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The real cost of building an app

If you’ve ever tried to get an app built for your business, you might already know this. You send your RFQ to several app development companies (small, medium or giants) or freelancers and the quote that you get from them will be so diverse that you can’t even do a comparison. That is because the real cost of building an app is complex than you think.

It is not easy to calculate how much it will cost to develop your app. When I say app, it can be anything, a mobile app, a web app, a complete SaaS product, anything. It can range from $5000 to millions depending on the complexity and nature of your app development engagement. In this article, I will try to guide you on how to estimate the budget to build and maintain your application.

What are you going to build? It’s more than your one-line idea.

This is the first thing you need to figure out before you allocate your budget for your app development project.

Do you just have a brief idea about what you want to build? Or are you able to sketch down a simple wireframe of what you’re trying to build? Or are knowledged enough to make a full-fledged plan of the entire app project?

Well, depending on which stage you are in, you may or may not require a consultant before you can start building your app. A good consultant can help you strategize your idea, and plan a well-defined product development roadmap which will make the app development process efficient and guarantee that you will build something that you’ve imagined.

“I want to build an app like Uber, but for trucks!” – Unfortunately, that is not enough for a developer to start working on your app. You need to write down what you’re trying to achieve with this app, how each of its features is going to work, what is the value delivered to your app users? How will you manage and control your app as an administrator?

There are many questions that need a detailed answer before you can even think of building your app. An experienced consultant who has expertise in working with similar app projects is necessary at this stage.

Your idea vs how it was built vs what you actually wanted
StageConverting your idea into a detailed app development plan.
RequiresExperienced software consultant with industry knowledge.
Time Needed Depends on the nature of the idea. Anywhere from 5 days to several months
Est. CostFrom $1000 to $100K+
Cost of avoiding this stepYour app development project will be a bumpy ride with many uncertainties and in the end, you may not get what you needed.

Your app needs a design! But it’s not just about colors.

Now you know what are you going to build, and what to expect from your app development project. It’s not just a one-line idea anymore!

But wait, you are not yet ready to tell your development team to start writing code for your application. You need to finalize how your app is going to look and feel for your users. Yes, the Design!

Design is not just about the look and colors, it’s more about the experience of your app. Depending on your target users, you need to spend some time to figure out how to arrange components in your app, design the information flow so that your users won’t feel irritated.

I’ve seen several people avoiding design stage in building their app, and the end result is horrible. Most of the time, such apps will cause headaches to users because of the odd design and user experience. It might be hard to spot for you because the app is your baby, but for others, they can easily get bored if the design is not proper.

Which button should I press?

You need a good interface and user experience designer to translate your project plan into a user-friendly application mockup. They will design your app screens in such a way that it follows the basic human-computer interaction rules and standards of software applications.

StageDesigning the interface and experience of your app.
RequiresExperienced UI/UX designers with knowledge in working on similar apps.
Time Needed Depends on the nature of the idea. Anywhere from 15 days to 3 months
Est. CostFrom $2000 to $50K+
Cost of avoiding this stepYour app will be difficult to use and the chances of your app getting abandoned will be high.

Conversion of your idea to a usable app – Development

Finally, you have a plan, you have the design, and now you can dive into the phase where your idea gets converted into an application. This is the phase where you need developers to write code to turn your idea into reality.

cost of building an app - development

Depending on the complexity and nature of your app, you might need one, or a team of developers to work on your project.

Tips to find the best developer for your app

A typical app often requires a front-end and back-end programmer. When you look for programmers, you should never look for the one who charges the minimum, instead –

  1. Ask if they have built similar apps and if the apps are available on PlayStore or AppStore, have a look. Also, check the reviews section to know if the app is buggy or if users love it. Those signs will let you know whether you should choose the developer or not.
  2. What if your app becomes successful and you get several hundred thousands of downloads? Is the developer capable of building it in such a way that it can handle huge userbase? Most cheap freelancers might not have experience in handling such rare cases.
  3. Are they available to support you after the app development has finished? You will need them to support and maintain your app. So never choose someone who will disappear when development is complete.

Development is the stage where you need to spend most of the money. A typical developer (one that matches the above criteria) will charge anywhere from $15 to $50 dollars per hour in India, and it can be in the range of $100 – $200 in the US or Europe.

StageWriting code for your app.
RequiresExperienced software architects and programmers.
Time Needed Depends on the nature of the idea. Anywhere from 1 month to several months
Est. CostFrom $5000 to Millions
Cost of avoiding this stepYou cannot avoid this step 😉

Testing and QA

Now you have the app built! Congrats. But is it ready to use? How will you know? Do you know how your users will use your app?

Testing and Quality Assurance is an important step that you cannot avoid in an app development project. Of course, the development team will do basic testing, but that is not enough to make your app perfect. Your app will be used by thousands of users and each of them will be using it in their own ways.

When it comes to testing, it is not just about a single person manually testing the app and certifying it as done. It is way more difficult and time taking than it looks. Let me explain.

  1. Your users might use Windows, Linux, Android or iOS, and each of their device screen sizes is totally different from your tester’s device. How will you make sure that your app will work perfectly in all devices, all screen sizes, and all specifications?

