It’s hard to imagine our lives without mobile phones or tablets: adults and kids alike frequently use their devices for work, personal communication, education, and entertainment. The average user screen time statistics is growing year-by-year and is now well above the 2-hour mark: a recent US survey has it ranging from 3.6 to 5.67 hours a day. Most of those minutes are not actually spent on the phone’s basic capabilities, like making calls or sending SMS. Rather, the activity revolves around apps of all kinds.
Apps deliver the convenience of having everything you could possibly need within reach: reading books, playing games, renting a car, ordering food, tracking your schedule, communicating with friends or colleagues, purchasing clothes and utilities; the list goes on and on. For you as a brand, an influencer, or an independent developer, having your own app is a strong access point into the daily lives of your potential consumers and followers.
But how do you create an app? How much money, time, and resources should you allocate? Can you manage to make it for free? Whether you run a business or are looking to create a stand-alone application, there are several building stages to go through. We’ve put together a step-by-step guide on app development that you can follow, even if you don’t have a clear idea for the app’s concept yet or lack coding experience.
Step 1 – Generate a mobile app idea
If you have an existing business that offers products or services, the app idea should come naturally as a way to streamline an internal operation or offer new possibilities to your clients. For example, a barbershop can let customers manage and schedule appointments on their own, and a local clothing store can make an online shopping app to attract more revenue. Think of a process within your brand that can be made better with the help of technology.
If you don’t have an idea yet and simply want to enter the app market with a new offer, you can check out what other companies are doing. There are more than 2.8 million apps in Google Play Store and over 4.5 million in the App Store, so coming up with a unique concept is almost impossible and not really necessary. You can look at successful apps and follow the same approach, adjusting and tweaking the features that you believe can be made better.
Finally, you can draw inspiration from your own life. Have you been wishing for a certain global app to appear in your city, like a taxi service, a food delivery platform, or a flower shop marketplace? Or do you notice several drawbacks in the features of an app you personally use, like a language-learning course, a photo editor, or a game? You can come up with several ideas and evaluate them within the next few steps of this guide to pick the best one.
Step 2 – Do competitive market research
For an app to be relevant and deliver revenue, it has to follow the market tendencies and provide real value to a certain segment of people. Once you’ve narrowed down several app ideas, you should look at whether a similar concept already exists, how is it executed, and what are people saying about it. Based on that, you can try to make out the advantages your app could have over the alternatives. Introducing a new product in a large competitive arena requires a strong point of difference.
What Problem Will Your App Solve?
An app that can make someone’s life easier is bound to be successful if presented right. The problem itself doesn’t have to be unique – on the contrary, it should be as common as possible to reach a broader user audience. Think of a potential issue or an area where people are lacking something. How are they currently solving that problem? Can you offer a better option, feature-wise or price-wise? To see whether there is a demand for a certain app, you can hold surveys or look at search engine trends.
Who Will Use Your App?
Determining the target audience is a key step towards building your app. What do the potential users have in common: is it their location, age, income, education, relationship status? Once you’ve segmented the interested groups, you’ll have a clearer vision of the development strategy. An app geared towards baby boomers is essentially different from the one for zoomers in positioning and design: you wouldn’t use the same colors, fonts, and popups for these essentially different audiences.
Write Out The Features Of Your Application
To start the design and coding processes, you’ll need to prepare a list of desired functionalities of the app. The common features needed for almost every type of application are login and signup, profile completion and editing, a basic messenger, a support live chat, push notifications, and an admin panel to manage users and payments. Think of how a user interacts with the app, and add extra features that will make you stand out from the competitors.
Decide How You Will Monetize Your Mobile App
Monetization is an important aspect of planning you shouldn’t overlook: after all, app development can cost you several thousands of dollars, and for the business model to be viable, you’ll need a way to return those investments and make money. Some of the strategies are:
- Offering a free version of the app with limited feature availability and requiring a subscription/payment for full access;
- Introducing in-app purchases that enhance user experience;
- Selling your own merchandise or services through the app, or taking a commission for partner deals;
- Enabling in-app advertising via banners or popup windows.
Step 3 – Designing Your App
Listing the feature requirements of your app is not enough to set the development in motion. You’ll need to have an idea of what you want the app to look like visually, especially if it goes beyond a simple interface and has to have different interaction scenarios. This includes a general concept of the app layout, as well as brand colors, a logo, and other design elements essential for a consistent look.
