Hundreds of new apps appear on the Apple App Store and Android Play Store every day. These apps are built by companies, teams and even individual programmers. With such a high volume of releases, the actual development time shouldn’t be that long, right? How long does it actually take to make an app?
Answer: it depends.
Even the simplest app requires a lot of complex code. And that’s if it was thrown together in a frenzied programming marathon. If you or your clients want the app to be good, then you will have to take a more measured approach.
A proper mobile app has to go through multiple stages of app development before it can be considered done. Each stage will have its own timeline depending on the client’s requirements and the level of effort required. The app will take longer to develop, but you will end up with a better product overall.
4 Main Stages of App Development
Discovery / Scoping
The Discovery Phase is the first because it’s the most important. It sets the direction of the project and determines what the team will and--more importantly--will not do.
Discovery should start with the app’s intended audience and how it will help them.
- Who is the audience?
- What specific problem will it solve?
- How will the app help them solve it?
Each round of questions uncovers more information that affects your app development plan. The more targeted your app is, the more chance you have at building something that will be useful and appealing to the audience.
Assess what other people have done in the same space. Look at competing apps and see how they are addressing the user’s needs, and how well. Check what their strategies for developing and marketing their apps are and if you should adjust your own in response.
The discovery phase will take anywhere from two to four weeks, depending on the market and the needs being solved.
Creating an app development plan
Once you’ve determined the app’s target market and overall objectives, it’s time to ask more technical questions.
- What specific features in the app will accomplish the goal?
- What technology is required to develop these features?
- What resources should we leverage to work with this technology?
The type of app you’re building will help determine the features it includes. Social media apps, for example, all tend to include the ability to take photos. As you plan out your feature list, be aware of how each feature will interact with others. For example, the social media app’s photo function will have to interact with the messaging and sharing function.
You will also have to decide which operating system you want to build on. Do you want to build on Android, iOS, or Windows? Are you building for a single operating system or multiple? Android apps usually have a longer development cycle than iOS apps because you have to optimize for so many different Android devices, whereas there are only a relatively small number of iOS devices.
You also need to decide what you will use to build the app. There are different programming languages and standards you can use, like Python or Java, each with their pros and cons and people who specialize in them. Tools like Xamarin allow you to save time by helping you build an app that is compatible with both Android and iOS.
This phase should take another one or two weeks--again, depending on the complexity of the requirements.
It’s now time for the developers to roll up their sleeves and step in. In general, you will need developers with three different skill sets:
UX/UI design, which designs a seamless and intuitive user experience for the app and the on-screen interfaces needed to make it happen.
Front-end development works with the UX/UI designer to codify their work and make the interface functional.
Back-end development handles the behind-the-scenes functionality, such as interacting with networks and databases, managing user connections, and performing the app’s calculations and processes.
The team would take the app development plan and organize it based on timeline, capabilities, and targets. If the team was using the Agile methodology, the work would be distributed to individuals or small teams in one- or two-week blocks called sprints. After each sprint, the work would be evaluated and incorporated into the final product and more work would be handed out for the next sprint.
The work should proceed in an orderly and logical fashion such that any deliverables or functions used in the operation of another feature (i.e. taking photos), would be completed early in the process, ready to be used further down the line.
The actual development phase can take anywhere from several weeks to several months, depending on the number and complexity of the app’s features.
Testing and Refinement
Your app should never be released into the wild without adequate testing and refinement. You should always have a QA person (or someone who can do QA) on hand, hunting for and flagging any bugs that they discover.
This “Alpha stage,” as it is called, should focus on uncovering major malfunctions in the app that could prevent users from using the app properly.
The “Beta stage” is so that you can test the app in a non-development environment. This could mean installing the app on multiple phones owned by the team so they can see how it holds up on different devices. Or it could mean a “public beta,” where a limited number of real users are given the app so they can test and provide feedback. Usually, this beta test covers multiple versions of the product so that users can see how the app improves over time and provide feedback on the team’s progress.
The developers should be collecting the results from both stages of testing and fixing the bugs as they come in. Ideally, future versions of the app will become more stable as bugs are squashed, and the number of reported bugs should shrink as time goes on.
The testing phase should take around two to four weeks depending on the quality of the app.
