Are app development costs decreasing?

Juergen BerkesselLast Updated: June 23rd, 2016: Like most developers, I often get asked how much it costs to build an app.  For many clients it is not apparent that this is a little like asking how much it costs to build a house or buy a car. It is a difficult question to answer, and often requires quite a bit of work to nail down requirements, choose development platforms that are suitable to the client’s requirements and decide on back-end integration strategies.

Updated July 2016
  • Addition of the Kinvey App Cost Estimator and the Ionic App Estimator. Please note Kinvey works on desktops only, not support for mobile devices yet.
  • Please also note that we have added some resources on our app design and app development pages since this article was originally written.

We’ve had quite a few reactions to this post since it was originally published, and in 2014 and 2015 most people still thought that the cost of developing an app would rapidly decline. Perhaps this was anticipating that app development tools would become easier to use and cheap programmers would become ubiquitous. Perhaps this is driven by the fact that the cost of buying apps are “racing to the bottom”. But apps being cheaper to buy in the app store do not translate into the app development costs being any lower. If anything, user expectations about features, social sign-in, and ease of use have increased at the same time that expectations around prices are that they should be lower.

So no, app development costs have not really come down y much, in my opinion.

App Cost Calculators  Can Help Figure Out The Cost To Develop An App

One of the best ways to estimate what an app will likely cost is to consider advice from multiple sources. There are now several app cost calculators out there, and by plugging in assumptions and required features, you should be able to get a consensus opinion about what the ballpark cost will be. Keep in mind that  it is important to configure assumptions about what functionality is needed, especially related to cross platform requirements and needing a back-end and database connectivity as well as social features, required for many app concepts out there…

So here are four calculators I’ve found particularly useful:

Kinvey
App Cost Estimator

Kinvey Cost To Develop An App Estimator

Kinvey App Cost Estimator

Otreva
App Cost Calculator

Otreva cost to develop an app calculator

Otreva App Cost Calculator

Crew
App Cost Calculator

Crew app cost calculator for the cost to develop an app

Crew – App Cost Calculator

Ionic
App Cost Calculator

Ionic App Cost Estimator

Ionic App Cost Estimator


High End vs. Low End

Since 2011/2012 tablets have become mainstay computing platforms, and in 2015 people’s expectations around App User Experiences for both smartphone and tablet platforms have been raised by many of the great efforts out there.

High end apps like FlipBoard, Zite, Pulse as well as the many great games, entertainment and utility apps published during the last years have served to inspire developers and clients alike.

Consider that for games and high end apps it is a matter of having a champagne budget to accompany the champagne taste: Such apps cost hundreds of thousands dollars to develop, and projects like  FlipBoard raised 10.5M of first round funding, and have just gone back for round two for an eye popping 200 million. The iPad News reader Zite was sold to CNN for over $20 million.

On the low end there are automatic app creation services like The App Builder, Good Barber, and Appery.io which offer very low cost alternatives. However for such template driven apps in general the consensus among clients (and developers) seems to be that one gets what one pays for, and that such platforms will not serve brands to differentiate themselves from the pack.[/one_half]

Do You Really Need An App?

Digital Strategy RoadmapOften clients come to me with a concept for an app. By the time they are talking to developers, they of course are thinking they really need this app, for whatever reason. But often when I start digging into their business, assets, website, email lists etc., I wind up gently discouraging them from building an app when other fundamental aspects of their digital presence and strategy are missing or need to be built before an app project could ever bear fruit. 2012 was one thing, but in 2015 the app market is extremely saturated and only truly stand out ideas, with the requisite funding to develop and market them, have any chance at visibility. So for me, there may be truly ROI effective alternative ways to build up a digital strategy, before even considering developing an app.

Top Down vs. Bottom Up

But assuming a client is committed to develop one, one approach is to start with a top down budget figure, and then decide how many of the desired features can be accommodated within that budget. However very often clients do no wish to communicate such an up-front number.
The other approach is to start by gathering requirements from the bottom up and estimating the project costs. But depending on previous experience and “mobile readiness” of a client, this can be either a short or very long process; some of our clients did not even own a tablet computer at the outset of a project, and the familiarization process can take a long time.

Another phenomenon we’ve noticed that often apps are perceived by clients as an independent stand alone entities, even when they serve data from a network; the concept that an app may require a back-end content management system came as a surprise to some. App promotion costs are equally easy to overlook at the beginning of a project, we we stress the importance of budgeting for this up-front.

