Most of us have a general understanding of how a mobile app is created — at the very least, that it requires developers and designers to bring the interface and supporting code together. And for some simple concepts or one-pager apps, that process can be made even easier by using a low-code builder with pre-made templates. For advanced enterprise applications, however, the number of stages to go through and aspects to account for grows significantly, and app development becomes far more complicated.
If you are not up for the challenge, a viable option is to reach out to a dedicated development agency that builds apps turn-key. However, that is also the most expensive approach, and may not provide as much control over the resulting application as a self-managed project can. Transparency can be achieved by educating yourself about all of the phases, even if you do decide to delegate the implementation. This guide will provide information on the lesser-known elements of app creation, with a particular focus on planning and testing, to aid your app development research.
What is Mobile App Development?
Mobile app development usually refers to the process of creating a software application that can be installed and/or viewed with the means of a particular mobile device. The app itself can have any purpose you can think of — it can be a game, a social media platform, a photo editing tool, a digital diary keeper, a distance-tracking service for running, a food delivery aggregator, and so on. There are currently more than five million applications available on the mobile market, and the list keeps growing each day.
App development is more than just the programming part of writing and debugging code: it encompasses all of the creation stages, from first coming up with a concept for the app, to performing market research and giving a more distinct shape to the idea, to then working on interface design and all the way to the final launch. The term can also be used to name a business model, as the building process requires initial investments, and there are certain monetization methods that can be implemented within the application to return and multiply them.
Mobile App Development Platforms
Our smartphones, tablets, personal computers, and any other devices like wearable watches or audio players work on different operating systems that help users interact with the gadget’s internal hardware. The two dominant platforms that hold over 97% of the global market share and Apple, for iOS devices, and Android. They both have specific models and versions, programming languages, code requirements, IDEs, SDKs, and other developer-relevant tools and features.
You can create an application to run on one of these platforms with a traditional approach called native development. For iOS, it means using Swift or Objective-C, signing up for the Apple developer program, and working with frameworks and instruments that are created specifically for Apple. For Android, programmers write code on Java or Kotlin with the help of resources provided by Google. If you want the app to cover both audiences and device user pools, you will need to go through two separate development lifecycles.
App Development Process
Here’s a summary of the app development steps to go through:
- Research and strategy — give shape to your app idea and analyze the existing applications on the market that could be considered your competitors. Prepare a list of features, choose an appropriate coding approach, and create a roadmap for development, marketing, and app monetization.
- UI/UX design — prepare sketches, wireframes, and mockups to determine the app’s look and logic flow. Create a prototype that can be subject to user feedback. Decide on what elements and features need to be implemented for the MVP, and what functionalities can wait for after the launch.
- Development — go feature-by-feature and use agile planning methods for project management. Perform code reviews, choose a back-end server, create APIs, connect the front-end, and choose data security protocols.
- Testing — run internal tests on functionality, user experience, compatibility, performance, and stability. Beta test the app on real users and collect actual feedback. Tweak the app according to the findings.
- Release and post-production support — submit the app for review to the relevant store/stores. Monitor its performance and reception to grow the user base and revenue. Research app store optimization.
Now let’s look at each of the phases in depth.
Step 1. Strategy
Before diving into detailed planning, you should think of your priorities and objectives that will help you with the decision-making in the mobile app development process. Do you want to build a quality app that grows and evolves with time, or is your goal a simple one-purpose application that allows you to make money fast? What is your outlook on the app in a year, or five years? The answers to these questions can essentially define how much time and effort you are willing to spend on design, development, and post-launch maintenance.
Think of a user portrait that would find the idea valuable. That information will later be used to define the target audience and the relative market segment. At this point, you should also select a general direction for the app concept, or at least a category you want to target: games, lifestyle, education, business, leisure, etc. There are certain expectations for future strategic steps that come with that decision: for example, the choice of the development approach and platforms to support the app or the complexity of the required design.
