11 Most common questions about app development costs
What Will Developing My Mobile App Cost?
We don’t mean to disappoint you, but it depends.
The reason that answering this seemingly simple question is not as straight forward as you might hope is that the cost of mobile app development for any app with a meaningful set of features is likely to involve development of backend services, data sources and integration with other systems. It is likely that your project is more about developing a “mobile solution” than developing just an “app”. This issue is further complicated by the choice of platform (iOS, Android, or both) and technology decision (native or HTML5).
To help clear these issues and help you to determine the cost of developing an app, our team put together some answers to the most common questions we receive from our clients regarding mobile app development costs. Here are the 11 most frequent questions that we hear from organizations that are about to launch their first mobile development adventure. We hope some of the answers provided are helpful in the planning and budgeting of your next mobile venture.
A note of caution. Most of the information provided here concerns enterprise apps or apps developed by businesses to solve clearly defined problems for their employees, partners and their business customers (B2E and B2B apps). While some of the information may apply to consumer (B2C) apps, the dynamics and cost of consumer centric apps are slightly different.
What types of costs should I plan for?
When determining the cost of mobile app development, you need to consider not only the one-time cost of developing an app, but also the ongoing support and maintenance costs over the full project lifecycle.
Most enterprise mobile projects with at least a moderate level of functionality involve some combination of the following cost components. Listed here are what we define as the “hard” costs of the project:
Implementation cost: A onetime cost that covers the following services: requirements analysis, design, coding, testing, and deployment of the solution.
Software maintenance cost: A recurring cost, typically quoted in “per year” or “per month” form. No matter how thoroughly the app was tested by the implementation team, the wider usage of the app by your target users will inevitably reveal some bugs that need to be fixed, sometimes urgently. Hopefully, these are minor bugs. All the major ones should have been exposed and resolved during the testing phase of the project: The annual software maintenance for most projects falls in the range of 10-20% of the initial implementation cost.
Ongoing hosting or cloud services cost: If your app requires a server or backend components, it will need to be hosted somewhere. For a project of average complexity, this cost generally falls in the $500-$1,000 per month range.
Most projects also involve the following “soft” costs:
Cost of implementing change requests and new features (enhancements): This cost could be significant if you are working on the first release of your app. A safe amount to budget for the first year following the launch of a new app is 20% of the initial implementation cost of the solution.
Change management and onboarding of end users: Depending on the complexity of your solution and whether or not it is the first release, a budget will likely need to be set aside for preparing or training users for any changes to business processes or workflows brought about by the introduction of your mobile solution. Some choose to place the cost of onboarding and change management under a separate training budget.
Data and API usage or licensing fees: Does your app make extensive use of Google Maps API to map the location of users, vehicles, and equipment? Accessing Google Maps and other third party data services will result in recurring usage fees that you need to include in your plan for developing and maintaining your mobile solution.
What factors have the greatest impact on the development costs?
They are, in the order of priority:
1) architecturally risky features (what we call ARFs)
2) need for a backend
3) number of supported mobile platforms
4) number of integration points
There are other factors that affect mobile app development cost, but their impact on the implementation cost is not as significant.
What are ARFs and why do they have such an impact on the cost?
One of the greatest threats to meeting the projected cost of mobile app development and time targets is the architecturally risky features, or ARFs. These are those, sometimes small, features that create an outsized technical risk for the project. Often, ARFs are so inconspicuous to the business stakeholders that even a technically savvy pair of eyes may miss them on the first pass. But it is crucial to identify them early in the project lifecycle and de-risk them soon after their discovery.
Recently, our team was involved in assessing an enterprise mobile solution and mobile app development cost for a client in the health sector. One of the features of the app involved a clinician user taking a picture of patients’ skin rash and using the app to identify the type of the rash. There were two approaches the client was considering to achieve this. One was for the app to display the images of different types of skin rashes besides the picture of the patient’s skin rash and allow the clinicians to select the one that closely resembles the patient’s rash by performing a side by side comparison. The second method involved the app itself performing the matching of the patient’s rash with the reference images. As you can imagine, the second method requires developing or licensing an image matching algorithm which would have a significant impact on the cost of mobile app development for the solution. This is a good example of an ARF. This particular ARF may not be difficult for an analyst to identify, but other ARFs may require further analysis or prototyping to be exposed.
How do you estimate the cost of ARFs?
In most cases, enterprise mobile solutions don’t have any ARFs, making the estimating exercise more straightforward. When we perform the first pass assessment of client projects, our team identifies any potential ARFs and notifies the client. Depending on the nature of the ARF and whether we have encountered similar ARFs in the past, we may be able to estimate the implementation effort. In some cases, we may have to do some prototyping in order to better understand what it takes to mitigate the risk associated with an ARF before we can come up with an estimate.
Does every enterprise app need a backend?
Backend is a loose term that denotes the development of server-side component. In most cases, you can substitute your own server-side with a cloud service, given the prevalence of cloud services.
If your app requirements involve any form of exchange between users of the app, storage of data from one device, its retrieval from another device, or exchange of data between mobile and desktop users, the app will require a backend. A mobile backend is also required in cases where you need an administrator to manage users, permissions, reports or content centrally. Lastly, if you need your app to interface with legacy systems that don’t offer modern (RESTful) web services, it may be better to offload the complication of interfacing with these systems to a backend instead of trying to burden your mobile app with the task.
The cost of mobile app development and implementation for a solution that involves a backend could easily be twice as much as the cost of developing an app that is a standalone solution.
What impact does the choice and number platforms have on the cost?
A good rule of thumb is that developing the native version of your app for a secondary platform (iOS or Android) is 60-80% the mobile app development cost of the app for the first platform. This high cost is expected because we can’t use the code developed for one platform in the other platform; the two mobile platforms use completely different technology frameworks.
What we can share across the two platforms is the requirements analysis and some of the UI design. And this is what results in the 20-40% saving. Furthermore, to the extent that your solution requires a backend, that backend is used by both versions of the app.
Of course, if the target users of your app generally all use the same device type, multi-platform mobile app development cost is not an issue for your project.
Will an HTML5 implementation be less expensive?
Developing your app as an HTML5 web app will allow your users to access and run the app directly from a web browser on their mobile device. With this type of an app, your users will not need to download anything. Generally, a web version of the app should be compatible with both iOS and Android devices.
If your app can be developed as an HTML5 based web app, you could potentially reduce your implementation costs. But that is a big if. Any enterprise app that has some level of sophistication needs to support an offline usage mode or more fully leverage the native capabilities of the device, either of which requires a native approach. HTML5 is typically a good choice for apps that have a simple information dissemination function, not for apps that have intensive, frequent, or complex usage patterns.
Although it is generally lower than complex, native versions, the cost of implementing the HTML5 version of the app is probably higher than you think and usually falls somewhere between the native implementation cost for one and two platforms. This is because HTML5 apps demand more testing effort due to the large range of OS-browser combinations and relatively immature debugging tools.
Phone vs. Tablet
Native apps can be developed to run on both phone and tablet form factors. These types of apps are called universal apps. The added cost to make a phone or tablet app into a universal app is typically 10-30% of the cost of mobile app development for the first form factor, depending on the degree to which the app’s UI/UX needs to be adjusted and optimized to take advantage of the screen size of the second form factor. In some cases, the larger screen size of the tablet device provides an opportunity for a new UI layout and navigation model. If you expect that your users use their tablets as frequently as their mobile phones, investing the extra effort in a unique tablet UI may be worthwhile.
How do integration points effect the cost of my app?
Most mobile solutions need to interface with other corporate or third party systems to authenticate users, receive or lookup data, and send data. This integration can be achieved through what are commonly referred to as Application Programing Interfaces (APIs). In some cases, the app itself can use these APIs directly. In other cases, the app works through a mobile backend to use the APIs.
The number and type of APIs that your mobile solution utilizes will affect your mobile app development cost. Ideally, these APIs are available in the form of modern web services. The most common type of APIs is RESTful, which is typically implemented in JSON. The one-time implementation fees for interfacing your mobile solution with each JSON based API generally falls in the $2,000 to $5,000 range, depending on the complexity of the interface. This cost could be considerably higher if the system you are interfacing with is not RESTful (e.g.. SOAP, XML).
The system analyst assigned to your project can easily identify the number and type APIs in the early stages of the project. Determining the number and type of APIs is usually less challenging than determining ARFs.
How accurate or reliable is the cost that I have Obtained?
The accuracy of any mobile app development cost estimate or quotation you receive is dependent on the amount of time that a qualified analyst has spent on analyzing and documenting the requirements of your app. For a reasonably sophisticated enterprise mobile solution, a qualified analyst should be able to provide you a cost estimate that is 50% accurate with a confidence level of 50% after an initial meeting to discuss your business requirements.
An experienced analyst or team who has developed similar solutions to the one you are considering should be able to provide a 90% accurate mobile app development cost estimate with a 90% confidence level following a full requirements analysis and design exercise, which will take approximately 2-3 weeks for a moderately complex project.
If your decision making process allows you to consider a staged approach, it is always better to engage your development team in an analysis phase that precedes the full implementation phase. The analysis phase allows your development team to review, analyze, and document your requirements to produce a high level design for the solution. At the end of this phase, your development team should be able to supply you with a fairly detailed specifications document and a reliable estimate for cost of mobile app development. You can then use this estimate for completing your business plan and obtaining the required approvals for the implementation phase that follows.
What if my requirements are not clear?
The business requirements of your mobile solution should be clear and complete if you expect to obtain a meaningful cost of developing your app. Basically, the requirements represent the scope of the project.
But we often run into perfectly legitimate cases where a specific budget has been defined for a project whose business requirements are only vaguely defined.
Cases such as this are best served with a two-step approach. In the first part of this process, an experienced analyst works with the business to explicitly clarify and elaborate upon the requirements. This is very much an exploratory process that entails a large amount of white boarding and brain storming discussions. At the end of this phase the analyst will create a breakdown of the overall system by feature, including a mobile app development cost estimate for each feature.
The project owners can then use this itemized list to determine which combination of features fits into the project’s pre-defined budget. Other, unincluded features are parked in a features roadmap that the team can pull from for subsequent releases of the app as additional budget becomes available.
As you can see, many factors affect the development cost of a typical enterprise mobile app. Some of these factors such as those not so obvious ARFs or the six of the backend required by the app have a significant impact on the project cost. The project governance process of most organizations allows for a twostep approach where a meaningful cost estimate can be provided after the requirements of the solution are defined and before the work on the implementation of the app has started.
Estimating the development cost for a mobile project is like any other engineering project. Unless you know what you are building with some level of clarity (defined scope), any cost estimate provided at the outset of the project is not worth the paper it is written on.