It depends. It’s probably not the answer you were looking for but that’s the simple truth.
Much like any other service out there, there are several factors that influence the cost of building a mobile app, which include scope, complexity, technologies to be used, team composition, and many others. In this guide, we look at the most important factors to help you estimate a budget that will translate your vision into a mobile app.
Developing mobile apps is a customized service. Providing a cost estimate can only be as accurate as the information given by the client. It’s vital to have a conversation first with the app development firm you’re looking to engage so they can help you articulate and clarify your objectives and needs.
By sitting down with experts, they can understand your vision, establish the project scope, and guide you through strategic and technical decisions for your product idea.
To help you prepare for this conversation, it’s good to understand how consulting firms and app developers come up with cost estimates. We’ll go through the most vital considerations that affect the price tag of developing a mobile application.
Here are the areas we’ll cover in this guide:
- Mobile apps by degree of complexity: basic, mid-level, and complex
- Factors that influence the cost of mobile app development
- Mobile apps by development approach: mobile-friendly website, cross-platform mobile app, native mobile app
- Choosing the set-up of your mobile app development team
- Cost estimation methods: time and material vs fixed price
- Tips on how to reduce the cost of mobile app development
Mobile apps by degree of complexity
Based on our experience (and also by our peers in the software development industry), one convenient way of looking at apps is to assess them in terms of complexity. For purposes of discussion, let’s organize mobile apps into three (3) categories: Basic, Mid-level, and Complex.
While these aren’t technical or formal standards, it’s a simple mental model that anyone can use, whether you’re an executive at an enterprise or an aspiring startup founder.
To determine the level of complexity of a mobile app, we primarily focus on the following aspects when it’s described to us, whether it’s in a document or as part of early conversations:
- Number of screens
- Scope and complexity of the features and functionalities
- Scope and complexity of third-party integrations
- Complexity of the user interface (UI), visual elements, and overall design
- Complexity of the business logic (i.e. business rules within the app)
- Implementation of privacy and security protocols relevant to the jurisdiction (e.g. GDPR, HIPAA)
- Complexity of data processing and the database
- Level of effort required to conduct quality assurance (QA)
While this isn’t an exhaustive list, these are the main aspects of a mobile app when we assess it for complexity. As we go through this guide, you’ll learn other internal (i.e. mobile app requirements) and external (e.g. hourly rates, urgency of delivery) factors that influence the cost to build a mobile app.
Based on these aspects, here are the typical characteristics of basic, mid-level, and complex mobile apps.
1. Basic mobile apps
- This type of app has less than 10 screens.
- These apps typically offer a straightforward purpose where users focus only on one main task (e.g. calorie counter, quiz game, book recommendations).
- Users typically only provide light data inputs. They mostly consume information. The interactions or workflows for them are minimal (e.g. subscribing to an email list, voting on a poll)
- Additional features could include: account creation, social media log-in, profile editing, search, blog, simple dashboard.
- Its authentication functionality is simple such as the use of Gmail, Facebook, or Apple ID when signing in.
- Basic mobile apps typically have no to little data storage.
- Either there’s no backend system or it’s already prepared.
- The designs and user interfaces (UI) are simple.
- It doesn’t display or use heavy animation or visual effects.
- The navigation is straightforward.
2. Mid-level mobile apps
- This type of app has 10–25 screens.
- These apps have multiple but simple functions or have some integrations (e.g. bus tracking, single-brand eCommerce platforms, city guide)
- The app handles a moderate degree of workflow that allows for users to accomplish certain tasks (e.g. filling out forms, making purchases).
- The integration with the backend requires a moderate amount of work.
- They handle some sensitive data (e.g. payments, mobile numbers, location data)
- Additional features could include: geolocation, in-app purchases, messaging, analytics, social media integration.
- Mid-level mobile apps could store some data.
- It displays or uses some animation or visual effects but delivered through third party digital services. These are usually not implemented within the app.
