What’s the Cost to Develop an App: The Definitive Guide

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Robert Russell

15 Oct 2018 - 14 min read

How much does it cost to develop an app? Even with over eight years of experience building smart mobile products, it remains a difficult question to answer. Just like if you wanted to buy a home, you would get very different price ranges for a run-down house in Detroit and a luxury manor in Beverly Hills. So, without knowing more details, we can keep a straight face in saying the cost to develop an app can run from $5,000 to $500,000, or more.  That’s not particularly useful for anyone, so let’s provide you with something much more valuable – an understanding of everything that goes into the cost to develop an app.

A Professional Mobile App Cost Estimation

Whether you are a startup or a major enterprise, you want a credible estimate of the cost to develop an app for the sake of your budget. A professional estimate provides with you with a full specification for your mobile product, with a price that you can take to the bank. Though the purpose is different, a professional estimate serves like a due diligence report if you were investing in a business, real estate, or other ventures.

In synopsis, a professional cost estimate should account for every feature, function and design element used by your app, along with its backend, technology stack and other special requirements. It should itemize the time requirements and cost to develop each of these components. If you have the time, I would recommend a review of the Mobile App Estimation Process Explained Step by Step

What factors into the cost to develop an app? Good, Fast, Cheap

Good, Fast or Cheap – all play a part in the cost to develop an app.

Factors Influencing the Cost to Develop an App

Whether you represent a startup or a major enterprise, all of the following issues will impact the cost of your mobile app:

  • What features will your app include? Each feature has a cost
  • Are you publishing for Android, iOS, both or cross-platform? Each platform has an impact on cost.
  • Will your app need to connect with your existing business software? Variable impact on cost.
  • Will you rely upon your existing servers or make use of cloud services? Cloud provides better scalability at a reduced cost.
  • Do you plan to launch with a Minimum Viable Product? Our recommendation, usually.
  • Do you have a set date of when you need to launch? Short deadlines increase costs.
  • Who will develop your app?  “DIY”, freelancer or agency? Choice can impact cost.
  • Where is your developer located? Many issues involving project clarity, covered below.

If you are a startup, your app developer should absolutely ask to understand your go-to-market strategy and your financial plans. Both are critical for startups as they often fail to consider all of the costs of launching a mobile-first business and can be overly optimistic about timelines.

Impact of Location on the Cost to Develop an App

We can’t pin costs or wages to developers of any sort without asking about their location. Cost of living, purchasing power parity, the labor market, costs of doing business, taxes and other factors all play a factor. The location of your developer will have a major impact on the cost to develop an app – and possibly its quality, too. The following details average hourly rates for developers, drawn substantially from Accelerance’s 2018 Guide to Global Software Outsourcing Rates:

Developer / RegionTypical Freelancer

Hourly Rate

Average Agency

Hourly Rate

High-End Agency

Hourly Rate

United Statesup to $150$150$250
Eastern Europe$30$35$150
Western Europe$45$75$175

As you can see, there’s quite a difference in hourly rates. Many variables are involved in the price disparity. While there is a pronounced tendency for the cost to correlate to quality, it’s not always the case. There are very creative, very talented and experienced designers all around the world. So, it’s also likely for the very best talent to find their way into senior positions in their top regional agencies and even go international.

There’s a lot more to discuss in terms of who you want to develop your app, as relates to agency vs freelance and by location. We’ll come back to that after we cover more issues bearing directly on the cost of your mobile app.

Approximating App Design Costs

User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) design are potentially the most important aspects of your app. Good UI and UX makes apps easy and intuitive to use. If your app isn’t easy to use, it doesn’t matter how cool your features are because people won’t bother figuring out how to use them. We talk about design extensively on our blog, and part of that owes to design impacting at least 14 metrics that have a profound impact on your ROI.

The following chart provides a decent reference to approximate the minimum time to expect for simple, average and complex apps. For general reference, we can say 6 or fewer screens define a simple app, 12 screens are in an average app, and 24+ screens comprise a complex one. Design complexity involves much more than just the number of screens (amount of information displayed, types of files it may use, etc.), but we’ll keep it easy on the eye here. We will use design rates of a typical US-based design agency, from above.

