developing apps for the Google Play Store, visit the Android Developer pages.
Market and launch your app
You must start marketing your app before development is complete if you want to take advantage of pre-launch excitement and hit the ground running once your app is available.
Here are some ways you might go about marketing your app even before it launches:
- Make connections. Social media is an obvious conduit for this, and connecting with influential people in the community helps get the word out about your app. You probably already know the best channels for communicating with those in your industry, so those would be the best places to start. By sharing your app with your connections, they can help you spread the word about your project.
- Develop a solid digital presence for your app. Create social media accounts for your product so that people can easily find information about your app no matter which platform theyuse. You can also use these accounts to advertise the powerful features and benefits of using your app, as well as provide news and updates.
- Implement a private beta testing program. Not only are your beta testers likely to become champions of your product (since they’ve used and become invested in it), this gets you additional user feedback that helps you refine and improve your app before it goes live to the general public.
While pre-launch app marketing is important, don’t forget that post-launch app marketing is just as important. Pre-launch activities generate buzz and keep your app from fading, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t fly under the radar of possible users later if you don’t keep up with your marketing efforts.
Grow your user base
Now that you’ve designed, developed, and launched your app, how do you grow your user base? It goes without saying that the larger your target audience, the greater the chances you have to turn them into long-term users and customers of your business. Here are some things to remember when you implement your app’s growth marketing programs.
- Market on the appropriate platforms. It might be tempting to advertise on the platforms with the largest number of users, such as Facebook or Google, but quality is better than quantity. Your time might be better off advertising on platforms specific to your industry. For example, if you have a food-related app, you could consider advertising on Allrecipes.com or partnering with a few food bloggers. While you’ll probably gain fewer users using this method, the users you do get are more likely to be active and engaged.
- Focus. There’s probably a small number of places driving traffic to your site. Using tools like Google Analytics, you can hone in on that information and dedicate your marketing efforts to these channels.
- SEO, SEO, SEO. If you have a website, it’s imperative that you apply the basics of SEO so that your site gets indexed appropriately and returned often in search engine results. Track the keywords associated with your site, place them in strategic locations, and make sure that your site performs well.
- Provide value to your users. There’s a lot of talk about things “going viral” and achieving success in that manner, but this isn’t a viable method for ensuring success for most apps. What’s more important is whether your app provides value to your users. If it does, you’ll have an easier time marketing your product, bringing on users, and keeping people happy. If you don’t, there’s little that marketing can do to help you. Remember: apps are very disposable, so if your app doesn’t work for the user, they’ll likely just remove it from their devices and move on.
Improve your app
To improve your app, you’ll need to gather information on what works, what doesn’t, and what your users’ pain points are. However, it can be tricky gathering such information from apps. If you’ve developed a web-based app, you’ll have an easier time with this, since collecting information based on activity undertaken by someone using a browser is an established practice. If you have a native app, this process might be a bit trickier.
The following analytics tools are useful for getting information on how your users behave. While all of the options listed below are very good, none are perfect, so you might consider using more than one to capture as much data as possible. Two to three is a good number of tools to have, but using any more might reduce the signal to noise ratio as you become overwhelmed by all of the data you’re collecting.
- App Analytics: If you’ve built an iOS app, Apple’s App Analytics tool allows you to measure user engagement, marketing campaigns, and monetizing for your apps. Included with your Apple Developer Program membership, App Analytics doesn’t require any technical implementation.
- App Annie: This is one of the most well-known mobile application analytics programs. It works with iOS and Android apps, and its full set of features means that you can access market data intelligence, basic app analytics, and store stats (if you conduct sales via your app) across multiple devices.
- Countly: In addition to learning more about your users’ behaviors, Countly allows you to send push notifications, gather crash reports, and develop individual user activity profiles.
- Meta Business Suite: Facebook’s parent company Meta, offers tools to analyze and manage your advertising and busines pages on Facebook and Instagram.
- Google Analytics: Google offers one of the most popular analytics tools, and it can easily be used to measure app usage and behavior.
- Mixpanel: This is an analytics suite designed for product owners (or those who think like product owners). The goal of Mixpanel is to present you with information deeper than that provided by the more typical analytics suites so you can better understand your customers, keep them engaged, and gain new users.
- Sensor Tower: If you’re looking for an enterprise-level analytics product that does much more than just obtain and graph data, Sensor Tower might be a good fit for you. You’ll get SEO-related features, information on your competitors, and in-depth information on your marketing campaigns.
Feedback and improvements
Analytics suites are great at gathering information so that you can make informed decisions, but there’s little that can replace direct feedback from your users.
For example, analytics might be able to tell you that you see a high bounce rate on your login screen, but why might this be? You might already know that users prefer to type as little as possible. You may be forcing them to log in when it’s not clear what the purpose of logging in is. But it’s harder to capture a usability problem, such as a login box that is too small to tap.
Alternatively, you might have flow-related issues, where the actions asked of your users don’t feel natural. The users would be able to tell you that it doesn’t make sense to do X before Y because of reasons A, B, and C. Again, this information is difficult to capture with an analytics suite.