- The business logic begins to be a bit more advanced.
3. Complex mobile apps
- This type of app has more than 25 screens.
- These apps have multiple functions and they’re often built for big businesses or well-funded startups (e.g. banking, social media, eCommerce marketplaces, gaming).
- These apps are feature-rich and have more advanced features (e.g. real-time synchronization, online streaming, voice interaction).
- They could display heavy animation or visual effects either delivered through third-party services or implemented within the app.
- The business logic is highly complex.
- Complex mobile apps store a huge volume of data collected from a huge volume of users and their activities on the app.
- It has a branching navigation flow and handles deep links.
- These types of apps are hardly ever considered finished. These are iterated continuously and at a rapid pace.
If you want to know the price range to expect for each of these kinds of apps, read further below for a cost estimation method that your development team will likely use for your product idea.
Building a comprehensive property app for iOS and Android
Factors influencing the cost of mobile app development
There are a number of considerations that go into determining how much any given mobile app could cost. Ultimately these factors boil down to how much time (usually expressed in hours or days) your development team will need to deliver the product. The more time-consuming an app’s features and designs are to implement, the pricier it will be.
There are, of course, other inputs aside from labor such as infrastructure (i.e. hosting service), technologies (e.g. third-party services), and digital asset royalties (e.g. stock photos). However, the bulk of the cost of mobile app development goes to compensating the talent who build these apps.
To help you further understand how development teams determine the ‘person-hours’ for an app development project, here are some of the key factors.
Complexity and scope
This is the most consequential factor that affects the price of a mobile app. The easier or faster it is to build, then the cheaper it will be. The more complex your features, design, and business logic are, then it’ll take more time and financial investment to build.
As you review your product idea, assess whether you think it’s a basic, mid-level, or complex app based on our description earlier.
Platform and development approach
Do you want to deploy your mobile app on Android or iOS alone or on both? Do you want to build it natively or through a cross-platform approach? These choices also significantly contribute to your development cost. Refer to our discussion below on choosing a development approach that’s right for you.
Design, Visuals, UI, and UX
Whether the visual elements of your app are customized or based on templates, the work on design relies on skilled and creative talent not only to execute the design but also to sit down with you to conceptualize them. If the work includes complex animations, non-standard visual effects, branding, and highly customized designs, then expect that these will factor into your budget.
Building a seamless experience for both retailers and end-users
Implementation of security and privacy protocols (e.g. GDPR and HIPAA) and features (e.g. device binding, data encryption, biometrics, etc.) require strategic planning, specialized talent, and/or integration of third-party security services.
Use of device-specific or emerging technologies
Should your product idea entail highly specific or nascent technologies, then you or your contractor may need to seek out specialists that can work with the development team. Examples include communication with peripherals, LIDAR, augmented reality, the metaverse, and many others.
There are aspects that your customers and users will see. Then there are parts that only you can see. Don’t forget to flesh out in the scope of work your requirements for hosting, admin panels, content management systems, analytics, third-party integrations, and many others in the backend.
How you administer, manage, and maintain your mobile app affect how your users will experience your product. Just because they don’t see these elements doesn’t mean that you can neglect investing in the backend infrastructure.
Integration with other systems, apps, and devices
Is the app part of a family of apps (e.g. Google Workspace) or will it have to interoperate or integrate with third-party apps and devices? The effort required in working with other teams (whether internal or external to your business) for these types of integration will also factor into the cost of development.
Location of project team members
Different individuals for the same role with similar work experiences and technical capabilities could command different hourly rates depending on where they’re located.
For instance, hourly rates across different roles in North America are typically the highest in the software development industry. Your project could be well-served by exploring contractors from other parts of the world who are equally as talented.
How fast do you need your mobile app built? Consulting firms will advise you on the typical pace of work for your requirements, but should you need your product delivered faster than usual, expect that this will increase how much they’ll bill you.
