8 hidden costs of mobile application development

EducationSummary: As more and more businesses jump into mobile app development for the first time, many make a crucial mistake: They go into the process with a limited understanding of the true costs of developing a mobile app. In fact, many falsely believe that development cost starts and ends with the developer. In this article, we highlight a few important costs that you should anticipate before starting your mobile app development project.

photo credit: FirmBee via pixabay cc

photo credit: FirmBee via pixabay cc

Is your company getting into mobile apps for the first time?

If so, let me ask you a question: How much does mobile app development cost?

The answer: While it depends on your needs and your mobile app approach, many businesses go into the process with a limited understanding of the true costs of developing a mobile app.

The truth is, the cost of developing an enterprise mobile app reaches far beyond the actual development. The big question: What unexpected costs should businesses plan for when building mobile apps? What expenses might surprise you during the mobile app development process?

Today, I’d like to outline the mobile app development costs that businesses may not anticipate. Now, I’m not trying to dissuade you from mobile apps. Quite the opposite. I believe mobile holds many benefits for businesses and can give you a competitive advantage if done correctly.

Hopefully, this article will better prepare your company for mobile app development, and reduce some of the surprises along the way.

However, before we get into these unexpected costs, I want to differentiate between mobile app types. People tend to associate the term “mobile app” with “native app,” but that’s not entirely accurate. It’s important to note that there are three types of mobile apps:

Native app: An app that’s installed on the device itself and distributed via the platform’s app store/market.

Mobile web app: Commonly referred to as an “HTML5 app”, these are cross-platform apps that are accessed through the device’s web browser.

Hybrid app: Built with web technologies and wrapped in a native shell, these apps are a combination of the two previous apps. They look and feel like a native app, but are actually web apps inside of a native wrapper.

For a more detailed description of each, check out this handy comparison chart.

I explain the difference between each app type because the following “hidden costs” don’t necessarily apply to each one. To help differentiate, I’ve listed which costs apply to each application type at the end of each point.

Okay, let’s get started. This is such a broad topic, that I’m splitting it up into two parts. We’ll cover the first eight costs today, and explore more in a future article. Sound good? Okay, here are 8 unexpected/hidden costs to watch out for when building mobile apps for your business:

1. App store costs

photo credit: William Hook via photopin cc

photo credit: William Hook via photopin cc

If you are building mobile apps for distribution in an app store/market, you must understand a couple of important points.

First, getting into the app store is cheap…but it’s not free. Apple charges $99 per year, while Google charges a one-time $25 fee. Of course, these aren’t deal-breakers by any means. But, it’s good to know these fees exist.

Second–and more importantly–you’re playing in someone else’s sandbox. When you create native apps and distribute them through an app store, you give up some control of your app. You must play by their rules if you want your app in their store.

The problem: Their rules often change. Maybe your app was initially approved, but is now in violation of a new rule. You’re stuck with the expense of keeping your app updated to remain in the app store.

Another problem: They decide whether or not to allow your app into their store. What if the reviewers decide your app doesn’t meet quality standards or violates some rule?

“The dreaded Apple app store review process. Companies who have been there, done that know it all too well. It’s not uncommon to have a junior reviewer flag your app and threaten to hang up a release for weeks,” explains Ryan Farley, Co-Founder, LawnStarter Lawn Care.

While most apps will make it into the store eventually, there’s no guarantee that it will get in on the first shot. If it needs changing, it’s more development work (and costs) that you didn’t plan for. This is an expense that you must work into your budget and timeline.

Affected Application Types
This applies to native and hybrid apps. Mobile web apps aren’t distributed via the app store.

2. Cross-platform development costs

When businesses get into mobile apps for the first time, they’re shocked to learn that it’s more complex than typical business applications. They often assume that one app works across different platforms.

The reality: If you want cross-platform native applications, you need a separate application for each. If you want those applications to work on tablets, you need different applications for tablet platforms.

In other words, creating cross-platform native apps isn’t a single development project. It’s multiple development projects that you must carefully manage to ensure they deliver the same result.

“Mobile development is never cheap, it sounds like it should be because we are talking mobile which is in theory lighter than other development efforts,” says Ralph Wasner, Chief Technology Officer at FNTS. “The challenge is mobile development is not a single development effort it can be 4 to 10 parallel development for different devices that need to look the same on all the devices.”

Affected Application Types
This applies to mainly to native apps, but does also impact hybrid apps. While hybrid app wrappers streamline the development of cross-platform mobile apps there are still some cross-platform issues that need to be worked out when developing that way. Mobile web apps are immune to cross-platform costs, as they are deployed via the web and work across all platforms.