Design StagesEstimated Cost
Design for a simple appAverage appComplex app
UX (User Experience)
or interaction design
UI (User Interface) design$2,250$13,000$32,000

What starts with a storyboard will go through several iterations to get precisely the right font, the right colors, the perfect background, animations for transition screens, user guidance and feedback to fix negative scenarios, and much more.

The Cost of Your App’s Features and Functions

Are you planning to launch with a Full-Featured App or a Minimum Viable Product (MVP)? With few exceptions, we recommend launching with an MVP. Everything that goes into a mobile app has a cost to develop and design. Do you really want to pay for features customers will rarely use or want while increasing your costs? With an MVP, you only add features after you have statistics and customer feedback to prove they will be valuable additions.

It’s your app, so it is your decision – and in either case, the features of your app will need to support its business objective mission. Your app’s mission may be to expand your audience, increase your sales, improve your business productivity, or possibly to acquire specific sets of data from users. So, if a feature doesn’t support your business objective, it’d be best to leave it out.

The more features you have and the more complex they are, the more your app will cost – in design and development. Few, if any, features come with an absolute price tag, though we can provide you with ballpark figures. In doing so, we have to underscore heavily that the cost will vary by the developer and their location. We will get to this issue shortly.

Sample Feature Development Costs

Development Tier:Feature and Function Examples:Ballpark Estimate
(per line item)
Basic Tier:
Simple Features
Mobile App + Backend including:

  • User login
  • Social sharing
  • Push notifications
  • Basic search functions
Base Cost
Tier A:
Interactive Features
  • Basic analytical systems
  • In-app advertising
  • Small in-app store and payment system
  • GPS for geo-targeting
  • Maps and driving instructions
  • Basic Mobile to IoT integration
$6k and up
per feature
Tier B:
Complex Features
  • Advanced account management
  • Data syncing with multiple devices
  • Large in-app store and payment system
  • Content streaming
  • Offline data support
  • Content editing systems
$12k and up
per feature
Tier C:
New Technologies
  • Augmented Reality functions
  • Biometric security systems
  • “Never been done before”
$20k and up
per feature

It is necessary to note, that even something like a simple login screen can vary considerably in cost. Will people login using their Twitter, Facebook, or Gmail account? Maybe you have a proprietary system? Maybe you won’t require users to login or register at all, and you’ll just want a welcome screen. Similarly, the cost of your in-app store could vary dramatically depending on whether it consists of just a few pages or involves a whole catalog, and just how many payment options you offer.

Native App or Cross-Platform?

Write once – run everywhere does not always work. Don’t expect to get a double economy from that. There are a number of cross-platform tools using various languages and technologies like the HTML5-based PhoneGap and Ionic, C#-based Unity and Xamarin, C++ based Cocos2DX, and RubyMotion based on Ruby. At Reinvently, we have a methodology on this:

  • If 50% of your project is UI you want to look native – use native SDKs.
  • Otherwise (>50% of business logic, complex calculations, game engines) – go cross-platform.

Developing two native apps (like Android and iOS) equates to 2x the cost to develop an app. Making the same app cross-platform ideally gives you only 1.5x cost, which is an economy of 0.5x, not 2x.

A Quick Cost Review

So, we’ve covered features, UI and UX design, platforms and developer location as having a major impact on the cost to build your mobile app. Now let’s look at a few theoretical cases to get an idea of costs.

Case 1 for a simple app. A retailer wants to provide geo-targeted push notifications to customers letting them know of in-store specials whenever they’re in the neighborhood. Cost of the features will run about $20k. Median UI and UX design run about $5k. The base cost of this app would be about $25k for one platform (Android or iOS), $37.5k if cross-platform, and $50k for a native Android and native iOS launch.

