The 7 biggest factors that affect your app development costs

by: | Oct 18, 2018

So, you have a great idea for a mobile app. And you want to know what the app development costs will be. First things first, check out our recent blog post about why you should be thinking about how to prove the value of your app — even before you start to wonder about how much it’ll cost to build it.

The truth is until you have a detailed definition of your app’s requirements, no one should begin to estimate the total development costs.

But there are important decisions you’ll need to make during the course of a project that will have a big impact on cost. Whether you’re building the app internally or with the help of an app development company like ArcTouch, this post will help you understand the seven most important factors that drive the cost of an app.

From great idea to successful mobile app

1. The cost of internal vs. external app development resources

Different teams have different skills. At ArcTouch, our app development services typically involve four phases: strategy, design, engineering, and growth.

But some clients have internal teams with mobile experience to handle different pieces of a project. For example, your team might be able to define the app strategy and design, but need engineering help to build it. Or, you may need help with the strategy, but have designers on staff to handle the user experience and UI work before handing off to engineering.

It’s also worth noting that mobile app development is a very specific skill set that is rapidly evolving. If your team doesn’t have mobile experience, you might still be able to help with related pieces of a project to keep costs down. For example, an internal IT team might be able to build an API that an app may need, but would struggle to build the app itself. A web development team can make a great mobile website but would have a steep learning curve if they were trying to build a native mobile app for the first time.

The point is, how much of the development process you handle internally vs. externally will be a big driver of the app development costs.

2. App platform(s)

Determining which platform to choose when developing an app-based experience has become increasingly difficult, as the number of app-powered devices increases. You can design and develop apps for traditional mobile (Android or iOS), virtual assistants (Alexa or Google Home), messaging platforms (Messenger or Slack), IoT products (e.g. connected televisions, home automation, smart cars, etc.), and even niche applications for virtual reality. All of these platforms require very different approaches for user experience design and engineering. And even if you’re only looking at traditional mobile, Android and iOS are very different. That’s in part because of the sheer number of different devices on Android, which can drive up the cost of development and testing on that platform.

While your choice of platform can have a big impact on app development costs, the choice you make really shouldn’t have anything to do with cost. Great apps solve a problem or fulfill a need. Which platform depends upon the problem you’re solving (and the user base you are targeting). We encourage our clients to figure out what to build first, and then we determine how (and with what technology) to build it.

3. Native vs. cross-platform app development costs

In addition to the platforms you choose for your app, you’ll also need to decide how you’ll build for those platforms. Many of our clients want to launch mobile apps for both Android and iOS — and in some cases, it makes sense to use a cross-platform development toolset like Xamarin to save engineering time. Using mobile app platform thinking (beyond just code) also helps keep costs down when you’re building multiple applications. For example, we worked with our client EmployBridge on a mobile platform of 12 iOS and Android apps that used shared resources. But using cross-platform technology doesn’t always make sense — for implementing more advanced technology, like augmented reality and apps that require slick user interface features or animations, it can be more cost effective to design and develop on the native platforms.

4. The app backend and API development costs

Apps are nothing without a complementary backend to host the data and content. Almost without exception, every app project includes an element of engineering work that allows an app to communicate with a back end. That could mean a straightforward API built upon a cloud-based server, such as AWS or Azure. But it might also include a middleware layer that abstracts enterprise legacy data into a structure and makes it accessible to an app. The number of variables involved in the back end can have a big impact on app development costs.

Even if the backend is in perfect form, you’ll still need APIs that expose the information and give the app access to different slices of data. Every data source you add will require additional engineering effort to integrate already available APIs, or build your own.

In our experience, APIs that aren’t fully ready can dramatically increase the cost of developing an app. A classic development mistake is to build the APIs at the same time as the app. Often, the result of that approach is that the app will be blocked because it needs that data before development can go too far. It’s more efficient to have a staggered release where the APIs are finished just ahead of when the app development team needs them.

5. The cost of third-party app integrations

Apps are typically comprised of a series of different features — including features that come from other sources. When apps include standard features from the operating system (e.g. an app that delivers experiences based on your location would integrate with the phone GPS), social media (e.g. a sharing widget), analytics (e.g. MixPanel), e-commerce (e.g. Apple Pay) etc., those integrations take additional development time and testing.

One of the reasons we recommend an MVP-style lean app development approach for the first release — particularly to streamline the number of features — is to keep the number of external integrations to a minimum. You can always add integrations to your app roadmap. Building too many into the first release can drive up the app development costs.

6. Animations

We at ArcTouch often talk about “delightful” features. Little things that create an emotional connection to an application and keep people coming back for more. One of the most common tools to give apps a little extra something is adding animations to the interface. But each additional animation can drive app design and development costs up. Inexperienced design teams sometimes make the mistake of designing too many animations into the interface without considering the engineering costs to implement those animations.

7. Localization

The number of markets in which you plan to launch can have a big impact on app development costs. And it’s not just about supporting different languages — though, language localization will drive up the cost of your project for sure. Each region may have also different app store requirements. Different regions may also have different requirements about how you collect and manage user data (e.g. GDPR in Europe).

And let’s not forget customer support. You’ll need to add more post-launch resources to support more regions. One approach to mitigate some costs at launch would be to develop your app in a modular way so that you can easily add more markets (and languages) after launch. This process is called internationalization, and it paves the way for localization. This will add a little bit of cost up front. But it will help you get your app into your biggest market more quickly so you can start gaining feedback from your target users more quickly.

Ready to discuss your app idea?

Our process starts with a free phone consultation, where our app experts will review your idea with you. We won’t give you an estimate of the cost on that first call (you should be wary of any firm that does). But we’ll work with you to identify the next steps for your app development project. Contact us today to set up a time to talk!