Keep in mind that during development and testing, the design of your app can change: some ideas will take too much time and money to implement, and some will seem inconvenient or unnecessary for the end-users. You won’t need any special artistic skills for this step and can simply make a schematic prototype. The final look can be figured out as the app goes through the next stages.
Prepare A Rough Sketch
The main goal of this third step is to build a wireframe: a layout of your app with different screens for all the planned functionalities. However, doing it from scratch can be hard, especially for someone with no design experience. Drawing a sketch by hand or selecting references from similar apps can be a good place to start. Think of the main interface elements: buttons, fields, and checkboxes, as well as the specific features required for your use case – navigation and menu, product catalog, order payments, etc.
Create A Wireframe
Next, you can try to create a digital structure of how different app screens follow each other. A wireframe is similar to the blueprints for a building and shows the relevant positions of design elements. You can build wireframes with tools like Figma. The outline will help your designers and developers, and they can use it as a base for communication on how to meet in the middle. You don’t need to figure out the small details yet: focus on logic, prioritization, and the skeletal foundation of your future app.
Build Your Design Elements
If you are planning a business app, you can refer to your existing brand book for references of colors, fonts, and logos. For an entirely new concept, come up with a certain color scheme and try to imagine what you want the app’s buttons and other interface details to look like. You can consult with a designer at this point, but keep in mind that all of them are likely to be adjusted or changed during further design and testing. The elements you put together will contribute to the front-end look of your app.
Step 4 – Choose the right technology for your business
For the next step of the app development process, you need to choose between the two available technologies: native apps or progressive web apps. The first group represents traditional apps that are specifically developed for a certain operating system. These apps are distributed through mobile stores. The second segment has been gaining a lot of recognition over the past couple of years and essentially represents a browser webpage that looks and acts like a native app. There are several differences between them that you should consider before making a choice.
Most of the apps we use are native apps. They can access the phone’s camera and microphone, use their contact lists and internal device memory, and work offline. The apps are built on the framework of Objective-C and Swift for iOS and Java and Kotlin for Android. The app can also use advanced smartphone features, like push notifications and in-app purchases.
Native apps mean more credibility and integration options, but that ultimately comes with a higher price and a longer time-to-market wait. If your app employs privacy-sensitive functionalities like geolocation, you will have to spend significantly more money and resources to ensure compliance in data collection, storage, and security.
Progressive Web Apps
There are, however, certain restrictions on functionality, especially for iOS users: in-app payments and geolocation. To bypass them, you can consider a hybrid application: they are built with standard web technologies, which means easier and faster development, and can still utilize native phone features to customize the user experience. Either way, make sure your execution has a responsive design that adapts to the user’s platform of choice.
Step 5 – Put together an app marketing plan
As with any other business, your marketing efforts should start well before the app’s launch. You can document your journey on social media profiles to notify people of the development stages and fuel interest. For contextual advertising or partnership promotions, you can create a landing page and collect emails for a pre-launch newsletter. Find a couple of early brand ambassadors to expand your potential audience with their loyal subscribers.
As a bonus to raising awareness about your project, you can leverage the audience to hold surveys and make data-driven decisions for potential design ideas or app features. Pre-launch marketing is a great tool to solicit feedback on the planned costs, features, and functionality, which can help you in creating the final version of the app. You need to make sure there is both an interest and a demand for the app you are planning before you dive into development.
Step 6 – Choose Your App Development Strategy
There are two fundamental development strategies: building an app from scratch, by yourself or with an in-house/outsource team, and using the various services with customizable templates and building software. Each of these approaches has its pros and cons, and you should consider your coding experience, development budget, and timeframe to select the more suitable option.
Mobile App Development from Scratch
As you have to create the entire product without any pre-made feature samples, you’ll need to write code for all of the prototype features, design graphical interfaces, and develop the front- and back-end parts of the app. Here’s where your mockup and design elements will come in handy.
Develop your own app yourself
If you are an experienced coder or have an in-house team of developers, you can break down the development process into smaller tasks with fixed deadlines and use project management tools designed for agile boards. This method is great for professional developers, either acting alone or with colleagues, that want to make a stand-alone app on a tight budget. Once the app becomes profitable, you can add extra features and reinvest more money in marketing.
For efficient coding, you can work in an integrated development environment (IDE), which combines necessary tools in a single graphical user interface. Developers can use the existing iOS SDK or Android Studio to get access to libraries, documentation, code samples, and guides. While you do have to manage most of the work yourself, utilize all the available resources to make it easier: read themed forums, look for similar cases, and seek advice for the best practices of your fellow coders.