When an app doesn’t meet a user’s needs, the easiest step to take is to delete the app. However, if the user decides to provide feedback instead, you should ensure that they can do so with ease. While criticism never feels good, such users are proving that they’re invested in your app and would like to continue engaging with your product. Make it easy for them to provide your team feedback, then respond if at all possible and give serious thought to whether the criticism is appropriate and if you’ll implement the changes for which the user has asked.
Incorporating additional features
You should expect to update your app frequently. Since the best apps are updated often, you’ll be at a significant disadvantage if you don’t plan on frequent updates to fix issues, implement new features, and keep it from going stale.
The first category of updates is bug fixes. This is fairly obvious — if something is broken, you should fix it. Users find malfunctioning apps extremely frustrating, and because they find apps so disposable, not fixing bugs is a great way to have your app fade into oblivion.
Pay attention to errors logged by your analytics suites and monitoring tools, but more importantly, address the pain points your customers bring to your attention. The more expensive your app, the higher your users’ standards are, but under no circumstances should you ignore what people are telling you.
It can be challenging to find the right frequency to release updates. Installing updates is an annoyance, but so are the bugs themselves. There’s no “right answer” regarding how often you should ship, so you’ll need to make this determination based on the severity of the issue, as well as the expectations of your users.
Once you’ve gotten the must-have features implemented, update cycles are a great time to add those nice-to-have features, as well as those requested by users. Very few apps survive without adding new features, so it’s important to keep your app from getting stale. It might be overkill to release new features every month, but you should probably strive for at least one release featuring new functionality every six months (or twice a year).
Tips for Mobile App Development
We’ve covered a lot of material above, but there is still more for you to consider as you develop your mobile application. Here are five things to keep in mind to make it more likely your app will succeed.
1. Test, test, test
When it comes to software development, testing seems to get pushed aside with ease. However, the earlier you find a bug, the cheaper it will be to fix. Mobile apps are expensive enough as is, and testing is a good way to keep costs low(er).
2. Plan for the offline experience
You might take the user having access to the internet as a given, but what happens if that’s not the case? There are plenty of apps known for their usability even without connectivity, and if you can build this kind of support into your app, your users will be less frustrated in the event of technical issues.
3. Use the features available to you
Modern day smartphones and tablets come with things like a camera, GPS, accelerometers, and Bluetooth support. Consider taking advantage of these features to improve your app and make it easier to use.
4. Keep it simple
Applications for desktops and laptops have gotten extremely fancy as these products grow in power, but mobile devices tend not to have the same resource allocations. Furthermore, mobile devices (more often than not) run on slower networks. Simple screens, intuitive UI, and grid-like formats that prioritize scrolling over tapping are what you should be aiming to implement.
5. Start small
It’s easier to build for a larger device, but when it comes time to shrink your design for use on a smartphone, you’ll be forced to make some very tough decisions. However, if you start work with the smartphone-ready version of your product, you’ll find it much easier to scale up to a larger version.
Frequently Asked Questions about Creating Mobile Apps
How do I create my own app?
Start by thinking and mapping out what you want your app to be about. This includes its functions, products and services you may sell, and other important factors that will make the base of your app.
Do thorough market research to better understand the demand for such an app and whether you will have competitors. List the features you will provide and think from the perspective of a user. Design the interface, what you want the app to look like.
Make a mockup for your app; this will be a beta version for your final app. Test out your app and find your target audience and make them test it as well.
Make a marketing plan for your app and how you can get the masses to use it. Using a smart marketing strategy can make or break your application.
Can I create an app for free?
Yes, there are many app builders and online websites that allow you to build and create your own app for free.
How much does it cost to build an app?
Building an app happens in stages, but a simple app development can cost between $40,000 to $60,000 for a 3 month duration. A basic app ranges from $60,000 to $150,000 for up to 6 months and complex apps start at $300,000 for long periods of time.
Can a beginner make an app?
Yes, with the right resources, a well-thought-out idea, a business plan, and some patience, even a beginner can make an app.
The following references might be helpful to you as you embark on the journey of turning your idea into a successful app.
- The Android Developer pages are where you should go for official information on the Android operating system and development
- If you’re building iOS apps, Apple’s developer pages have everything you need to know throughout the development lifecycle.
- Google provides extensive resources for improving your Android development skills.
- In conjunction with Udacity, Google offers a course on UX Design for Mobile Developers.
- You can earn a nanodegree in mobile app development from Udacity.
- Markovate offers an extensive selection of guidelines for mobile web development.
- Coursera and edX both offer extensive courses in app development.
- Google’s App Engine allows you to build the web and mobile backends in any programming language using Google’s infrastructure
- Get up-to-date tools from Apple to build iOS apps (Apple Developer Program membership required)
- Prototyping on Paper turns your pen and paper ideas into an interactive iPhone or Android prototype.
- Treehouse: Learning code in a user-friendly environment.