What Are the Main Steps in Developing a Mobile Application?
There are basically six steps involved in developing a mobile app. In the agile approach, they are repeatable — each iteration helps refine the product.
- Product discovery
- UX/UI Designing
- Development with QA
Step #1. Product Discovery and Strategy
How do I start developing a mobile app? — Validating your idea
Every app starts with an idea — so that’s where you’ll be starting your journey.
Thorough idea validation is the most important step in the life of your app. You need to be harsh with your idea: there’s no place for kindnesses or leeways. If you won’t validate your idea properly, you’ll end up sinking resources.
You should be able to describe your product idea in one sentence when woken up in the middle of the night. Such clarity helps keep everyone understand the vision better.
To validate your idea, you can use a variety of available resources, such as the Lean Canvas or similar. These tools will help you narrow down your vision.
Templates that help in this phase:
- Prioritization chart (must, should, could feature separation; you can use Miro for that)
- Value proposition canvas (consider using Strategyzer)
- User personas
- Product canvas (e.g., the Lean Canvas)
Keep in mind that these are just frameworks that yield tangible results when created by experienced product managers. It’s not to say you shouldn’t do them — if anything they’ll help you put your idea into context.
When you approach a software agency, the team might want to fill out some of those templates too. Don’t let that discourage you. The vendor needs to understand your business context because, without it, the vendor loses key information that can lead to false assumptions and an obstructed workflow.
Exploring your competition and target audience
During product discovery, you should learn as much as possible about your target audience, competition, and monetization strategy.
You should be able to answer questions such as:
- What do you want to achieve through your app?
- Who is the target audience?
- What problem does the app solve?
- Who is your competition?
- What will your app have that your competition doesn’t?
- How will you monetize your app?
Keep in mind that the process of chiseling out a defined set of features (as understood by developers) depends on close cooperation between you and the software agency you’ll work with.
This process can take a lot of time in some cases. The reason why is that it takes time to narrow down your product idea. The more complex the product, the longer it takes to finish the process of defining scope.
During product discovery, you define use cases and create functional requirements. At the end of this stage, you should have a document with user interface requirements. UI requirements will later be distilled to specifications (e.g., user stories and the backlog).
Generally, in the product discovery stage, your vendor should aim for defining the minimum viable version of your product — enough to validate your idea and deliver initial value to your target users.
The conclusions you draw from product discovery determine the direction in which your app will move. A thorough analysis is therefore necessary to secure a validated idea that will be desirable but also technically viable.
Consider support in product discovery
Because every project requires a thorough analysis, you might want to hire professionals to help you in this stage of the journey.
Vendor-supported product discovery can be used in a variety of scenarios. For example:
1. If you already have a product but aren’t satisfied with it, a vendor should provide you with a comprehensive UX audit to pinpoint what your mobile application is lacking and what it needs to help you achieve better results.
2. You don’t have a product yet but want to:
- improve an existing process (e.g., build an app to support your internal sales team in contacting and managing clients)
- expand your business and add another sales channel
- introduce a new solution that you’ve observed in your target audience
A vendor can find users for initial tests of your product for a steady stream of validated learnings. Experienced software agencies can also check your competition and do market research.
How to choose a software agency?
A software agency can come in handy during those first steps of your app’s lifecycle. Reliable agencies with a portfolio of successful projects will have enough experience to support you right from the start.
Read our guide on choosing a good software agency for more details.
Should I choose a fixed-price or time and materials contract for mobile app development?
A time & materials contract gives you more flexibility and control over the quality and budget. In a T&M contract, you can introduce changes while your product is developed, which lets you include trends and address shifts in customer preferences.
In a fixed-price model, you usually follow a sequential order in product development: requirements and analysis, design, implementation, testing, deployment, maintenance. By definition of a Waterfall model, once requirements are complete, there’s little to no possibility to change the scope.
In other words, in Waterfall-based fixed-price models, you don’t have the flexibility to introduce changes once the project enters development. This can create a few problems:
- Missed product-market fit after launch (customer preferences come and go; the longer the development the higher the likelihood of missing the fit)
- Solution not solving user problems (good products are always developed with customers embedded into the decision-making process)
- Paying the buffer for the vendor — a vendor has to offset any possible losses caused by unexpected hurdles in development
Step #2. UX/UI Designing
After your vision is crystal clear and product strategy finished, it’s time for the design phase.
The UX/UI design of your product shouold create memorable user experiences, encouraging people to keep using it. Well-crafted designs ensure your product is intuitive and user-friendly — users can achieve in-app goals easier.
During the design phase, your team works on UI and UX design, user flows, and illustrations. The key in this step is to create an intuitive product design with well-defined user flows and journeys.
- User flow with screens in Figma, Adobe, Invision, Sketch, etc.
- Wireframes & mockups
- Clickable prototypes
In simplest terms, a user flow is a set of steps taken by a user to complete a specific action within an app. For example, the process of logging into a mobile app and purchasing a product.
