It’s no secret that the world has gone mobile.
We’re living in an era where our smartphones are within an arm’s reach at all times, day or
night. What’s everyone doing on those devices? Using mobile apps. The potential use cases for
mobile apps are seemingly endless.
Written by BuildFire
Additional Articles For Every Stage Of The App Life Cycle
From small business apps to ecommerce apps, fitness apps, internal employee communication apps, religious apps, and more—there’s an app for anything you can imagine.
Apps can be developed as an extension of your existing business or used to create new business from scratch.
Whether you want to develop an app for your business or build the next Uber, this guide is for anyone who wants to create a mobile app.
For first time builders, non-technical users, and anyone who has experienced a failed development attempt in the past, this resource will walk you through the development process in a way that’s easy for everyone to understand.
Mobile App Development: A Step-by-Step Guide
Mobile app development can be segmented into three categories—pre-development, development, and post-launch.
This guide reads best from start to finish, but feel free to click around to the sections that are most relevant to your needs. Some of you might be starting from scratch, while others might be further along in the process.
While it’s tempting to start building right away, there are certain steps you need to take before development begins. These steps are critical to the success of your app, so don’t skip over them.
Chapter 1.1 — Define Your Goals
Every mobile app development project must start with clearly defined goals.
What are you setting out to achieve? What problems are you trying to solve?
Your goals will ultimately establish your entire development process. If these aren’t clearly defined from the beginning, it’s easy to get lost along the way once you start developing your own app.
Don’t just set any goal—set measurable goals.
Use this as your north star, to ensure that you’re continually aiming toward them. Otherwise, you won’t be using your time and resources effectively. Since app development is virtually limitless, it might be enticing to add features, bells, and whistles that aren’t mission-critical to your goal.
You can set goals related to the end-user, as well as goals related to your business.
To make sure that you achieve your app development goals, you need to understand the difference between a goal and an objective. Goals represent the final outcome that you want to reach. Objectives are the steps you take to achieve those goals.
Break those objectives down into “SMART” objectives:
It’s a common mistake for people to define goals in a monetary sense, such as “make more money.” But that goes without saying. It doesn’t make you different from every other business on the planet. Instead, a great goal should be focused on your purpose and mission.
Every goal should have clear KPIs (key performance indicators).
Make sure that you have pre-defined measurements to achieve success. KPIs work best when they are numerical.
For example, if you’re building an ecommerce app, one of your goals might be to reduce shopping cart abandonment rates on mobile devices. To make sure that you’re reaching that goal, you need to know your current abandonment rates to compare them against the numbers when your own app eventually launches.
Chapter 1.2 — Conduct Market Research
Once you’ve established your goals, you need to make sure that there’s a market need for your app. Every app idea sounds good in theory, but you need to validate your idea before you proceed.
It’s much better to conduct your market research now before development begins. Otherwise, you could waste valuable time, resources, and money on an app idea that the market doesn’t need.
If the app is for your existing business, talk to your customers to understand what they want. It’s easy to assume that your customers want certain features, but the only way to know for sure is by taking the time to learn more about them.
Create surveys. Conduct interviews. Run a focus group.
How will an app improve the experience of your current or prospective customers?
Research your competition. Are there other businesses or apps out there doing the same thing? How can your app do it better?
Your app must have a differentiation factor that separates yourself from the competition. This will be your competitive advantage.
Without establishing your differentiation, users won’t have a reason to choose you over other players in the industry. Remember, you’re likely going to be competing against businesses and apps that have beat you to the market. How are you going to catch up to them?
For those of you who are lucky enough to have first-movers advantage, how will your app be different from the ones being built after you?
All of this information must be clearly identified in your market research.
Chapter 1.3 — Create a Wireframe
If you’ve never built a mobile application before, you might be wondering what a wireframe is. Fortunately, it’s very easy to create.
A wireframe is essentially a rough layout of your mobile app. It doesn’t have to be too formal either. You can create a wireframe on a piece of paper, a whiteboard, napkin, or use a digital wireframing tool.
The purpose of the wireframe is to simply illustrate the core components of your app and layout the schemes.
Don’t worry about the app design elements in a wireframe. This tool isn’t meant to be a one-to-one relationship of how the final app will actually look. Instead, the focus of your wireframe should be on structure and flow.
