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How to Make a Mobile App

Ben Lee

With a global market worth more than $60 billion, mobile apps have grown from a relative novelty to a booming global industry. Today, mobile apps account for a significant portion of consumer technology use, with millions of apps and billions of users all over the globe. But how does one get in the game?

If you’re wondering how to make a mobile app in NYC or elsewhere, you’re not alone. App entrepreneurship has proliferated as the market has grown, and today it’s possible to start successful, growing companies by making a mobile app. But unless you’re experienced in the tech world, you may not know where to start. Do you have to know how to code to make a mobile app? Can you build an app by yourself? What’s the first step to making a mobile app?

While it may surprise you, the process of making a mobile app is basically the same one used to make any other product or business. At its core, it’s about solving a problem, creating something that people want to use, and getting your product in front of your target users. The specifics will change, but a mobile app is ultimately a product – it’s no different than any other good or service that a business puts on the market.

So, what’s the first step in making a mobile app? You may think it’s time to rush into a Python terminal and start coding – but in fact, the first step to making a mobile app is much simpler. It takes nothing more than a pen, paper, and some thinking. In truth, it only requires answering a simple question: what does this app do?

In answering this question, try to think in terms of the benefit your app creates for users instead of the literal function of the app. For example, if you want to create a mobile calendar application, the function of the app is probably to create events and set reminders prior to these events. But the benefitof the app is that it helps users be more organized and punctual.

To further illustrate this delineation, let’s think about the tagline for an app that monitors live traffic conditions to tell you when to leave for appointments. If we think about the app in terms of its function, we might choose this as the tagline:

Set appointments, choose locations, and get a reminder early enough to leave in time for traffic delays.

But if we think about the app in terms of benefit – that is, the benefit it creates in the lives of users, we might come up with a much simpler, more effective tagline:

Never be late again.

Making this distinction is important because it helps you prioritize what features you need to build to create your app. At Rootstrap, we consider this question carefully during our Roadmapping sessions – prioritizing features can dramatically cut the costs of development and help you get your app built faster so you can recoup your investment and turn a profit.

Once you understand the core benefit (also called the key value proposition) of your app, you can start to sketch out the features and major UI elements of the app. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty here: use real paper to jot down ideas, features, and sketch out low-fidelity wireframes (essentially mockups of what your app will look like, screen-by-screen). The more detailed you can get, the easier the process will be down the line.

As you continue this process, you’ll start to get a clearer picture of the app – and the rest of the development process depends on what kind of mobile app you’re trying to make.

Determining What Kind of Mobile App You Want to Make

When making a mobile apin San Francisco or any other city, it’s critical to understand the type of app you’re trying to make. Categorizing your app will inform crucial decisions in your marketing plan, monetization model, and even what companies you engage for development – so it’s best to answer this question early on in the process.

While the App Store outlines categories for apps, there are no hard-and-fast, universal labels for what type of app you make. Instead, think of your app in terms of the type of person the app will serve, the benefit it provides, and the business model you’ll use to make money.

For example, many apps are built to serve general consumers. Gaming apps, simple utility apps like calculators, and most social networking apps are all usually designed to be consumer-facing. Consumer-facing apps have a wide potential reach and can grow to have massive user bases, but also may run into monetization troubles – people are less willing to pay for apps now, and many consumers expect apps and games to be free.

However, not all apps are built for consumers. A growing suite of business apps seek to serve corporations or the people working in them, presenting a new market for mobile app developers. Educational apps are also gaining steam as the education industry adopts new technologies and platforms for learning. Together, gaming, business, and educational apps are the most common types of apps on the app store.

The type of app you make will help you make key choices in its design, marketing, and monetization model. What’s important is to consider these questions in light of the population that your app will serve. Consumers, for example may be less willing to pay for an app, which may make ad revenue a more desirable revenue model for a consumer-facing app. Business apps, however, may not run into the same problems and could operate on a more upfront revenue model such as subscription.

Making a Mobile Game App

Without a doubt, the most common type of app on both the Apple App Store and Google Play Store is mobile games. Mobile gaming apps account for roughly a quarter of the apps on the app store, which translates to more than 500 million individual mobile games. That’s steep competition – but it’s also a sizeable market.

If you are making a mobile game, one of the primary concerns you’ll need to take into account is the big R word: revenue. While games are the biggest portion of the app store and have the capability to bring in a massive user base, many mobile games users expect games to be free.