As for the front-end part of your app, as an independent developer, you should still find someone with relevant skills or get a professional consultation unless you’ve had the experience yourself. The visual aspect of the app needs to be consistent, aesthetically pleasing, and accessible to all kinds of users. Even the greatest idea can fail to be recognized with a UX design lacking usability and value.
Hire an agency or a freelance developer
As an alternative to creating your own app, you can place a request with a specialized development company or approach a freelance team of coders. With an agency, you will most likely get the product turn-key, along with an established deadline and a contract to follow. Some involvement from your side will probably still be required, in the form of video calls or meetings to get a better understanding of your goals and approve the app design.
Working with a development agency is a good option for higher-budget projects as it lets you focus more on the business side of things, like coming up with a solid marketing strategy or planning for future feature enhancements. An outsourced coder costs less money-wise but requires more oversight and participation. To guide a freelance team, set a cohesive task, and estimate an adequate deadline, you will likely need some prior development experience.
Mobile App Development with an App Builder
This option requires little-to-no coding. A builder platform usually has templates for features and design elements that you can drag and drop to create the app’s look. These services also offer a beginner tutorial and development examples. The resulting code will be automatically generated by the program. The monthly use fees are quite affordable for designs of low complexity.
This approach only allows for a certain level of customization but is very accessible to non-developers.
If you run a small business or an online store and need a simple app to expand your reach, an app builder lets you do that on a moderate budget and timeframe. To add extra features to the core prototype you create, you can turn to a freelance coder that is familiar with the programming language used by the platform.
Step 7 – Create an MVP
Developing an MVP, the minimum viable product, is an essential step in building a phone application. As with any other code-related product, there can be no end to fine-tuning and testing out different features, so you need to determine the bare minimum of essential features and put a priority on developing them. That way, you can already start seeing a return of investments after a few months on the project, and use the incoming funds to support the following development.
An MVP will also allow you to save time and money if your initial idea turns out to be non-profitable. Hitting the magic combination of presenting a product to the right audience at the right time is hard, especially in the highly competitive market. For example, there are several dozens of training apps, both for fitness and education, and only a couple of the most successful ones that dominate all incoming user traffic.
To build a viable project, you need to put your clients’ needs first and collect their feedback from the very early stages of development. They might suggest an entirely different course of action than you once envisioned, and as the needs of your audience are the ultimate sales driver, their perception of your app is a key factor to consider. Keep the core features that are most valuable to them, and set the project in motion.
Step 8 – Test your app
After the previous steps are complete, you’ll have a fully functioning prototype that has to go through one final stage: testing. You need to make sure every feature, as well as the essential functionality, is working as expected, and that the app is not having problems as its user count grows. Testing can also highlight design drawbacks and user experience gaps that you’ll want to improve before the release.
A good place to start is an Android or an iOS/macOS emulator that lets you run applications on your PC. Keep in mind that emulators, while useful, are limited in terms of what you can actually test. They cannot work with in-app functionalities like geolocation or face or fingerprint detection scanners. They also tell you very little about how the app will perform on different devices and processors. After the initial tests are complete, you can make your app available for a controlled audience and collect their feedback.
Once the app is configured, you also need to test its performance across different networks and screen dimensions, and use automated technology to understand its limitations. In other words, you have to look at it from all the available scales: as a single user who has certain interaction options, and as thousands of users trying to access a feature at the same time. This stage can help reveal problems that are not necessarily connected to coding, like your data storage server capabilities or performance issues for markets with slower connection speeds.
Testing on Android
For Android, you can easily upload the app file to your personal device and see how it acts in a live environment. After that, you’ll need to create a developer account on Google Play Store and publish your app for an internal test (up to 100 users), a closed test (where you can target each tester more precisely), and open testing (where all users can submit private feedback based on their experience).
A guide on the fundamentals of testing in the Android developer kit gives a comprehensive description of different scenarios you’ll want to check and advice for their implementation. It also contains valuable suggestions on how to measure and optimize your performance, avoid unnecessary object creation and excessive memory allocation.
Testing on iOS
To test your app’s behavior on an iPhone, you will need to use a platform called TestFlight. Similar to Android, you can perform internal and external tests for audiences of different sizes once you’ve registered an Apple app developer account and submitted a prototype. Either way, the collected feedback can not only help you recognize the obvious bugs and crashes but also introduce user experience changes.