Step 2. Analysis and Planning
Now it’s time to add more details to the strategy: by initiating a market research process, looking into existing marketing and monetization options, and defining a roadmap with timelines and primary app features that constitute a self-sufficient MVP version. Design and development will come next, so by the end of this step, you should have a definitive roadmap with timed milestones.
Since there are so many applications for a user to choose from in every niche, they will inevitably compare them for pricing, ease of use, visual presentation, and functionality. It makes sense, therefore, to make out your closest competitors and study their best practices and shortcomings. To find them, you can simply search the web for keywords or look at appropriate categories. You can also look at general trends in Google or Bing to see whether the original purpose of the app is backed up by enough search queries.
The goal is to figure out a product positioning strategy: find a place or a demand that is not covered by current market players, or an area where you can surpass them. Take a closer look at what they are doing: download several free apps to your device and browse them as a regular user would. Inspect how the apps are making money, examine their engagement tactics, and take notice of how they are using native phone features like push notifications or in-app purchases. Read store reviews to see how well the audience responds to the chosen tactics.
You will also need to create a general user portrait: it is not only necessary to segment the audience for marketing purposes but can influence the style and design of the application itself. If, say, your app is geared towards the older generation, it would make sense to make the text bigger and bolder, whereas Gen Z would be okay with reading captions in small print. Try to narrow down what your potential users might have in common in terms of age, location, occupation, interests, or any other characteristics.
For the project to become profitable, you need to consider the existing monetization methods and figure out which of them could apply to your app. The first major decision to make is the free vs. paid model. Paid apps require a one-time payment from the user to install them. This allows you to have a stable and somewhat predictable revenue source, however, people tend to avoid paying upfront if there are existing alternatives that they can try out for free. As a compromise, consider freemium applications where a user can instantly download the app, but certain parts of it (advanced features or extra content) are limited and can be unlocked under monthly subscriptions or one-time purchases.
Other monetization instruments include advertising and merchandising. Advertising can come in the form of banners, pop-ups, videos, or incentivized ads that a user can interact with to get a reward, like mini-games or short promotional clips to watch. Users tend to ignore banners, though, or even get irritated if the ads are too intrusive or frequent. If the app is a marketplace or an online brand store, you could also get the money by selling products. Finally, there are some marketing options that come with certain rewards, like affiliate or referral partnerships.
Why think of this even before the app is created, you might ask? Well, if you need investments to get the process started, any partner or bank will want to know what are your plans and estimated timelines on returning them. And even if you have the money secured, this information will be required by your developers and designers: whether they need to locate space on the screen for possible banners, enable in-app purchases as a functionality, provide extra security to protect the user payment information, or introduce subscription plans.
A mobile application’s performance depends on the size of its audience: the more users see and use your app, the more reviews they leave and recommend it to their friends, which makes for a stronger position in the store’s internal ratings, and the cycle goes on and on. A recently published application is unlikely to attract a lot of views on the App Store and Google Play, so you will need to raise awareness about the release elsewhere. Marketing is the tool to help you start and snowball the user flow.
A few suitable options are creating a social media account or promoting a landing page to gather emails or contacts for an after-launch campaign. You should also research the pricing and cooperation terms for other activities, as there will be little time for that further down the road: find influencers to partner up with, get media kits from relevant bloggers, and try assessing an advertising budget for paid promotions. Think of informational content that you could create on the basis of your app to later share on platforms like YouTube: it can help you grow the audience organically.
Road Map (MVP)
The reality of app development is that every feature requires days if not weeks of coding and testing, and some extra time for making sure it does not disagree with the previously introduced elements. And, even given all that effort, it is almost impossible to assess how the end-users are going to respond to it. The best way to ensure you are on the right track is to start gathering real feedback as soon as possible, and that means you need to focus on releasing a self-sustainable version of the app first.
Releasing an MVP with only the core features allows you to keep the app in line with the audience’s needs as possible, and save money and time if functionality or a UX decision does not agree with the majority of users. Getting to it requires a roadmap: a timeline with the milestones and objectives for the development and design teams. It is a high-level overview of the necessary features to be brought to life, as well as the connections to create between them. Roadmaps help keep all development parties on the same page and set measurable goals to track and achieve.