Developers generally charge a “rush premium” because they might need to work longer hours per day and/or bring in additional talent to meet your deadline.
Volatility of the project scope
The more changes you require as the project progresses, the more time-consuming and expensive it gets. These often come in the form of change orders. While these are to be expected, especially for highly complex apps, massive change orders are often the result of poor planning.
Administration, support, and maintenance
Getting your app live or into production may not be the end of your requirements. You shouldn’t hesitate to ask your consulting agency if they can remain as your partner in supporting you manage the app even when it’s already out in the app store.
This also gives you the advantage of having the same team to work on further iterations on your app. Aside from labor, this could also include the cost of equipment (e.g. laptops, mobile devices) and software (e.g. IDE, Githib, and other digital tools).
Mobile apps by development approach
One of the most important strategic choices you’ll have to make is whether to offer your mobile app on either Android or iOS alone or on both platforms. This decision also comes with choosing the development approach — whether to develop it as native app or a cross-platform app.
If you have a simple product idea or are unsure yet about developing a mobile app, you may even consider building it as a mobile-friendly website first. Oftentimes, clients may want to start development on Android, and after a period of evaluation, opt to make an app on iOS as well. The risk here is the “younger” app could lag behind the first one in terms of features.
Here are the options to consider for multi-platform mobile apps in terms of development approach.
1. Mobile-friendly website
When it comes to some digital products, building a mobile app could actually be unnecessary. If you’re planning to have a website anyway, you can assess if a web app can suffice as the primary channel to reach and engage your customers instead of a mobile app.
Many startups also test ideas for their apps by launching a mobile-friendly website first. For businesses that already have a website, then it may just be a matter of modifying or redesigning the site’s frontend to become mobile-friendly.
There are a number of ways that developers refer to this approach such as mobile-optimized or mobile-responsive, each with their own subtle differences. Nevertheless, it’s about verifying business assumptions and testing if customers would use the product in a mobile device.
Because building a separate mobile application requires additional investment and effort, mobile-friendly websites can be a cost-effective alternative. Based on our experience, mobile-friendly websites can be a good idea for eCommerce sites, educational content providers, and basic status-check platforms.
2. Cross-platform development
In the context of mobile apps, cross-platform development is the process of building an application that can be deployed on both iOS and Android (and maybe even on less popular platforms) based on a single source code. In this approach, the developers create a shared codebase wherein the resulting app is designed to work on both iOS and Android devices.
Cross-platform development is almost often a choice made in contrast to native development, which we’ll get to below. Compared to native apps, cross-platform apps are typically faster to develop. When time is of the essence and the app is simple enough, opting for cross-platform development is the preferable approach.
Based on our experience, when it comes to development costs, cross-platform apps would only cost at around 75% of building native apps on both iOS and Android. Take note that this is only a generalization and actual cost comparisons will still depend on many other factors. For example, there’s less cross-platform development talent available and cross-platform apps heavily rely on 3rd-party services.
3. Native development
Native app development is the process of building a mobile app exclusive to a specific operating system, wherein one development process is dedicated to Android and another one to iOS. Among these three multi-platform development approaches, native app development typically requires the most financial investment.
Enterprise office space management app with beacon technology
When a business wants their app to be available on both iOS and Android, two separate teams must work on the app for each platform, oftentimes in parallel. In some cases, they engage a team to start with the Android native app. When the business is ready to work on their app for iOS devices, they then assign the development of the iOS native app to a different development team.
Choosing the set-up of your mobile app development team
When it comes to the price tag of a mobile app, it’s not just the app itself but who works on it. How you engage or build your development team also considerably influences your project cost. Here are some options you can consider for your next project.
This is best suited for businesses that can pull in existing personnel to handle a new project. IT departments are oftentimes bogged down with the day-to-day operations of a company’s IT assets, which is why they would recommend the other options (e.g. freelancers, consulting agencies), which we’ll get into below.