Map out the user journey. Show what happens if they click on a particular button. What will the next page look like? What happens on the screen when a user clicks Option A vs. Option B?
Here’s an analogy to express the importance of wireframing. Let’s say you wanted to build a house. You wouldn’t start breaking ground on day one, would you? Instead, you’d sketch the plans on paper. Then you can take those plans to an engineer or an architect and explain what you want. They’ll take those plans and use them to create the schematics for the blueprints. It’s much easier to make those changes on paper before you start pouring concrete or putting up walls.
The same concept can be applied to mobile app development. It’s much easier to make changes on paper before you actually start building anything.
A wireframe can also help get your team on the same page in terms of your vision for how the app will work and function.
Chapter 1.4 — Choose Your Development Method
There are lots of different ways to build an app. Before you start, you’ll need to determine which method is the best for your unique situation.
The best option for me might not be the best option for you.
Choosing the right method is based on factors like your budget, technical skill level, app type, and time to market.
Generally speaking, there are five different ways to build a mobile app. I’ll explain each method in greater detail below, so you can figure out which choice is the best for your app.
Native development involves low-level coding. So if you’re not a developer and you don’t know how to code, you’ll need to hire a specialized developer to create the app for you.
If you’re planning to launch the app for both iOS and Android, you’ll need a developer for each platform. Each platform has its own programming language. While some developers know how to build for both, it’s going to take you twice as long to have one person doing the whole thing, and it won’t save you any money. Alternatively, you can have two people working on the app simultaneously to get to market faster.
In addition to hiring app developers, you’ll also need a full stack web developer to create your backend infrastructure for data hosted in the cloud.
Your app development team won’t be complete without a QA specialist to handle testing and a project manager to oversee everyone’s duties.
Native development gives you the most flexibility of any development method. By coding from scratch, your app can do anything. It’s an ideal option for anyone trying to build a gaming app or an augmented reality app.
With that said, native apps are expensive and take the longest to build.
Hybrid App Development
The flexibility of a hybrid app is still pretty high in terms of what the app can accomplish. While you won’t need a developer who specializes in low-level coding to build it, they still need to have web development skills.
Overall, hybrid development will save you time and money compared to native development. However, you can expect a hybrid app’s performance to be slightly below the performance of a native app. Fortunately, for most people, the slight performance hit won’t make a difference in the app’s success.
With today’s Internet speeds, the difference in performance is shrinking dramatically. You can build a UI-intensive app using hybrid development without any noticeable problems.
Rapid App Development (RAD)
Rapid app development is a popular choice for non-technical users who want to build an app on their own. It’s much cheaper than native and hybrid development, and you’ll be able to get to market faster as well.
With RAD, you’ll use an existing tool to create an app with an online interface.
These platforms are typically promoted as solutions for people who aren’t technical. But with that said, you’ll need to have some idea of what you’re doing from a technical perspective if you want to create an app using this method.
You won’t have to learn how to code or do anything like that, but you will definitely need some technical ability to make your app do anything beyond a basic level.
Rapid app development limits the builder to whatever tool they’re using to create the app. You’ll only be able to use whatever that platform has to offer for functionality. You’re just simply configuring those tools in a way that works for your app.
For something basic like a mobile application for internal processes, RAD will be a viable option. Just understand you’ll have limitations.
Cookie Cutter Apps
A cookie-cutter app app maker is exactly what it sounds like. You’re essentially taking a single app and configuring it for your own needs.
You’ll add personalized text, images, color schemes, and other graphics that align with your branding. The platform makes it easy for you to turn on functionality that you need, and turn off features that you don’t.
There is no coding required for this development method. You don’t need to be technical either to figure this out.
While the difficulty level of creating an app this way is pretty low, the flexibility is low too. You can’t really create anything too exciting or customized with a cookie-cutter app. The functionality will be extremely limited. If you want your app to scale, the platform you’re building it on will restrict you.
With that said, cookie cutters are fine for those of you who are building apps as a hobby. It’s a good solution for people with low budgets who want to get to market as quickly as possible. Just understand that the potential for your app has a very low ceiling. It’s not really viable for business purposes.
BuildFire is in a category of its own.