Case 2 for an interactive app. A mid-sized business wants to offer its in-app store to offer its complete (large) catalog, allowing for customer reviews and social sharing options. Cost of features is in the $50k range. Though a large catalog, many of the screens use the same template reducing a lot of UI/UX work. Median design costs would come to about $20k. The base cost for one platform would be $70k, $105k if you go cross-platform and $140k if you go for Android and iOS.

Case 3 for an App like Uber. We could call this a complex app, but technically it is really like two interactive apps; one for passengers and one for drivers. Both make use of GPS positioning, push notifications and a billing system. The driver’s app also includes a map function providing driving instructions. Most of the features and UI/UX work can probably be shared. In a case like this, you’ll end up paying between 150-175% of the price of one app. This would equate to a median cost of about $115k for a single platform, close to $175k using a cross-platform app, or $230k for both Android and iOS.

While ballpark figures, we can consider that Uber itself started off with about $200k in seed money back in 2009. Setting aside inflation, mobile app development was simpler then, and design costs were lower.

Backend Requirements

In most cases, your service doesn’t just require an app: it also needs backend processing to store and process data, connect to databases, and even bill. Oleg Reshetnyak, our Head of Engineering, recently referenced some WhatsApp statistics from 2014 pointing out that the company required 550 servers with 11,000 cores to support 150 million peak connections, considering a total user base of 500 million users. WhatsApp required 5 years and $60.2 million in investments to reach this point (before being sold to Facebook for $19.3 billion).

Today, it might cost you a few thousand dollars a month to support the same user load, without needing a single server of your own. That’s possible with cloud computing services offering Mobile Backend as a Service, Platform as a Service, Infrastructure as a Service, etc. Providers include Amazon Web Services, Google’s Firebase, Microsoft’s Azure and Xamarin, and many others. The cost to launch a hugely popular mobile app has decreased by an order of magnitude, thanks to their cloud services and pay-as-you-go options.

App Localization

App Localization makes your app available in more than one language. This, too, increases your app development costs. Only 7% of the world’s population are native-English speakers. Concurrently, of the 326 million or so people living in the United States, some 60 million don’t speak English at home. Each language adds to the cost of your app while expanding your potential audience. Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, Portuguese and German also have very large native and second-language populations.

Here, we just want to point out that if you intend to launch your app in multiple languages, additional “app localization” costs are involved – and we explore them in The App Localization Guide for American Businesses.

Continued Product Development

In January of 2007, Steve Jobs introduced the very first iPhone. Now, we’re up to iPhone 8 and iPhone Xs. That’s to say that once you have a great (or just widely used) product, you never stop improving upon it. The same holds true for mobile apps. As a recent example, Google Play has required that all new apps must be available in a 64-bit version as of August 2018 for security purposes. By August of 2019, Google Play will only have 64-bit versions of all apps available for download. Thus, stopping development of app could make it very difficult to distribute in the first place.

More than that, you want to constantly improve your app’s performance. Online retailers are always fixated on how they can eek out an extra few percentage points on their conversions. You should probably be doing the same. There are at least 14 design-related metrics that have a direct impact on your app’s profitability. Continuous Product Development is one of our specialties to cover your mobile product’s ongoing management, development, and improvement. It involves our ongoing work on your product roadmap and continuous focus on improving all of your app’s metrics. While ongoing development of your app does not impact your startup requirements, count on reserving 25-50% of your initial mobile app budget for ongoing product support and development.

Get a consultation with world-class mobile designers and developers to get everything right.

“Do It Yourself” Mobile App Options

Quite a few small businesses have very simple apps where the only real function is to push notifications to their customers, “Hey, there’s a sale on Friday, come on down!” Some apps are simple enough that anyone with a little bit of initiative, know-how, and diligence can do themselves. If you are looking for a “Do It Yourself” App Builder, check out Jake Krol’s Top Ten List on Mashable.

Who Will Develop Your App?