Step 3. UI / UX Design
With all the preparations behind you, it is now time to devise the application workflow, create a style guide for the designers to follow, and go from wireframes to mockups and working prototypes to assess the usability and look of the future app. A great resource base to use is Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines, which are open and free to anyone.
Information Architecture & Workflows
All digital products, a mobile app included, require a solid foundation: a structure that governs where information goes, the logic and flow of consequent steps and connected actions, and the laws of user interaction with the interface elements. It’s not just the app’s content that has to be valuable to users: the way it is presented matters too. The goal is to make every feature as available and easy-to-use as possible, providing instant solutions to problems or queries in the most convenient way.
Once the workflows are written down or talked through, they are depicted with schematic images called wireframes. Wireframes give a visual representation of the chosen app layout and explain how interface elements like buttons or menu bars are connected throughout different mobile screens. The images do not have to be detailed and can be sketched on paper — the goal here is to prioritize content and figure out the transitions between features.
A style guide is an internal document that keeps all designers on the same page about the colors, fonts, patterns, and elements to use. It includes all possible font variations, the values for colors and gradients, the layouts for space management, consistent graphics like icons or charts, the look of pop-ups and alerts, and any interface controls like buttons, checkboxes, or fields. Note that style guides are platform-specific: some of the native elements used by iOS and Android have to be uniform for all existing applications.
Mockups are a transition stage between wireframes and working prototypes — they are not yet interactive but use the colors, fonts, and imagery of the style guide in the sequence and flow established by the informational architecture. A mockup represents the finished design version of the application with a high level of detail. Essentially, it should already look like the end-version of the app’s surface that the users will see.
The final stage of preliminary design is bringing the mockups to live: creating a mobile prototype that you can interact with without writing a codebase to support it. This is achieved with the help of prototyping tools like Mockplus or FluidUI. You will be able to press buttons, fill in text fields, interact with the clickable elements, and get a feel for how the app would work. This is a good phase to collect early feedback to assess the user experience and fix any inconsistencies.
Step 4. App Development
With the chosen development method in mind, you can hire or assemble a scrum team of coders with relevant programming language knowledge or experience, purchase or rent the necessary hardware equipment, buy software licenses or acquire open-source solutions for free — all to prepare for the weeks or months that come next.
Again, planning is half the success — and the agile scrum methodology is proving to be among the most effective mobile development approaches. The end product is broken down into smaller parts that can be completed within a single sprint, or a period of one or two weeks. Try to make out the components that can be developed separately and estimate the required timeframe for them. Create a schedule with regular progress meetings and keep a backlog of the outcomes. The same concept can be used for design sprints as well.
There are several options to consider: cloud platforms, server frameworks, database servers, and application servers. Cloud technologies like Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Google Compute Engine are usually offered on an as-a-service basis, meaning you won’t have to worry about purchasing any hardware or renting physical space for the data racks. You can also use languages like Ruby, PHP, Python, or Java to write the server back-end yourself. Database servers like Microsoft SQL Server and Oracle use special software to access the data, while application servers handle transaction-based operations.
A mobile app uses APIs to bring data from different repositories together. It enables you to access and share your own data and benefit from data stored in other apps or services. APIs also help you connect to third-party providers to make things easier for developers and end-users alike: for example, with Facebook sign-in modules, Google maps, and payment getaways. It can reduce time-to-market and costs.
Mobile App Front-End
Mobile App Security
As most mobile apps deal with personal client data, you will need to establish a set of security protocols and preventative measures to safely store, transmit, and transact with data. One of the most reliable ways to achieve that is to use encryption: convert data into an unreadable cipher that, even if compromised, is impossible to crack without a special key. There are many existing solutions that offer mobile app security, so you don’t necessarily have to build them from scratch. You will also need to create a firewall to protect the data from external attacks or threats.