This platform was created to give non-technical users the ability to build an app on their own using an extensive marketplace with a plethora of features for complete customization.
Compared to rapid app development platforms, BuildFire offers greater flexibility in terms of what the app can accomplish. If there’s a unique functionality that hasn’t been built for the marketplace yet, you can get your own developers to make it for you using the BuildFire SDK.
You’ll also have the option to take advantage of BuildFire’s white-glove services. In this case, the in-house developers at BuildFire can create custom functionalities for you.
To create an app with BuildFire, you won’t need any coding skills. You can create everything on your own using a web-based platform, and launch on iOS and Android simultaneously.
BuildFire is a cost-effective way to build a highly customizable app without the challenges associated with other RAD or hybrid tools.
Chapter 1.5 — Research Existing Solutions
The final step you need to take in the pre-development process is researching existing solutions. Before you waste valuable time and resources building something from scratch, check to see if that solution is already available on the market.
Let’s refer back to the house-building analogy that I used earlier. You could get a carpenter to build every aspect of your kitchen from scratch, from custom drawers to windows and cabinetry. But why would you need this? You can simply buy cabinets that have already been built and just install them in your kitchen.
In terms of app development, there are services to accomplish standard functionalities that every app needs. I’m referring to solutions for things like infrastructure, hosting, design, analytics, and push notifications.
Why would you try to host an app on your own if you can just rent servers from an existing solution?
It’s always cheaper to buy something pre-built as opposed to building it on your own from scratch. You can usually make slight custom changes to these existing services as well.
Only build what you need from scratch. For everything else, just leverage reusable tools that already exist.
This will save you time, money, and get your app to market faster. Plus, it will make your life much easier.
Once you complete the legwork in the pre-development stage, you can actually start building your app. By now, you’ve already validated your app idea, done all of the necessary research, and have a basic understanding of how the app should function.
Chapter 2.1 — Technical Specification
Take the wireframes that you created during the pre-development process and use them to create a “tech spec.”
Think of this in terms of the building a house analogy that I keep referring back to. The tech spec can be compared to the civil engineering process. There are lots of factors to take into consideration before construction starts. You’ve got electrical, plumbing, ventilation, and things of that nature.
These are the inner workings behind the walls of your house that nobody sees. Sometimes, it makes sense to logistically change things around because it will save you lots of time and money.
For example, in a two-story house, you might put a bathroom on the second floor above the kitchen because the plumbing can easily be connected. In the initial design (wireframe), the bathroom might have been somewhere else. But the civil engineer says that it will save time and money if you align them together.
This same concept can be applied to mobile app development. The technical specification process gives you an added insight into the inner workings of your app.
Developers need to look at your wireframe and assess the technical challenges—not just the visual ones.
Your tech spec can potentially find alternative ways to achieve your goals. These alternatives can save you months of work and thousands of dollars if you figure it out now.
At the very least, get the information, and then you have the opportunity to weigh your options.
You can always say that the user experience is more important than shaving off some of the costs and building more efficiently. But the tech spec process is still a crucial part of development.
It’s better to do it right away, as opposed to three or six months down the road, thinking, “I wish we did things differently. It could have saved us so much time.”
Chapter 2.2 — Set Measurable Milestones
Setting milestones will help keep you and your team on track during the building process. Without benchmarks, you’ll have no way to track your progress.
The idea here is to separate your massive development project into smaller chunks. It’s much easier to chip away at lots of smaller projects than to look at one huge project from start to finish.
Each small project should be completed within a specified timeframe. Depending on the complexity of the task, this could range anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.
You can measure your progress against this timeline of milestones to ensure that you and your development team are hitting deadlines.
The best way to optimize this process is by learning a project development system. Agile development and scrum development are both prevalent project management methodologies amongst software developers.
If you decided to manage the project on your own, it’s definitely in your best interest to learn one of these methodologies. For those of you who decide to hire a project manager, they’ll likely implement their preferred management methodology.
Regardless of your decision here, you need to make sure that you have a way to track your progress.
This will give you a better understanding of when you can go to market with your app—so you can plan accordingly.
Chapter 2.3 — Create an MVP
As you start building the app, you should always be developing an MVP—minimum viable product. The idea behind an MVP is that it forces you to think about your app’s most essential features.