Step 9 – Release Your App
The release process is slightly easier for Android and more complex for App Store. Even if your first attempt receives a rejection, you can make the required adjustments and reload the app again. You’ll need to come up with the final name, logo, screenshot selection, and description for your store listings. Reaching this step means you’ve completed most of your app development journey, so congratulations!
Before submitting the app for review, make sure it doesn’t violate the App Store Review Guidelines. Keep in mind that the description and category selection for your app can help with organic promotion once the app is published, so don’t underestimate those fields. Once you’ve prepared the listing data and attached the code, you’ll have to wait several days for a manual review from Apple’s team. To keep your listing live, an annual fee of $99 is required.
Step 10 – Marketing Your App
Once the first version app is live, you can start doing PR work, making sure it is recognized by industry media. Think about websites and forums your target audience might be using and advertise the app there. Partner up with influencers that can help reach the interested community. Look into listing optimization to receive more traffic organically. Use product positioning strategies to showcase the values and advantages of your offer among the existing alternatives.
If you are offering the app as an extension of your existing business, you can introduce unique discounts and products that are only available online, make video tutorials and share them on your social channels, and highlight the convenience and benefits of using the app. For stand-alone apps, you can apply to contests and reviews, offering promo codes or generous yearly subscription fees compared to the usual monthly commitment price.
Step 11 – Improve your app with user feedback
User feedback is an invaluable tool for fine-tuning your app and staying relevant. Besides the obvious bugs and malfunctions, users can shed light on the missing functionalities they would like to see, refer to competitors that they consider more successful, and even suggest their own ideas for app improvement. Closely working with your audience is beneficial for both parties: they feel involved and enjoy seeing their suggestions implemented, and you get to have a constant influx of good ideas and relevant feedback.
You should monitor and encourage user feedback on your social media, in the review sections of mobile stores, and via surveys and interviews. It is not just about what they have to say, though. Numbers can sometimes speak louder than words, so keep a close eye on your quantitive statistics through app analytics. Any sudden drops in engagement or a spike in app uninstallations can mean a potential problem that you need to solve.
Some of the parameters that you should keep an eye on are:
- App downloads, with a breakdown for devices, territory, and sources,
- Conversion rates – how many users actually download your app once they see it,
- Active devices and sessions to understand the typical engagement behavior,
- Retention rates to assess how the users like their initial experience with the app,
- In-app purchase statistics.
While it’s important to stay in sync with the chosen audience and target market, don’t limit your efforts to certain segments or locations. Your app will be visible globally, and you might be surprised to find out it attracts more people than you originally intended. Their reviews on app functionality and performance are just as valuable as they let you expand your reach and maybe even go global.
Learn to create a mobile app by yourself
If you are a beginner to mobile app development and want to learn the necessary skills of app creation, you will most likely need to read a few “web coding for dummies” before you are able to write your own code. iOS and Android have different language and framework requirements, so pick the platform where you want to focus first. While you study, you can already sketch potential designs and think of the screen structure.
There is always the no-code app option – you can use the templates in an app builder and manage their features and design to make a certain storyboard, and then implement it with the platform’s capabilities. It can give you a great start and is a viable choice when you have limited time and budget. However, for a sophisticated app that you plan on promoting, an original code will always be more customizable and feature-rich.
Create an iOS app for iPhone
Apple supports two programming languages, one of them specifically created in-house to make development easier for iOS application designers. The initial language for the codebase was Objective-C, a subset of C, which is quite complicated for someone with no development experience. You can start with the new language, Swift, which is easier to learn.
Another important thing to consider is that although you can use different environments for creating an iOS code, most of them will have to go through a program called XCode, which is Apple’s compiler only available for macOS. And for your iOS app to be distributed through the App Store, you’ll have to make sure it adheres to their internal guidelines and pay an annual placement fee.
Create an Android app
Android’s framework is called Android Studio, and the language integrated within it by Google is called Kotlin. It is relatively easy to learn, but there are not many references and code samples that you can find as it is too new. A more universal language that works for Android is Java. Java has a simple syntax and is not heavy on mobile processors, which gives it an advantage over other supported languages like C, C++, and C# in Xamarin.
Java is beginner-friendly, but as with most other programming languages, you should allocate a few months for the learning period. Still, studying as an adult to make your own app is not the same as we did in school or university. No one will expect you to write the code from the top of your head – the skill you should focus on is being able to read and understand someone else’s sample code and adjust it in the right places to fit your specific needs.