But for those that can take on new projects and have the skills sets (e.g. project management, product management, application development, UI/UX design), building an in-house team could be a viable option.
Opting for freelance contractors tends to be the most affordable option unless they’re highly specialized who offer technology-specific skills that’s rare to find. Because they typically work alone, if they make a mistake, you will not be guaranteed prompt assistance if more work is required.
If your project or task managers don't have the time or energy to oversee them, then this might not be the right option for you. On the other hand, freelancers generally are the right fit for smaller projects or where you need to do a quick test for a product idea.
In addition to mobile app development, consulting agencies provide a broad range of services, including product discovery and research, design, project management, and post-launch support and maintenance. These types of software development agencies can advise you on strategic areas such as your product roadmap, project scope and budget, and go-to-market plans.
This option is beneficial for businesses, whether enterprises or startups, that want a dedicated and exclusive team with the expertise and experience to implement and even improve their vision. While this tends to be the most expensive option, it also has the best chance of producing an output you’ll be satisfied with.
Mobile app development company
This option is similar to opting for a consulting agency but you’ll only be outsourcing the development of the mobile app itself. This could be the appropriate track for companies with in-house strategists, product managers, and designers. This service is provided by either a full-service consulting agency or a smaller firm that only does app development. In either case, you’ll only be handing the coding of the mobile app to this service provider.
Developing a self-care app in React Native and helping shape product strategy
This is a structure in which the core team is made up of personnel from within the client’s company and they’re supplemented by an extended team, usually from an external consulting agency.
The core team covers institutional and product knowledge, while the extended team provides skill sets missing from the core team, oftentimes highly specialized and technical expertise. These engagements are often short-term or project-based.
For example, a client with in-house product managers and software engineers may seek out graphic designers and UX specialists from a consulting firm. When the expertise of the extended team are no longer needed, the agency rotates them to other projects for other clients.
At the same time, to help launch the app, the client may ask the consulting firm for a different set of specialists in digital marketing and social media.
Amplifying the client’s team with product designers and mobile developers who built slick and consistent apps
The extended team model enables businesses to scale their hiring to precisely meet their requirements. Because extended development teams are assembled from a single provider's talent pool and network, hiring can occur quickly — sometimes in days — as opposed to the months it can take to get individuals through traditional employee hiring or freelancer contracting.
Cost estimation methods: Time and Material vs Fixed Price
After sitting down with a software consultancy firm and agreeing on the scope of work, they usually have two approaches when providing you with an estimate: the time and material method versus the fixed price method.
The time and material method usually doesn’t result in a precise amount, relying instead on hourly rates and the time required to build your app. On the other hand, the fixed price method will get you an estimate for the entire project based on the agreed upon scope.
When the client does not yet have a final vision for the product or even a detailed specification, the time and material model works well. Perhaps you already know what core features you want for your app, but you anticipate making significant changes to your strategy after conducting user testing. Perhaps you're working in a volatile market and need to be ready to pivot quickly. If this is the case, a contract based on the time and material method is likely more appropriate for your project.
The main advantage of the fixed price option is that it allows for precise budget planning. If you know the project's final scope and what features must be built, you and your external consultants can agree on development costs based on everything described in the project specs or terms of reference. There's nothing stopping you from adding more requirements later on, with the understanding that these additions will be priced separately.
However, a key factor to the fixed price method is the development agency must have complete ownership of the technical stack of the project. If this freedom is constrained — such as when the developers are forced to use a specific set of frameworks or integrate with specific services — then all this must be precisely defined before the project starts and factored into the budget.
Whether your agreement is based on a time and material approach or a fixed price approach, consulting agencies will still base their financial proposal on how much person-hours your project requires. To paint a concrete picture of how the pricing for your app might look, let’s apply this to our app types in terms of complexity — Basic, Mid-level, and Complex.