What does your app actually need to function? Build those features first, then worry about everything else.
App development is virtually limitless. It’s easy to get distracted during the building process and lose sight of your goals. A month or two into the project, it’s easy to say “let’s add this feature” or “wouldn’t it be cool if the app could do this?”
Those notions will only add time and money to your project. They can even take away from the core functionality of your app.
You could always go back and add features later. In fact, we’ll address this shortly in the guide during the post-launch section.
An MVP is essentially the bare bones of your app. It has just enough of the core features to complete the simplest functionalities and use cases. Don’t worry about a beautiful design or distracting bells and whistles. That’s not important right now.
For example, let’s say you’re building a messaging app.
Your MVP would be an app that allows two users to send messages to each other. You wouldn’t start building a video chat feature or configure settings to change the font, upload photos, or adjust the background color of the app.
Let’s refer back to the house analogy. The MVP for a house would be four exterior walls and a roof. It wouldn’t be a tent, and it wouldn’t be a kitchen. You can’t go from a tent to a house, and a kitchen can be added later.
Chapter 2.4 — Quality Assurance
Once your MVP is finished, and you have a working app, you need to test it before deployment.
The app must be tested on actual mobile platforms. There are many different ways your app can be used, so the quality assurance person will have to check it on everything.
Between iPhones, iPads, Android devices, PWA, smartphones, tablets, and more, you have your work cut out. Make sure the app works online, offline, and so on. Devices with different software versions or screen sizes might have issues that aren’t found elsewhere.
So don’t just test the app once on your phone and assume that it’s working correctly.
First-time app builders always seem to question the QA process. Do you really need to pay someone to test your app? Shouldn’t developers be able to create an app without any bugs in the code?
Sure, in utopia, apps get built perfectly and don’t need to be tested. But in the real world, developers write bugs—and they are notoriously bad at finding their own bugs.
So don’t undermine the QA process. A quality assurance specialist can come in and find problems with your app before it goes to market. It’s much better to identify these now; otherwise, users will find them in real life.
If a customer discovers bugs, it’s going to create problems for your app’s long-term success.
In addition to testing your app with a QA specialist, you can also go through usability testing with actual test users. Give the app to your friends, family, and colleagues as well.
The app doesn’t need to be perfect when you launch it. But ideally, you’ll want to eliminate all of the bugs and errors. User experience and user interface changes can be configured later.
Chapter 2.5 — Deploy
The final stage of the development process is deployment. It’s time to get your app live and into the hands of actual users.
Don’t worry about backward compatibility or anything like that. Right now, your primary focus needs to be uptime and visibility. Make sure that the application is fully functional for the end-user. The last thing you want is for your servers to crash or something like that.
There are many different software options and tools on the market that you can use to ensure that the app is healthy and that the software is responsive.
In order to get your app to market, you need to submit it to the different app stores. There are various requirements for Google Play Store apps and Apple App Store apps. So you must understand all of the different submission guidelines before you go through this process.
Otherwise, your app could get rejected from the store, which is obviously something you don’t want to deal with. It just delays your launch and gives you more headaches that could have been avoided.
The process of deploying your app will vary depending on the development method you choose, which we discussed earlier in the pre-development section of this guide.
If you use BuildFire to create an app, we’ll get the app live for you. All you have to do is let us know when it’s done, and we’ll take care of everything else for both iOS and Android. So you can focus your efforts on development, and let our team do all of the heavy lifting for you.
For those of you who decide to hire a development team or code the app on your own, you’ll have to go through extra steps during the deployment process. There won’t be any magic button to push where a team of experts can come to the rescue.
The mobile app development process isn’t over once the app has been deployed. There’s still plenty of work to be done after you’ve launched.
Make sure that you plan accordingly for the post-launch steps, and don’t blow your entire budget during development.
Chapter 3.1 — Marketing Your App
Your app is a business; treat it accordingly. Would you launch a new business without any promotion? Obviously not.
You could have the best app on the planet, but your efforts won’t matter if nobody knows about it. Your app must be marketed appropriately to get some eyeballs on it and pique user interest.
Start by driving visitors to your website and app. Visitors become users. Users become paid members.