Step 5. Testing
Once all the sprints come to an end, you will have a near-ready product on your hands. However, it is not yet ready to be launched. To ensure you are releasing a high-quality mobile application that won’t crash, glitch, take forever to load, or send a user down a dead-end, several testing phases will have to be conducted.
User Experience Testing
UX testing, also known as usability testing, is aimed at making sure the app is aesthetically pleasing, easy to use, and intuitive. Even the most valuable functionalities can fall short if a user does not understand where to click next or which action to complete. You should gather a small group of people and ask them to review and interact with the application. Study their reactions and frustrations in the process, see if they can quickly learn their way around the critical features, and survey the outcome to turn it into statistical insights.
Functional testing is meant to verify that all the implemented features of the app are working as expected. First, you will need to break up the app into several self-supporting units that represent an end-to-end execution scenario for a single functionality. For example, the process of logging in to a system using internal credentials. Developers need to create a written instruction of how the app is supposed to work, and an independent black-box user or a testing tool will go through the process to compare the actual outcome with the predicted one.
The differences between functional and non-functional testing are more clear when we compare them:
|Functional testing||Non-functional (performance) testing|
|Separately tests each feature and functionality to make sure they work as intended||Checks the app’s overall stability, scalability, and the seamlessness of workflows|
|Focuses on user requirements||Focuses on user expectations|
|Shows what a mobile app can do||Shows how stable and user-friendly the app is|
|Testing can be automatic or manual||Testing is mostly automatic|
Already introduced in the table above, performance testing deals with the app as a whole and its ability to withstand an increased influx of users with different network connections, locations. It allows you to gauge the app’s average and maximum response times, the rate of server errors, and the peak number of requests that it can handle at a time. Since the mobile market is very fragmented and has so many devices to account for, you might want to look up automation tools instead of asking testers to check everything manually.
App security is an aspect to take very seriously, and the testing is aimed at uncovering weak spots and vulnerabilities that have the potential to expose sensitive user data. The scenarios to look out for include storage insecurities both on the mobile device and on the back-end server-side, the failure of cryptographic algorithms, external attacks, server misconfigurations, errors of different kinds, unauthorized access possibilities, and so on. You can leverage free and paid software aimed at security testing or browse these guides for iOS and Android.
Device and Platform Testing
Compatibility testing is essential to ensure all users end up going through the same experience, especially if you did not choose the native development method and opted for cross-platform mobile frameworks instead. Different OSes, embedded browsers, screens, and processors might affect the performance of your app. Apple and Android SDKs have the option of emulating the models that they support, as well as opportunities for closed internal tests on targeted user devices.
Step 6. Extended Review
Once all the internal tests are complete, the app should be ready to be presented to real users to collect their feedback: a critical stage in the mobile app development process.
Focus groups are small groups of 6 to 8 people specifically chosen from your target market to review and evaluate the application in a critical manner. They are not only aimed at uncovering bugs and inconsistencies as you have most likely covered those during internal tests. Instead, the goal is to discover what users want or how certain functionalities or features within the app make them feel. It is a great start to get in touch with your real users while still being able to observe how they interact with the app.
For the final testing round, the app is presented to a larger group of users that will look at the app in real conditions: meaning, each of them will use their usual mobile device and network. This can help uncover security or performance issues that tests failed to catch. All emulators have their limitations, and this is an excellent opportunity to give the app its final dry run before the launch in a non-simulated environment. The advantage of beta testing is that if any errors are uncovered, you will be able to restore the exact process that led to it, which is not always possible after the release.
External tests give you the chance to refine the product positioning and marketing strategies since the app is presented to a typical group of users. You can judge how well was the target audience chosen and possibly make segmentation tweaks. The users can also highlight some critical functionalities that are missing or suggest their ideas for improvement. Take in all the feedback and try to stay flexible, as it will be easier to fix something at this stage than trying to convince real customers to reinstall your app after they were disappointed with it.
Step 6. Launching the app
With the extensive testing stages behind you, the application in question should be ready for release. The app submission process is different for iOS and Android, with the requirements and advice outlined in their official guides: here for Apple and here for Google.