Basic mobile app
- The entire development team (project manager, business analyst, designers, developers, and QA engineer) typically logs a total of 400–800 hours.
- For a project with two developers, a basic mobile app can be delivered within 2–3 months.
Mid-level mobile app
- The entire development team typically logs a total of 800–1,200 hours.
- For a project with two developers, a mid-level mobile app can be delivered within 3–6 months.
Complex mobile app
- The entire development team typically logs a total of at least 1,200 hours.
- For a project with two developers, a complex mobile app can be delivered within 6–12 months (or more).
Hourly rates vary across roles within a development team. The rates for the same role also widely vary across the world. In effect, the cost of your mobile app will also depend on where your consulting agency is headquartered and where each of the project team members will be doing their work.
|Degree of complexity||Estimated number of person-hours||Typical duration|
|Basic mobile app||400–800 hours||2–3 months|
|Mid-level mobile app||800–1,200 hours||3–6 months|
|Complex mobile app||1,200+ hours||6–12 months (or more)|
Tips on how to reduce the cost of mobile app development
There are proven ways of minimizing and managing your budget for mobile development projects. While the factors we’ve discussed overwhelmingly account for how much you’ll receive as a financial proposal from your consulting agency, there are actions within your control that can reduce development costs.
Provide clear and detailed product specifications
This can make the development process faster by reducing the back-and-forth between the client and the contractor. If you have the ability to write down your requirements before talking with a software consulting firm, then do so. If you don’t have the in-house expertise to do this, then you can ask this from your consultants as part of their deliverables.
The clearer and more detailed the functional and technical requirements are, the more likely it is that the software engineers can deliver the product that you expect within the agreed upon timeframe. Be clear with your priorities and consider the Pareto principle (i.e. 80-20 rule). Only 20% of your app’s features will translate to 80% of the revenue or impact you expect.
Be strategic with change orders
Product development is a dynamic process. You’re bound to make a few (or maybe even a lot) of changes with your features and design. Ideally, these change orders come from user testing and feedback and not just a matter of personal preferences from individuals within your team.
Further, it’s vital to introduce these changes within iteration cycles as recommended by your development team, instead of shooting from the hip by forcing your developers to make changes on demand. Making variations to your original requirements isn’t necessarily bad and costly. It’s about doing them strategically.
Take advantage of templates, automations, toolkits, and ready-made digital services
There are certain designs and features for mobile apps that don’t need to be coded from the ground up. Your developers know this. If your requirement can be met by customizing available tools, instead of having to code them from scratch, then it may be more efficient (and cost-effective) for you to take this route when asked by your developers. There’s no need to reinvent some wheels.
Further, prioritize steady and quality deliveries over speed and quantity. “Technical debt” will pile up as the project progresses, which can delay development. Constantly managing this debt (e.g. constant refactoring, regular maintenance and upgrades of 3rd-party tools and libraries, etc.) will make it possible for similar features to take roughly the same time to develop at the beginning and at the middle of the project.
Working with the right development partner
Every product idea we encounter is unique owing to the combination of features, workflows, and designs that make up the client’s vision. This makes estimating how much to build a mobile app far from a straightforward process. There’s no perfect calculator that developers can plug and play into a financial proposal.
However, pinning down your ideas and documenting them properly gets you a step closer. Sit down with your team and define your product as much as you can. There will be experts — business analysts, product specialists, designers, and developers — to help you take your first steps.
They’ll assist you in refining your idea so by the time you get the project formally started, your development team can work like a well-oiled machine. A battle-tested consulting agency can execute your plan and intuitively adapt to changes when necessary.
In effect, working with the right mobile development partner can make or break your product idea. The first indication that you have to look for is how helpful they are in learning about your mobile app. They’ll ask the right questions, suggest strategies, and lay out all your technical options. They’ll help you flesh out your requirements, put it on paper, and promptly provide an estimate that matches what you’ve agreed on.
Disclaimer: This article was first published in 2019