Beyond the location of your developer is whether you want to hire freelance app developers or hire an app development agency for your app. There’s a saying in the software industry: “Good. Fast. Cheap. Pick two.” In all cases, unless you do your due diligence, you’ll be lucky to get only one. How to Choose the Perfect Mobile Agency provides tips on questions to ask in building your short list.

Development agency, internal team or freelancers?

Having covered the cost-related factors and components of mobile app development, it’s worth returning to who you want to develop your app. Regardless of whether you decide on hiring an agency, an internal team or rely on freelancers, careful vetting is required. Ask questions, examine their portfolio, check with their references, compare their skills and experience with how they match what your app needs.

Freelancers – If you have a decent level of tech and project management knowledge and have fully defined all your business processes and workflow, hiring freelancers could be viable. Experienced developers are in great demand worldwide. Some top-notch developers want the freedom that comes from being their own boss or the convenience of working from home. However, just as many or more developers are still learning (to be polite about it). As with all business dealings, weigh the risks with the rewards.

Development Agencies – Partnering with a professional mobile app development agency will give you an edge in experience and skill faster than you can acquire it otherwise. Professional agencies offer much stronger guarantees of project completion and have a vested interest in the success of your app. They also keep you safe from copyright violations and software licenses your app may require. Mobile development agencies also cover the whole lifecycle of mobile development.

Outstaffing – Outstaffing is somewhat similar to freelancers with the pleasant exception that your developer will not abruptly leave the project to have a six-month-long vacation at Goa. This guarantee will cost you 2x what you’d pay a freelancer. The reason is that you pay a company fee, ensuring more dependable infrastructure, processes, and staffing.

Project-based work – Your pricing still depends on the hourly rate of the professionals working on your project at any given stage. The company is responsible for every process from design through wireframing and prototyping all the way to development, QA and bug fixing. An app like Tinder would cost you around $20k in India, $50k in Europe, and $100k+ in the US. But that’s just for a clone, without all the backend magic, a custom design, and your own app features and architecture.

Hiring an Internal Team – If you’re ready to commit to a long-term development program, hiring your own team could be the way to go. By far, it’s the most expensive option. Finding and competing for talented developers also makes hiring an internal team the slowest to become fully operational. Beyond salaries and benefits, you’re also on the hook for acquiring their computers, software, workspace, and other essentials. There are cases where this could still make sense, but probably not for any business just looking to produce one or even several apps – unless you also want to specialize in the software and mobile development market.

Back to your Developer’s Location

Rather than talk about developers all around the world, let’s focus on what is most important to you. Beyond cost, you want to know that the app your developer ultimately produces will meet your specifications and deadline with minimal hiccups and fewer headaches. Here are four simple criteria to help with that:

  1. Same Language – Do you and your developer clearly understand each other? If communication is strained the chances your product specifications being misunderstood increase and a lot of rework to be required.
  2. Portfolio and References – Can the developer show you a portfolio that matches the complexity, design and technical requirements of the app you want to build? Are they willing to provide you the contact information of their clients so you can talk to them directly about their experience with the developer?
  3. Local accessibility – Physical presence may be desirable, but may not always be possible (or cost-effective). Meetings via Skype or Slack or another online conference system can bridge that gap. The next question is whether they are available to communicate with you during your regular work hours?
  4. Trust and rapport – The biggest issue here is trust. Do you receive timely and complete answers to your questions? Or do you get a sneaky hunch they’re trying to hide something behind a lot of techno-babble?

Hiring a cheaper team to save a lot of money could end up costing you more. This is a due diligence issue to maximize your chances for a successful launch while minimizing your risks. Presently, the United States has almost 7 million unfilled job vacancies making the idea of building a team from scratch a painful, expensive, time-consuming proposition. There’s a very real chance that you will need to outsource your mobile product development.

Now, you know about all of the factors that will influence the cost to develop an app – and that will help you save a lot of money on your next project.

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[…] there are a lot of variables involved in determining the cost to develop any app. Who are your designers and developers? Are they freelancers, or do they work for an agency? Are […]

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This was a very meaningful post, so informative and encouraging information, Thank you for this post.
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