3. Design costs

photo credit: JD Hancock via photopin cc

photo credit: JD Hancock via photopin cc

It’s a common assumption: The mobile developer will handle the design…right?

The answer: Not if you want users to actually use the app long-term.

The fact is, the user experience is quite possibly the most important element of an app. Now, I’m not minimizing the importance of function. But, without design, users won’t stick around long enough to see the function.

Poorly designed, confusing interfaces are one of the top reasons why users uninstall an app. You may have the most useful app ever created, but if you skimp on design, you’ll drive users away before they realize it’s great.

The reality is, you need a good designer for any app development project. I know…it may seem like an extra cost. But, as explained below, it’s far cheaper than the cost of bad design.

“When spinning up new app development teams, it is appealing to just hire developers and have them throw together a quick design,” explains Matt Baxter, Director of Software Development at Jibestream. “It’s faster and cheaper if the designer and developer don’t have to communicate or argue with each other, right? This is based on the underlying assumption that developer expertise is required but design expertise is optional.

Good mobile app design is hard. The cost of bad design is low adoption rates and early rejection. This leads to additional software development cycles to try and improve on the initial flawed design. However, you’ve already burned your initial early adopter user base with a bad experience, and now have to try that much harder to gain traction.

Finding a single person who is an expert at both design and development is possible, but very difficult, and may cost as much as two specialized resources with slightly less experience. If you don’t have the app complexity to justify a full time designer, then hire a reputable design firm. It may seem overpriced, but compare it to what you’re saving by not having a full-time designer.”

Affected Application Types
This applies to all app types, and varies largely based on your desired app and target audience. For instance, an app aimed at mass consumer distribution obviously needs more design effort than an app built for internal use by your sales team.

4. Data storage costs

Here’s another question to consider: Where are you storing your mobile app data? If you build a data-driven application, you must build storage costs into your plan. If stored on the cloud, you’re now looking at monthly hosting costs, which vary depending on the provider and the amount of data stored.

What types of costs can you expect? As explained below, it starts small, but becomes more of a factor as you scale.

“Less obvious to most, when you have many data points on your app you need to store the information somewhere,” says Michael Fisher, Managing Partner at FishJoy. “Do you know how much Facebook and other large companies pay for all the massive data they store? A ridiculous amount. The idea is the more information you store whether on the cloud or elsewhere can add up quickly. This becomes more relevant as you scale.”

Affected Application Types
This applies to all app types, with costs once again ranging depending on the application itself and the amount of data stored.

5. Mid-project changes

photo credit: Matthew Wynn via photopin cc

photo credit: Matthew Wynn via photopin cc

Whether or not you use an internal development team, or external mobile app developers, they provide a cost estimation based on the initial specs. However, specs often change throughout the project.

The problem is, many businesses underestimate how much these changes will drive up the cost. When getting into mobile apps for the first time, businesses don’t realize how involved these “small features” might be. What appears to be a small change, might actually add weeks to the project.

For instance, a business leader might run across a nice feature in another mobile app, and decide they need it in their app. Or, maybe they decide the design needs changing. Or, maybe they realize they want cross-platform apps halfway through the project.

Each change drives up the cost. This is especially dangerous when you have multiple “small” changes, which add up quickly. Many businesses go into a project with a budget in mind, and don’t realize how much all of these mid-project changes can impact the final cost.

“As a company that does a lot of application development, both mobile and desktop, the biggest issue we face is scope creep with clients,” says Nenad Ćuk, Co-Founder & CEO at CroatiaTech. “For those not familiar, scope creep occurs when a client keeps on making changes, or adding features that are either not necessary for the first version, or just need to be there to be ‘perfect’.”

Affected Application Types
This applies to all app types and varies by the type and amount of mid-project changes. For instance, changing a button color is obviously a cheaper change than adding GPS tracking and location check-in capabilities.

6. Costs for testing across devices

This is a sneaky cost, mainly because it commonly gets underestimated. Businesses often don’t realize how much testing is required for mobile apps.

Mobile testing is especially complicated due to the wide variety of mobile devices. This goes far beyond Android and iOS. You must test for different device types, screen sizes, OS versions, network speed, and more. As explained below, these factors can dramatically impact your app’s look and feel.