  2. Testing is not a one-time process. Imagine your tester finished testing your app. Then your developer implemented a new feature. Now, there is a huge chance that it might have introduced a bug. So your tester has to test the app again, and remember, on all devices! Not practical, right? There is only one solution – You need to invest in test automation!
  3. Testing is not just about finding bugs. You need to find security flaws too. Depending on the sensitivity of data stored in your app, you need to do a security audit to ensure that your customers’ data is safe. Government regulations are becoming so strict about handling user’s data that you could land you in court and end up paying millions as fine.
StageTesting and Quality Analysis of your app.
RequiresExperienced software testers and automation testing strategy.
Time Needed Depends on the nature of the app. Anywhere from a few days to months.
Est. CostAround 30 – 40% of your total app development cost.
Cost of avoiding this stepYou will be bombarded with complaints from users about your buggy software and end up spoiling your reputation

Guides and Documentations

Finally, you have built and tested your app and it’s ready to use. But wait, you or your users may not know how to use it.

Well, it happens when you are building complex apps. You are the one who described the idea. But your software has become so huge that even you don’t know how to use some features properly.

Having experience working in multiple software development projects, the most common thing I’ve to do is to repeatedly teach the customer how to use their app.

Proper documentation and user guides are necessary for any app. We are humans and our memory time span is limited for certain things that we don’t continuously deal with.

After the development team has delivered your software, they will forget how it was developed and becomes extremely harder for them to figure out technical details later. So it is important to document your app properly.

And no documentation! You’re doomed!
StageDocumenting your app and preparation of user guides.
RequiresGood Technical writers
Time Needed Several Days
Est. CostTechnical writers charge around $20/Hr in the US.
Cost of avoiding this stepYou will have a hard time debugging your app after some months, and extremely difficult to modify or add new features later.

Backend and Delivery Infrastructure

Your app needs to be hosted on a server in order for everyone to access it. This is an important part of software delivery.

These days, all apps are cloud-based and not on-premise. That means anyone who has access to the internet can use these apps, unlike apps that can be accessed only on a single device where it is installed.

You need a good cloud-based infrastructure to host your application. Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, etc are some of the reputed cloud hosting providers and they have a variety of services that you can choose depending on the nature and the number of users.

It is important to choose a reputed cloud hosting provider or else you will have to face issues in your app availability and thus the user experience.

cost of building an app - infrastructure
Your app had 1000+ users and then your server went down for 2 hours.
Now you have 0 users.
StageHosting your app’s backend on a cloud server.
RequiresCloud infrastructure and experienced server administrators.
Time Needed Few Days
Est. CostRecurring monthly costs ranging from $30 to $10K or more.
Cost of avoiding this stepYou cannot avoid this step if your app has a backend.

You need someone to look after your app – Support, Maintenance, and Monitoring

Finally, you’ve released your app and your userbase is increasing day by day and you’re making millions every year. End of the story?

No, unless you’re lucky, it never happens. A software will never work continuously for years just like most people would imagine. This is where the role of support and maintenance comes becomes necessary.

Especially in the rapidly changing world of technology, your software can quickly get outdated. Not sure how? let me explain. Your app was built and tested to run on Android 10.0 device. And after one year, Android 11.0 was released and they made some new changes in 11.0 that are not compatible with your app. Soon, your users will upgrade their phones to 11.0 and your app will not work anymore! You’re not realizing this because you think your software will work continuously without issues until the end of the world. And soon, you’ll go out of business!

Your app is like a car or your house. It needs regular monitoring and maintenance to ensure it’s working smoothly, fix parts that are wearing out, do some enhancement to cope with the change in environment (Operating Systems), or to find out if an attacker is exploiting your app.

Most people never see the value in investing in software maintenance or monitoring unless they land in some trouble. But, at that time it will be costly and time-consuming to find support to fix your app, or it will be too late that you’ve started losing the trust of your users.

When you think you can maintain your app yourself without spending money

Invest in a team to keep your app healthy and to monitor it’s performance as long as you have customers. They will use manual and automated tools to keep track of your app usage and do regular bug fixing and updates to ensure your app always usable.

StageKeeping your app up and live for your customers.
RequiresDevelopers, Monitoring Tools and Support Staff.
Time Needed As long as you have users.
Est. CostYou need to spend around 20 – 30% of your total development cost.
Cost of avoiding this stepYour app will get outdated, become buggy, become vulnerable to security threats, and become slow due to an increase in the number of users.

Summarizing Everything

Now that you’ve understood the basic components that add to the real cost of building an app. However, most people don’t have any idea about these steps other than development. Just to summarise, the real costs associated with an app development project are – Ideation and Consultation, Design, Development, Testing & QA, User Guides and Documentation, Infrastructure cost, Maintenance, and Support.

Typically, a medium complexity app (say, for example, a simple version of Uber) for both Android and iOS, along with web administrator backend will cost around $50,000 and will cost you $10K annually for its maintenance and infrastructure.

You might be able to find companies and people who can develop apps much cheaper than what I’ve explained here. But there is a lesser chance of getting it delivered and the journey might not be something you’ll love to experience 😉