Wireframes & mockups
While user flow depicts how the user moves through the app to reach a goal, wireframes and mockups focus on the design of application screens. Wireframes and mockups are visual guidelines for how the app should look. The difference between the two is that wireframes are a low-fidelity design representation (just enough to provide context) and a mockup is a high-fidelity design representation that helps determine and refine a product's color palette, typography, and style.
A prototype adds a layer of interactivity to a traditional mockup. In other words, you can click your way through a prototype just like you would in a finished product. Clickable prototypes help product teams and test users experience the product and provide feedback on interactions.
If you already have a product but are unsatisfied with the design and user flow, a UX audit can help identify the weak spots in your product.
During a UX audit, a software agency suggests changes or a complete revamp of the application (the latter especially if you want to introduce substantial changes, but the technology stack makes it impossible).
Step #3. Development
Because customer preferences and technologies change rapidly, a linear (Waterfall) approach to mobile app development might result in negative outcomes. Including the target audience in the decision-making process helps decrease the likelihood of product failure.
Note: In most digital products, an agile approach is preferred because of the ability to rely on user feedback for insights that guide further development. User feedback lets you craft the product in tune with customer needs. But Waterfall is still a viable choice for many digital product types.
That said, an agile approach is an iterative process. The workload from the specifications is split into milestones (or sprints). Each sprint starts with planning and follows development, testing, and review. Then the cycle repeats — the key is to include user feedback during every cycle.
Continuous Integration with Quality Assurance
When software is released in increments, it can also follow a continuous integration approach. In CI/CD (continuous integration and continuous delivery) code changes are released daily into the main repository. This lets you see how the product evolves almost in real-time.
Quality assurance (QA) should be an inherent part of every mobile app development process. QA is a multi-layer framework for spotting and preventing bugs and problems in digital products.
QA also verifies if the product works according to specifications. Therefore, QA should be an inseparable element in an efficient product development.
Usability testing is also an important part of QA. In usability testing, the product is used by real users to check how they actually navigate the product and complete in-app tasks. Usability testing, when done right, can yield crucial insights that give product owners and stakeholders a better understanding of the product.
Step #4. Release
App deployment, or release, is your product’s time to see the rest of the world. Or for the rest of the world to see your product, depending on your beliefs.
Backend support (Web API)
Every mobile application needs a server to house it. The backend and the server are responsible for data transmission between the app and the business logic of the app (in other words, a server ensures that what a user does in the app results in an action, e.g., an item purchase).
Popular applications need strong servers to withhold traffic spikes and retain their availability. When your product is new on the market, high traffic might be coveted, rarely feared. But you should consider a strong server-side architecture before your traffic increases — this will help your app stay accessible regardless of traffic and user interest
Release to App Store and Google Play
When you release your app, include as much information about your product as possible to help speed up the acceptance process and ensure the app won’t get rejected.
Besides a description and app’s name, remember about including:
- Screenshots (and other graphic collateral materials)
- Proof of accessibility for users with disabilities (e.g., a screenshot of dark mode)
Since there are lots of nuances to consider, your vendor should help you in this step.
More on iOS app development and the app release process.
And here’s how Android app development and release look like.
App store optimization (ASO)
App store optimization is a key ingredient to marketing your mobile app. Proper ASO will help your app rank higher in search results on App Store and Google Play.
Amazon, Google, and app stores work similarly in that they aggregate search results based on keywords. That said, make sure your product’s page contains clear information about what exactly your app does.
We talk in more detail about marketing your mobile app in our article.
Risks to keep in mind before release
- Test all product components (mobile apps, server, external services) together with the release version
- Account for sometimes lengthy review process in stores (especially Apple App Store — there can be rejections)
- Analyze any possible problems with performance
- Test the update scenario
Step #5. Maintenance
Developers use a variety of tools for application maintenance. These tools help the team detect crashes, monitor statistics, and track the success (or failure) of newly implemented changes. Mobile analytics is a goldmine that can pinpoint a plethora of useful insights.
Because a digital product is rarely finished after initial release — in that it can always be improved — the process of ongoing discovery should always be a part of the development process.
Take well-known products as an example. Look at Instagram — there have been multiple iterations of the app. Where new features were added, other features were ditched — all in tune with how users actually used the product; through analysis of their in-app habits and preferences. The same goes for every successful digital product. That success is an ongoing process with customers ingrained deeply in the process.
In continuous discovery, you work alongside customers and involve them in the decision-making. The key is to talk to customers (and pair it with looking at the analytics to gather insights) and learn about otherwise unattainable details.
Choosing a Tech Stack for a Mobile Application
The technology you choose for your digital product will determine how easy (or difficult if you choose wrong) it will be to scale your product and add other components that extend the product’s functionality.
What programming language is used for mobile app development?
Depending on the part of the app, i.e., frontend or backend, different languages are used.
Mobile application frontend
The programming language for mobile app frontend development depends on the type of application: native app or cross-platform app.
- Cross-platform app development — apps that can run on iOS and Android (and desktop macOS, Windows, Linux). Built in cross-platform mobile development frameworks such as Flutter or React Native.
- Native app development — built separately for each platform in a native programming language used by that platform. For example, native iOS apps written in Swift vs. native Android apps written in Kotlin.