As part of our agile app delivery model we often recommend starting with a mobile requirements definition and design engagement, which has the added benefit of ensuring that the app development effort fits into the overall strategy of the brand, and considers User Experience and persona development dimensions. In the next section we will list industry examples and the full Polymash Agile App Delivery Model. The full Polymash Agile Delivery Model is available here:

 

 

Some Industry Examples

A few years ago I came across a couple of excellent articles that are still relevant and do an great job of breaking down the dimensions that contribute to tablet (and smartphone) development costs:

The Cost of Building an iPad App | PadGadget

The Cost of Building an iPad App | PadGadget
Regardless of who actually develops the app, let’s look at what it takes to build it. An iPhone or iPad app typically takes anywhere between 2 weeks to several months to build, depending on the complexity. Building an app is not just about coding, as it requires:

Design:
Unless you have the proper skills to do the design yourself, design will cost you money, especially for more advanced apps. Expect weeks of work to build all the app screens, and this job cannot be off-shored. At $50 to $150 an hour, U.S. based designers will likely bill you anywhere between a couple thousands of dollars for a basic app, to several dozens of thousands of dollars if you’re building a higher-end app that requires many screens to be designed.

Coding:
Similarly, writing the app’s code will usually take several weeks to several months of work. This work can be off-shored, and several outlets in Europe and Asia do this job for a living. If you decide to off-shore, you will likely save some money, however, keep in mind that off-shoring requires a lot of coordination, as you will have to manage teams that may not speak the same language, work different hours, and have hundreds of customers like you to deal with. A U.S. based team will likely cost you more, but these teams are local and are usually a lot easier to deal with.

Testing:
Nobody wants bad reviews in the App Store. In other words, you will need to spend days playing with your app, trying to identify bugs and find out what could go wrong. Again, depending on the complexity of the app, this job could take one person a couple days, or five people two weeks. Expect a lot of “back and forth” between the testing and development teams, in order to get rid of all bugs identified within the app.

Infrastructure:
Unless your app does not require any interaction with external servers, keep in mind that server development and infrastructure is critical for the app to succeed, as a slow server response and/or overloaded server will likely lead to bad reviews and poor sales, even if the app is great. Don’t be shy and expect to invest a lot of money on the server side of the equation, especially if you expect your app to be wildly successful. Good infrastructures do not come cheap, and keep in mind that recurring monthly fees will have a direct impact on your revenue.

Validation:
When you are ready to launch, the last gate is the validation. Passing the validation could take anywhere from a couple of days to several weeks, depending on the app and depending on the number of Apple guidelines your app may be infringing.
Project Management: The more third parties involved, the bigger your headache!

For a nice but simple app, the design work will likely take a designer about a week, which will cost you about $6,000. The server side will likely require a developer about 2 weeks of work, or about $12,000. Similarly, the app could be written in about 2 weeks as well, another $12,000. Add $5,000 for project management, hosting fees for a year, debugging, unforeseen delays, and your total budget is around $35,000.

For a nice high end app, like a high-end game, numbers are usually much higher. Design will likely cost you $30,000 alone. Development will be in the $150,000+ range. Hosting fees and extras will cost another $30,000. At the end of the day, your app will likely cost you at least $200,000.

read the complete article here…

How Much Does It Cost to Develop a Mobile App? | Appmuse

Appmuse Article – How Much Does It Cost to Develop a Mobile App?

Alex Ahlund, former CEO of AppVee and AndroidApps, and later an advisor to Appolicious, wrote a guest blog article about app sales on TechCrunch.  According to that article, a survey of 96 mobile app developers showed the average cost to develop an app was $6,453.  An article on OS X Daily about iPhone Development Costs reported that the development cost range for “small apps” is $3,000 to $8,000 and that “more complex or recognized brand apps” can cost $50,000 to $150,000.

 

For some additional resources and recent app cost calculators, see the following links:

KinveyKinvey’s App Cost Estimatorhttp://www.kinvey.com/app-cost-estimator
John RaineyHow much does it cost to develop an app?http://www.accella.net/how-much-will-my-mobile-app-cost-to-create/
Carter, Bluecloud SolutionsHow Much Will my Mobile App Cost to Create?http://www.bluecloudsolutions.com/blog/cost-develop-app/
By Aaron Maxwell, MashableIs Developing a Mobile App Worth the Cost?http://mashable.com/2011/02/24/mobile-app-dev-cost/

In Pounds Sterling:

This post provided some very detailed estimates by the CTO of 5App and his conclusion:

It’s safe to assume that using traditional development techniques to create a cross-platform enterprise app won’t come in under £100K.


The Role of Push Notifications in App Marketing

push notificationsWhile I agree with the best practices described in this PandoDaily article “How to use much-hated push notifications to build loyalty “, overall I’m not sure how appropriate “push notifications” are in carrying on “conversations” via mobile.

A recent survey by X+1, showed an abysmal consumer attitude toward marketing channels on mobile, where only 6 percent of consumers surveyed, found the information on mobile apps accurate and valuable. Compared to 28 person finding personalized web experiences accurate and valuable and 32 percent finding email accurate and valuable. Email? Accurate and valuable? Believe it or not, many marketers have emerged wiser, from the early spam days, and now know that to be heard on email, is to be accurate and relevant. This lesson on creating relationships based on the useful exchange of information must be carried over to mobile.