Make sure you have a digital presence on as many marketing platforms as possible. Prioritize the channels where your user base spends the most time. Promote your app on social media channels, like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn. If you’re targeting a younger generation, you can even promote the app on Snapchat and TikTok.
Create video promotions and app demonstrations. Upload those videos to YouTube. You can always repurpose those videos on other distribution channels.
The idea behind your mobile app marketing strategy needs to be focused on attracting new users. So broaden your reach and use a mix of both inbound and outbound marketing strategies.
In the short term, you can run PPC (pay-per-click), and CPI (cost-per-install) paid ads to drive downloads. But long term, you should be blogging and focusing on SEO (search engine optimization) tactics for driving traffic to your website. This will ultimately help your app gain more attention when users search for solutions via search engines.
You should also understand the basics of ASO (app store optimization). By leveraging ASO techniques, it increases the chances that users will find your app organically while they’re browsing in the app store.
Marketing for your mobile app will never stop. Your strategies might change over time, but this will always be an ongoing process.
The early stages of your marketing campaigns can ultimately define the future for your app’s success.
Chapter 3.2 — Track KPIs
Is your app successful? The only way to answer this question is by establishing and tracking KPIs—key performance indicators.
Your KPIs need to go beyond app performance metrics, like speed and uptime (although both of these are obviously good to have in terms of performance and reliability).
Track and measure KPIs based on how users are adapting to your app.
Are people downloading the app? How many? Are users keeping the app or uninstalling it? How often do people reuse the app?
You need to make sure that you have a system to go in and see the metrics for new users, repeat users, the length of time spent in the app, and where the most time is being spent. Without analytics like this, it’s impossible to measure the success of your app. You can’t run a successful business with guesswork; you need to have concrete numbers to back your theories.
Tracking KPIs can show you which components of your app are generating the best results, and which ones need improvement.
For example, let’s say the vast majority of users are taking advantage of an app feature that you didn’t initially consider a core component of your app. You can take that information and decide to make that feature more accessible from all screens. Add it to your homepage or move it up on your side menu.
Chapter 3.3 — Gather Feedback
Always get feedback from your users.
Prior to your first launch, you probably did some research or asked some friends for their opinions. However, most of this was based on your own intuition.
But once you’ve deployed it for the first time, you’ll have real customers using the app. Ask them what they think about it. As much as you hate hearing this, at the end of the day, your opinion doesn’t matter—it’s all about your customers and users.
Don’t be shy—customers like being asked about their thoughts. People who don’t want to weigh in won’t care if you ask. They’ll just ignore you. It’s not like they’re going to be annoyed.
But the users who participate will become invested in the success of your app and give you genuine feedback.
You’ll have to keep in mind what feedback is related to fear of change or fear of cost increase. But you can ask your customers questions in a way that gives them the opportunity to be honest.
The user responses will help you prioritize what features you need to work on next.
Maybe you had something in your mind that was important to you, and you planned on doing it as soon as you got the chance. But if your customers don’t say so, then save your money. Spend that money on what they ask for so you can retain them in your software. This will ultimately prevent them from churning.
Chapter 3.4 — Make Improvements
No app is perfect. Even the most successful apps on the planet are constantly coming up with updates. The new version releases of your app should be based on user feedback, which we discussed in the previous step.
When you go back in and make changes to the app, you should follow the same steps that you used during the development process. Always put the app through quality assurance before the release is available to the public.
There’s something else you need to keep an eye on for when you’re updating an app—it’s called regression testing.
Subsequent deployments for new features or updates could create new problems that weren’t there in the past. In short, something that worked with your previous release has not stopped working because of changes made during the update.
So whenever changes are made to your app, even if they’re small, you need to go back and re-do the QA process. This is the only way to ensure that regression hasn’t occurred and caused a new point of failure in the app.
Don’t underestimate the importance of releasing new versions of your app. Users are giving you feedback, and they expect changes to be made.
Failure to improve your app can cause people to stop using it altogether.
Chapter 3.5 — Maintenance and Support
There will always be ongoing maintenance for your app. That’s why it’s crucial that you retain your development team.
In addition to your app coming out with new versions, mobile device operating systems come out with updates as well. You need to make sure that your app is compatible with the latest software versions from Apple and Android.