In the early days of mobile apps, the most common revenue model for mobile games – and apps more generally – was paid app downloads. In this model, users pay some price, usually around $1, to download the app.

While popular for some time, paid downloads aren’t as prevalent as they once were. Competition in the mobile games market makes it easy for competitors to release similar mobile games for free, undercutting the viability of paid downloads.

Today, ne of the most common – and effective – revenue models for mobile games in Los Angeles and the global market is in-app purchases. In this model, the download itself costs nothing, and the game is free to play. However, certain items of power-ups – often consisting of extra lives, chances to keep playing without losing progress, or special abilities – cost money to purchase. This revenue model is powerful because it allows you to convert users who expect a game to be free, but still monetize those users, as many are willing to pay money once they’ve invested time in the game.

Making a Mobile Business App

If you’re making a mobile business app, the playing field looks very different. With business apps, monetization isn’t usually a problem. Even for business apps that serve consumers, most users will be in the professional or upper class and thus have more money to spend money on tools that produce value in their lives. Still, there are some important things to keep in mind.

When making a mobile business app, it’s important to recognize that often, you need to serve two or more distinct types of users. On one level, you need to serve professionals and employees within a business – and for some business apps, that may be the only functionality needed. But more frequently, you’ll also need to serve executives, managers, and other administrators in the business app, requiring a different feature set and functionality.

Treat these two types of users as separate consumers, each with their own distinct needs. Create a user interface and experience for professional/employee users based off the specifics of their needs and optimized to make the user experience as convenient as possible for them. Then, using separate customer research, prioritize the administrator user experience based on the unique needs of administrators. Ultimately, you should treat these two users as needing separate, distinct products. That’s the only way to create a strong user experience for all users and a successful mobile business app.

Making a Mobile Educational App

Educational apps, the third most popular type of app on the app store, come with an entirely different set of concerns. Chief among them is the intended application for your educational app.

Some educational apps are designed purely to serve a user base of, by and large, consumers. Essentially, this means the app is a product, and people use it purely of their own desire and to their own benefit. This is a convenient model to pursue for educational apps because it’s less restrictive – ultimately, you can build and structure the app however you like, and whether people use it or not is their prerogative. This can be a very effective model for making and educational app and the process looks similar to that of making any other mobile app.

However, educational apps have the potential for adoption by larger educational institutions, such as private and public schools and universities. This opens up a massive potential market, and if you can get your educational app adopted by a large institution, could keep your company solvent for years – but it’s also very difficult.

Each institution has its own needs and preferences, and many are subject to governmental regulation or oversight by a board of directors. Keeping these bodies happy is difficult.

If you do plan to try to place your app in institutions, start planning for it ahead of time. Pick out a few institutions that represent your target market and learn what criteria they use when evaluating new software products. Then, implement some of those criteria into your design process. While you shouldn’t put your eggs in one basket and design only for one institution, it doesn’t hurt to think of these things early in the process.

How to Lower the Cost of Making a Mobile App

Whether you’re making a mobile game, business utility, or educational app, one thing is for sure: it’s going to cost you. Making a mobile app in Chicago and other cities can take anywhere from $10,000 to more than $1 million to build, and many experts say to expect to spend 20% of development costs on maintenance every year. So what can you do to bring the cost of making an app down?

The first and most important method is something called backlog grooming. This is a process by which you prioritize features based on what’s most important for building your minimum viable product (MVP), or the v1.0 of your app. Critically, this release does not need bells and whistles – it should be a bare-bones version of your mobile app that performs the key function (or rather, delivers the key benefit) and nothing more.

Grooming can dramatically cut the cost of developing your app. It’s something we focus on heavily during Rootstrap Roadmapping sessions, and we’ve been able to cut development budgets in half with just an afternoon of backlog grooming.

Beyond grooming, it’s possible to cut costs by hiring freelance, outsourced developers instead of a US-based development agency. Be careful, though: once you outsource, you risk the quality of your work. It may seem cheap to hire offshore developers at first, but if they deliver shoddy code, it can cause expensive problems for years to come.

Mobile App Services

Whether you choose to hire a mobile development agency, freelancer developers, bring in a CTO, or build the app on your own, there are a number of tools and services available to help the process go easier. Here are a number of online tools and services that can help you make your mobile app a reality:

Wireframing Tools

App Development Platforms

User Testing Services