For a deeper conversation about cross-platform development and native development, head to our article Mobile App Development: Is It Better to Go Native or Build Cross-Platform?
Mobile application backend
The performance of a mobile application depends on the technology stack implemented in the backend. The backend is tasked with application security, data storage, and data processing.
A backend runs on the server (e.g., on-premise servers or cloud) and it’s this part of the app that’s invisible to the user — it runs behind the scenes. The backed resources are accessed via APIs (application programming interfaces).
While many backend technologies work with mobile apps, at nomtek we use Node.js and Ruby on Rails.
Node.js is renowned for its speed and the possibility to build highly scalable apps. Node.js is excellent at processing multiple requests simultaneously, that’s why it’s a good choice for digital products like social media apps, single-page apps, chat apps, or e-learning platforms. Here are some of the companies that use Node.js: Netflix, LinkedIn, Uber, and Paypal.
Ruby on Rails
Ruby on Rails is a great backend technology for mobile products such as ecommerce apps, SaaS products, apps with extensive databases. Here are some of the popular products that have RoR as a backend tech: GitHub, Shopify, Airbnb, Dribbble.
What Is the Best Software for Mobile App Development?
While you can hire developers who will develop your product using tested cross-platform frameworks such as Flutter or React Native (or go for custom native development), there's also an option to build the product with a no-code solution.
There are many no-code tools out there. Here is just a handful of no-code development platforms:
- Appy Pie
- Good Barber
While no-code tools don't require to have development knowledge in that you don't need to know programming languages, you still need experience with databases, data manipulation, how to set up REST, PUT, CRUD commands.
How Much Is It to Build a Mobile App?
Cost of Native App Development
It’s not easy to estimate the price for a native application because there are many variables and business cases to account for. A safe estimate is between $50,000 and $150,000 for a minimum viable product (but the price can be lower for really simple products).
Needless to say, when there’s more complexity involved, i.e., more dependency on device features and hardware (Bluetooth, NFC, gyroscope, cameras, sensors, accelerometer, GPS, etc.), the cost will be higher.
But a more accurate cost estimation depends on the scope of your project — it’s practically impossible to estimate the cost of a mobile app without knowing the business context.
Cost of Cross-Platform App Development
Cross-platform development — when you build an application for both iOS and Android from a single codebase — will cost a similar price, but what you get with hybrid development is a mobile app for two platforms at the same time. This comes with easier maintenance and swifter code updates.
On the flip side, the more you rely on device-specific features or other dependencies such as machine learning libraries or databases, the greater the development cost will be for cross-platform apps.
Cross-platform, or hybrid, mobile app development has been gaining ground for years. Currently, the capabilities of cross-platform development frameworks allow developers to build highly scalable and fast mobile applications with a native look and feel.
How Do You Measure the Success of an MVP?
Evaluating a product's MVP can be difficult. The nature of the project determines what metrics you'll use to measure success or failure. Below we share with you some basic success criteria to keep an eye on.
Note: Measuring the success of internal products is much more complicated than just looking at metrics. For example, simply asking employees via surveys whether a product is actually helping them improve workflows will be a much more effective measurement method than any software. But analytics can help fine-tune specific elements within an application. UXCam gives product managers a granular insight into the user experience.
User ratings and feedback
The importance of user ratings and feedback in measuring your MVP’s success can't be overstated. Developers need to understand their product's strengths and weaknesses to make changes accordingly. User feedback left on app marketplaces is a great way to discover those strengths and weaknesses. Read user feedback carefully to learn how customers are using the app, what features they like or don't like.
Active users percentage
We all know the feeling of frustration when we install an app, and the app isn’t what we thought it would be. Nearly one in four people abandon mobile apps after only one use, which is why having a user retention strategy in place for your app is so important. If you have high rates of active users who are engaged with your app, that indicates the success of your MVP.
Paying users percentage
When you measure your success by paying user percentage rather than just downloads, you'll be able to better understand which features drive engagement and discover ways to improve them.
It’s important to note that, on average, only 5% of users currently make in-app purchases. That 5% can still make your app and business successful if you have a solid monetization strategy and reliable business model. A useful metric to track here is the average revenue per user (ARPU).
One of the most important aspects for measuring the success of an app is churn, or how many people are abandoning your app. In fact, avoidable customer churn is costing US businesses $136 billion every year.
If you notice that people are not sticking around, there may be something wrong with your design, features, or even strategy. To combat churn effectively, monitor churn trends along with any changes you make in your digital product.
Customer acquisition cost (CAC)
The customer acquisition cost is a metric that measures money spent on marketing efforts to get new customers. CAC is a useful metric to get an overall idea if your marketing is effective and look for ways in which you can bring CAC down.
Build a Mobile Application That’s Closely Aligned with Customer Needs
The mobile app development process is rarely the same for every product. But most digital products share common steps in their lifecycle. The most important thing to keep in mind when developing a mobile application is to always include the target customer in the decision-making process. After all, it’s the end user that will be using the product.
Supporting companies in becoming category leaders. We deliver full-cycle solutions for businesses of all sizes.