Compliance levels and regulations can change as well. For example, you need to ensure that your app complies with data laws like GDPR in Europe or CCPA in California. If you’re processing credit card payments, you must remain PCI compliant. If you’re handling medical information, the app must be HIPAA compliant. The list goes on and on.
All of these circumstances require ongoing maintenance.
Think of your app like a car. You’re not done spending money on it once you drive it off of the lot. You still need to pay for gas, oil changes, tire rotations, filters, registration fees, and more.
As your app scales, you should eventually plan for customer support. What happens if an app user has a question or needs help? In the beginning, you can probably manage this on your own. But at scale, you probably can’t handle hundreds or thousands of potential messages.
You might need to hire a sales team as well. All of this falls into the “support” category post-launch.
These are elements of mobile app development that you’re always going to be dealing with. So just make sure you plan and budget accordingly.
Mobile App Development FAQ
These are some of the most common questions we hear at BuildFire about creating a mobile app. Check out the answers below, and feel free to click on the additional resources for added insight and a more in-depth explanation for each topic.
How Long Does it Take to Build a Mobile App?
The time it takes to build an app is based on a wide range of factors. The type of app you’re making, the complexity of its features, and the development method are three of the most critical elements in estimating your timeline.
Some apps can be built in a few months, while others can take years.
Generally speaking, the majority of apps can be developed in about 6-12 months.
Apps with complex functionality will take longer. If you were building something simple for personal use, like a flashlight app or calculator app, the entire process could be completed in less than a week. But if you’re trying to build the next Facebook, Uber, or Tinder, expect it to take years.
If you’re building a native app with low-level coding, it would take longer than if you leveraged an app building platform, like BuildFire.
For more information, check out our in-depth guide on the topic:
The cost to create a mobile app is based on multiple factors. The type of app you’re building, the features you’re implementing, and the development method will have the most significant impact on the price.
You can build an app for $2,000, $20,000, $200,000, or upwards of $2 million.
In most cases, using an app development platform will be cheaper than coding an app from scratch. But even within each development method, the prices will fluctuate.
For example, let’s say you want to build your app with low-level coding. You can hire an experienced developer in the US that charges $150 per hour or outsource to a first-time developer overseas for $30 per hour.
If you try to cut corners and develop your app for as cheap as possible, your final quality will suffer. It could end up costing you more money in the long run if you try to save a few dollars now.
The quick answer—it’s best to build your app for both platforms. If you build for one and not the other, you’re neglecting a significant part of the population.
You’re only forced to make this decision if you’re coding a native app from scratch. In this case, you’ll need to have two separate versions—one for iOS and another for Android. It’s essentially like building two separate apps.
Fortunately, app building platforms, like BuildFire, allow you to create an iOS app and Android app simultaneously. You can create everything one time, without any code, and launch your app on both platforms.
There are lots of different ways to make money with an app.
For starters, you can use a mobile app to generate more revenue for your business. Mobile commerce sales, customer loyalty programs, and referral programs are all excellent ways to make money.
You can also make money by charging app users a one-time fee to download your app. App purchases for things like coins or content upgrades are both common ways to profit from your app. Alternatively, charging app users for a subscription on a monthly or annual basis is a great way to generate recurring revenue.
Another way to monetize your app is by selling advertising space. It’s the same concept of running ads on your website.
In some cases, certain types of apps don’t necessarily make money, but they help save you money. Internal business apps are a perfect example of this. Creating an app for remote employees, field service workers, human resources, or internal employee communication can save your company tens of thousands of dollars per year in productivity costs.
For more information about making money with your app, check out these resources:
Generally speaking, there is no single app development method that’s best for everyone. It all depends on your needs, budget, app type, industry, and lots of other factors.
If you’re building a gaming app or something along those lines, native development will be your best option. If you’re making an app as a hobby or just doing it for personal use, you can probably get away with a cookie-cutter app.
But for the vast majority of people, using an app building platform like BuildFire is the best way to create an app.
BuildFire allows you to create an iOS and Android app, simultaneously, without writing a single line of code. For non-technical users and tech-savvy individuals alike, BuildFire is the best way to create a highly customizable app at an affordable rate.
For more information about the different app development methods: