Understanding App Development Costs: The 2020 Breakdown

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. Like any app development company, we have “How much does it cost to make an app” as one of our top 5 frequently asked questions. And we’d gladly put out a number… if we had one laid out. The problem of app development costs is in the complexity of the process and a lot of variables that come into play once the project starts. 

Although there is such a thing as typical or average cost of app development, without a sufficient amount of detail, it’s impossible to estimate an app cost, just as it’s not easy to say how much a car costs without knowing its characteristics.  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

Often, customers broadly outline the functionality of an app and immediately ask to estimate its price. Unfortunately, a broad outline is not enough — it’s impossible to do this without a more detailed description of the project. Any figures provided by app cost calculators available online are often misleading because they indicate a lower limit. The real cost of the expected functionality can be much higher.

When a client comes with a fully-formed business idea, user personas, some real research, and data, 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 app development 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 in 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 affecting the app development costs, 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 presents a whole new challenge worthy of a standalone article.

App development average cost

What affects mobile app development costs

The main factors that determine the mobile application development costs are the region where the development team or its individual members reside and the development time

We offer 2 pricing models: fixed-price and hourly, but since the fixed-price one is suitable only when a client has a very precise idea about the app, in the majority of cases we apply the hourly model which is more flexible. 

App development cost per hour differs depending on the team’s geographical location. According to GoodFirms app development cost and time survey, you can be charged up to $150 per hour by an agency based in the USA down to $20 by one in India. We offer a rate of $35-40 per hour which is somewhere in the middle and makes us a good outsourcing option.

Another major factor affecting the costs of an app — time — rests on the complexity of an app depending on several factors like:

  • feature robustness
  • availability of multidisciplinary team members
  • application platform
  • APIs
  • third-party integrations.

Feature robustness

For example, a simple calendar app will require much less time and money to be made than a complex fitness app, let alone a social network app.

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.

Every app should have a well-defined category and a set of compulsory features. According to Statista, these are the most popular app categories in the App Store:

Most popular App Store categories

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 iOS or Android only 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. As for the question of what’s less — Android or iOS app development costs — then in our experience, the cost is almost the same, although technically iOS development can prove more expensive taking into account the additional costs of higher prices for equipment and Apple Developer program. However, in our experience, the cost of an iOS application usually does not exceed more than 5% of the price of an Android app. But there are technological exceptions when the difference in app costs can be more significant. 

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.

The mobile app development process

To see how each stage affects the formation of app development costs, let’s use a generic smart wallet mobile application for a reference. It 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 a 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.

How much app development costs

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.

The 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, the design has to have enough time to come up with valuable solutions.     

The sound design gives a user an understanding of how an application processes his actions and distinguishes the product from others.

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 of app development, 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.

App development cost and time

Personal Financial Assistant App by Shakuro

Depending on the depth of design research done during the pre-production, mobile developers can accurately estimate the app development cost and time. 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 that 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  

  • Navigation and menus.
  • Clear UX copy and interface text.
  • Personalization and smart notifications.
  • Built-in analytics.
  • Sensitive feedback tracking and timely updates.
Costs of app development

Financial Assistant App Animation by Shakuro

In summary

We at Shakuro provide the services of full-cycle app development. In short, our mobile application development process looks like this:

  • Analytics and requirements gathering
  • Design
  • Development
  • Testing
  • Launch
  • Technical support (if needed). 

In the beginning, we make an estimate in accordance with your requirements and description of the idea. Next, we determine the approximate number of hours needed to develop the application. Then we proceed to a detailed assessment, conduct analysis, build the business logic of the application, develop prototypes, and create detailed technical specifications, and only after that proceed to the development stage.

In this article, we tried to answer the question of what constitutes the app development costs, why they can vary, and how we make an estimate. Let yourself see your app as an opportunity, regard every dollar as an investment. If you have an idea, reach us, and we’ll do our best to make this investment worthwhile.

P.S. Don’t conceal your budget

Finally, the mobile app development costs do not depend on whether we know your real budget or not. Rather, 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.”

* * *

The article was originally published in June 2019 and was updated in May 2020 to make it more relevant and comprehensive. 

A battle-ready Development Team
Building for crazy startups and reputable businesses.
Written by Moses Kim
May 05, 2020

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