The final count
As I mentioned before, the actual length for developing an app can vary based on multiple things. A simple app can take a couple of months, while a complex app with multiple functions can take half a year or more. It depends on what you want to get out of it.
Development doesn’t always end with launch day. Both the App Store and Play Store allow you to upload and release new versions, which can help you fix bugs and even add more features in the future. You could save time by starting with the app’s base functionality and then expanding on it after you publish the first version. This is called shipping with the “Minimum Viable Product,” or MVP, which is a core tenet of the Agile methodology.
Common delays in app development
As well-intentioned as your plan will be, no project plan ever survives contact with real life. The software industry is notorious for delays, missed deadlines and overly ambitious planning, and you should expect some of that in your project as well.
But even so, you should do your best to minimize the number of delays that your team has to contend with. You can still predict and account for the most common delays your app development team will encounter. This includes delays such as:
These two words are guaranteed to make any software developer cringe. A client calls out of the blue in the middle of the development phase and innocently asks, “what do you think of adding in feature X?”
Many times, the development team is forced to grit their teeth and squeeze this new requirement into the existing plan. To users, this last-minute addition will feel tacked on and haphazard--because it is.
There are two ways you can reliably manage scope creep. First, do a thorough job in the scoping phase to make sure that all of your requirements are covered, or at least have been discussed. That way they won’t pop up later on.
Second, be direct with the client. Inform them in clear language that adding a new feature will add time and costs to the project, which will impact the deadline and may result in lower quality work. Make sure they understand the consequences of the decision.
The client may not always agree with you, or they may be willing to pay the price for adding a new feature, in which case your team will just have to square their shoulders and proceed with the new addition.
Changing team members
If you can help it, don’t shift team assignments around after the project has begun.
There is a concept in programming called the “mythical man-month,” where managers or clients assume that adding more people to a project will make it faster when in reality it slows everything down.
Adding a new person to the team will almost always delay the project because that person is going to have to be trained. They won’t be as productive as other team members for a long time. Their work will also need to be double-checked by a senior team member.
And the senior team member? Every moment he is training, mentoring or checking the newcomer's work is a moment spent away from doing actual development tasks. So that’s two people losing productivity, not just one.
Is there a process your team is following that is slowing your team down? Maybe there are too many review cycles, or only one person is doing QA and all of their tasks are being backed up.
A poorly established process or workflow will be just as problematic as having no workflow at all. The agile methodology is popular for creating apps, but may not necessarily be right for the team or environment you’re working in right now.
Visualize your project workflow by using project planning software or a kanban board. This will give you a better look into how tasks are flowing from one stage to the next, and if there are opportunities to streamline your work process.
Innovation is great, but if you’re trying to build a framework or specific feature that is already commonly found elsewhere, don’t try to redesign the thing from scratch. Some programmers call this “reinventing the wheel.”
When possible, incorporate existing frameworks or code into your application (whether for free on GitHub or a paid module). It will speed up your app development and give your team more time to do QA.
Niche and complex technologies like AI, AR, VR, and machine learning are highly specialized and take a long time to develop and test.
Since these technologies are relatively new or rare, only a relatively small number of developers know how to build those kinds of applications. This makes it challenging to distribute tasks evenly among the team. Most likely, all tasks related to that specialized technology will fall on a single person with the right specialty, which causes even more of a delay to an already stressed timeline.
Careless or inexperienced programmers introduce bugs in the code that will have to be rooted out by QA and sent back to the developers for correction. These bugs are notoriously fickle things that might not have an obvious solution.
The more quality issues your code has, the longer it will take to bring the app to a usable state. It helps to allocate more time to QA and bug fixing, but it will be even more helpful to hire competent and thorough programmers with the right attitude.
How long does it take to make an app? If you follow best practices and keep the app requirements reasonable, then you will be able to build an app from the ground up in a few months.
But the more problems crop up (or your clients cause), the longer and less reliable your timeline will be. Things like scope creep, shifting team composition, and complex requirements will hamper your ability to deliver on time and within budget.
Do your best to stick to your original scope and keep your teams on task, and you will be able to build an app from start to finish within the allotted time frame.
Looking to start your next software project?
We're an innovative software development agency that helps ambitious companies create engaging software.Check Out Our Case Studies