“What looks great on an iPhone 6 will look terrible on a Samsung G6,” says Wasner. “Since there is such a wide variety of pixel counts and screen sizes a lot of mobile developers start off by either trying to accommodate too many variations or not enough. In most cases you have to decide several key points before you start:

a. What are the top 4 or 5 phones being used today?

b. How many versions do you want to be backward compatible?

c. Similar questions for the tablet market.

d. You will never get a perfect customer experience on every type of phone. On some of the non-mainstream phones you have to settle for an alright experience.”

Affected Application Types
This applies to all application types, though more so to multi-platform hybrid and native apps. Testing cost rises for each additional platform.

7. Maintenance costs

photo credit: TiBine via pixabay cc

photo credit: TiBine via pixabay cc

Some fall into the trap of assuming that mobile app development is a one time project. It’s all over once it’s released…right?

Not at all.

Mobile apps are an ongoing process. You must fix bugs, apply security patches, update the app with every new OS release, support users, add new capabilities, and more. In fact, you could say that development is the easy part.

“One of the biggest hidden costs of app development is the upkeep of the app once it’s published in the app stores,” says Kevin Schrage, Director of Marketing at BiznessApps. “Apple and Google play continue to improve their platforms and with this, they require apps to adhere to their standards. In fact, if you don’t keep up with their standards they can pull your app from the store, so all of your hard work could go to waste. The other piece to this is managing the app and the work it takes to implement all of the solutions. You need a dedicated staff member managing push notifications, mobile ordering, loyalty programs, and other features that are built into the app.”

Affected Application Types
This applies to all platforms, though more so for native apps. As mentioned above, native apps require constant OS and device compatibility updates. While mobile web apps do require maintenance, they aren’t affected by OS and hardware changes.

8. Marketing costs

Back when the app store first rolled around, you could probably release a new app without any marketing. Not any more.

These days, your app is competing with over 2 million other apps. What will make users want to try your app? How will they even find it?

These days, good marketing is just as important as good design/development.

“The biggest hidden cost I see is marketing,” says Brad Waller, COO, EPage Mobile App Development. “As a developer I find that my client businesses only consider the cost of development.

They don’t allocate money for marketing and promotion. If you do not budget somewhere on the same order of magnitude dollars for marketing that you spent on development, chances are you will be throwing your development money away.

You need to get the word out and get people to download your app. Word of mouth, internal social media, and blogger outreach can only get you so far. Without hiring people as skilled in app marketing as you hired for skilled development, you risk spending money on the wrong things.”

Now, what if you’re building an app for employees? Can you forget about marketing?

Of course not! While you won’t need the widespread marketing of a consumer app, you must still market to your employees. Educate them about the app and explain its benefits. They must understand what it is, how it helps, and how to use it if you want your app to succeed.

Affected Application Types
This is largely a native and hybrid app issue, as they’re distributed via the app store/market and geared towards consumer distribution.

Summary

These are just 8 hidden costs of mobile application development. We’ll cover more in a future article. Stay tuned! If you would like to add anything to this list, I’d love to hear it. Feel free to share in the comments.

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16 thoughts on “8 hidden costs of mobile application development

  1. Very interesting blog post, you definitely need to research the costs of creating an app that does what you want, and compare that to the budget you have – making allowances for any tweaks, maintenance and testing. App development is based on trial and error. You need to hire a company with proven delivery process which takes an idea from initial seed to delivered product in a simple, easy-to-understand and effective way.

  2. Joe, it’s great that you pointed out here how having an app in the Apple store is really functioning! Not all app developers are pleased to know that they do not have a 100% control of their creation and the fees of having it placed there are, of course, not a deal-breaker but important to know!

  3. The post you have created here is life-changing for me. As editing is something I neither understood or could accomplish without some assistance. I’m bookmarking this post. Honestly I deserve to read it a few more times in order to obtain complete understanding.. thanks so much.. keep smiling.

  4. Thanks for posting and attaching those images straight away – super helpful! This currently is expected behavior actually. In order to get this new app out fast, there were some features we had to leave out of the initial launch. Our mobile team is nowhere near done with this app, as many features will be restored with upcoming updates.

  5. The post created by the author is very helpful and needed a lots of research to post such a nice article which covers every important points to remember. Very fine post and keep sharing your best thoughts in future.
    Thankyou,

  6. Thanks for sharing your good information . today every business should develop their business app now
    Hire mobile applications developers for development. Tipenter One of the top mobile ios iPhone android app development company in Bangalore India.

  7. Even though there might be quite a few hidden costs, in the end, a mobile app is ALMOST always better than developing a brand new web project. Had quite a nice read. There’re articles close to this one at

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