With a mobile Android app, you will need to sign up for a Google developer account (there is a one-time $25 fee) and create a Google merchant account as well if your application supports in-app purchases. Next, you will need to prepare the necessary materials for the app listing, upload the application file, and continue by configuring the country-related visibility settings and the corresponding app price. After that, you will need to wait a few hours, sometimes up to a few days, until the app is launched.
Step 7. Post-production support
Once your application is approved by the relevant store’s review team and is released for the broad audience to find, you can proceed to the final steps of mobile app development. From a business side of things, this includes following the marketing plan you have outlined before: maintaining your social media presence and possibly adding a few more platforms to be present on, doing PR and outreach work, looking into promotional partnerships or paid advertising, and collaborating with influencers.
However, there is still a lot to be done from a technical and analytical point of view as well. The first few months after the release are very important as the app will start gaining more visibility, and the gathered statistics can shed light on previously unseen areas for improvement. Review monitoring is also a great instrument to pinpoint the existing issues and prepare solutions for them in future app versions. Finally, there will be platform-related updates, new devices to account for, and new tools to enhance data security and processing: and for the app to perform well, post-production support is essential.
The success of any mobile app is not purely quantifiable, but certain KPIs and thresholds do say a lot about how well the application is doing. The first and most obvious one is the number of overall downloads. For paid apps, it makes a direct input into the resulting revenue stream. An interesting metric to compare it to is the number of daily and monthly active users since the installation itself does not mean the user will be interacting with your application. Customer retention rates will show what percentage of the user base stays loyal.
Don’t rely too much on any mobile industry averages you could find across the web. Every application has its own goals and purposes, so comparing their performance without considering all the context will not be representative. You can’t expect a dictionary app to have the same session length as, say, TikTok. Certain app categories, like games or social media platforms, do strive to make their content viral and addictive, but that does not to be the case for business and lifestyle applications. With that in mind, make sure you keep a tight grip on the app’s performance metrics and can explain the reasoning behind any number.
Armed with numbers, you can shift your focus to evaluating the quality of the app. Continue running internal tests and keep up with the industry trends to improve the app’s processing time, minimize memory allocation and battery usage, and make the security protocols more robust. You can also work on adding new features, particularly those outlined as ‘secondary’ during the planning phases since the MVP version is already out. And even if you are not planning to support any new functionalities for a while, the app will still require regular updates.
App Store Management
The store listing can be a very powerful tool for mobile market promotion but it requires constant supervision and optimization. User reviews can contain insights for current bugs and malfunctions, provide gratification in the form of seeing that people are enjoying the app, and even offer inspiration to new features and design elements to add. Both App Store and Google Play allow creators to leave official replies to reviews. Responding to them, especially the negative ones, can help win back customers and preserve your reputation for potential users.
Another management aspect is changing the information given on the listing for app store optimization (ASO) to increase the app’s visibility. The more download conversions your page is having, the higher the application will be placed by Google or Apple’s internal ratings, attracting even more organic views and installations. To achieve that, you would have to try different keywords, screenshots, promotional videos, descriptions, and even change up the icon and name to make out the most effective combination that gets the app seen.
The mobile app development process consists of many steps, some of them better addressed by the general public and IT blogs, like coding approaches and developer costs, others rarely discussed in detail. In this guide, we tried to cover the lesser-known side of application building and production. Now that you know the intricacies of app architecture and design, internal and external testing, and pre- and post-launch reviews, you should feel confident going into the mobile market.
One last thought to keep in mind is to always stay flexible. As much time and attention you allocate for the early-stage strategy planning, there will inevitably be changes to account for. They could come from within, influenced by external events, some as unexpected and global as, say, the pandemic. Internal industry variations, like the advent of new technologies or the introduction of strong competitor apps, also have the power to change your development vector. Learning to welcome the changes and using them to your advantage is what will set your mobile app apart and allow it to thrive in the long run.