Read full story on PandoDaily

Ways of engaging app users on mobile devices around relevant content is something we at Polymash are exploring, but I see only a minimal or supportive role for push notifications to play a part in this.

In my way of thinking, engagement around content is very difficult to achieve on mobile devices in the first place. As the popularity of a single click “Like” interactions shows, typing in longer comments can be a significant barrier to entry on smartphones at least.

However, on tablets and mobile web platforms the ability to carry on a conversation needs it’s own user interface, and unlike commenting systems on the web, standards and best practices around this are still emerging.

I feel bi-directional commenting / chat as well as single click interactions are an important component, and push-notifications merely serve as an alert system in that context.

Top of the Class

Polymash is proud to announce that one of its apps, Wild Dolphins, has been acknowledged as a Top of the Class app by eSpark.

The iPad app tells powerful stories through interactive media of dolphin rescues and efforts to keep them living safely in the wild.   The app, Wild Dolphins was created by a large team of committed, talented, professional people from Florida Atlantic University Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute working with the team at Polymash.

ishot-167Dolphin Tale

eSpark, is committed “to transform learning so it’s personalized, best of breed, engaging, and mobile; enabling students to succeed in school and in life.”

The Top of the Class List features the best 15 apps in eSpark’s curriculum of 750 apps, and Wild Dolphins has been included because it “stands out as an exemplary model” for the following reasons:

  • It constantly receives positive feedback from the most important critics – eSpark students.
  • It meets eSpark’s learning design team’s criteria in selecting apps for its curriculum:

– Common Core Standard Alignment
– An engaging and intuitive user experience
– Bang for the buck
– Scaffolding of skills

We are particularly proud because there are more than 100,000 educational apps, books, and learning resources available on the Apple iPad platform and being selected by eSpark’s curriculum experts as they continually scour the app store looking for the most rigorous and engaging learning apps that meet their strict criteria is an acknowledgement to all who contributed to its creation.

 

Press Release: Crankamacallit iPad app takes risks in interactive story telling

Some context about risk-taking

The press release (full text here) has been met with a lot of buzz on Twitter and a number of review sites.

[button size=’small’ color=’black’ link=’http://www.polymash.com/app/the-crankamacallit-ipad-apps-for-kids/’]Visit the Crankamcallit Home Page[/button]

At Polymash we feel the Crankamacallit is interactive story-telling with a difference, and I wanted to provide a little context as to why and elaborate a bit more on the following part of the release:

This iPad app for kids takes some risks that set it apart from most children’s stories. The developer took a page out of game design by utilizing a first person perspective in interactivity, animation and illustration. Interactive elements are intentionally not highlighted nor easy to find. User testing feedback revealed kids “get it” and show their parents the functionality, not the other way around. Another risk was to use the recently released Adobe CS5.5 Digital Publishing Suite platform for a children’s book, and to extend its core functions with HTML5 and JavaScript coding. The developer participated in the alpha and beta testing for Adobe beginning in the summer of 2010, and with this app shows that the platform can be used for much more than just the digital magazines it was created for.

The buzz about iPad usability

I  come from a corporate IT background in user experience and usability engineering. And recent buzz complains about the lack of usability  standards on the iPad (based on a report by the Nielsen Norman Group, an authority in the field) Here is an example on the Huffington Post referring to this study. They point out that because of a lack of standard user interfaces for the Pad, interactive elements and the overall user experience is  not always obvious and predictable.

So, can “lack of usability standards” ever be a good thing?

iPad app for kids - crankamacallitWhile this lack may be a frustration to grown ups, our own usability studies have shown that for kids this has not been an issue.

Why? My theory is that unlike grown-ups, kid’s egos are not as involved or hurt by having to explore and hunt for functionality, and they delight in figuring it out. We’ve often witnessed grown ups pick up an iPad for the first time with a sense of trepidation and fear of not quite knowing how to use it, but kids immediately start to experiment and play. And I think as grown ups start to understand the device, they too delight in their “discoveries”.  To me, this sense of discovery creates much deeper engagement, and the many brilliant app designs unencumbered by any usability standards illustrate the magic of the iPad.

So I for one do not necessarily look forward to seeing universal iPad usability standards develop. So unlike many kid’s apps we see, for our interactive children’s story we have intentionally not been too obvious about brightly highlighting interactive regions, providing instructions or hints. Our testing with kids proved that they “get it” and are able to show functionality of the app to their parents, not the other way around.

Here’s a grown up’s (unsolicited) review on iTunes that illustrates the point:

“The first time I went through this book on my iPad I missed 90% of it and I thought, “well, this is pretty lame”. Then my 3 year old daughter got ahold of it and showed me what was possible. Even without having seen the rest of it, what I did see initially was visually stunning. The rest of it just made it worth the $5. It’s not a book of puzzles, it’s a book that tells a story (obviously), and invites you to explore the world created so cleverly by the graphic artist. Don’t leave a single stone unturned when you go through the book, or, give it to your 3 year old and sit back and be amazed. “