How to Navigate Your Options for Mobile App Development

Mobile App DevelopmentMobile apps are all the rage these days, and businesses are scrambling not to be late to the party. Projects for building these apps are similar to website design/development projects in the incredible disparity of time, expense, and overall quality that different solutions can provide.

There are a lot of factors to consider, and understanding the tradeoffs can be key to securing a positive long-term return on your investment. In fact, many of these considerations are applicable to all development projects, not just mobile apps.

Why Do You Need A Mobile App?

The first question we always ask a client is, “Why do you need this mobile app?” Are there specific marketing goals in place, or specific internal operational requirements? Perhaps you are just feeling competitive pressure to get an app out there?

The answer to this question is important to understand, since the client generally has preconceived notions about what the app should do or how it should look. If these notions don’t connect with the core business goals, the project may end up being much more involved and costly than necessary. Worse yet, the project may simply not generate enough return for the business.

If your app is just meant to get your business name out there in the App Store or the Android Market, then you may need little more than a simple portal to drive people to your website. If your app is primarily meant for internal communication purposes, you may be able to find an off-the shelf solution that will satisfy 80% of your functional requirements for little to no expense.

As with any development project, the crucial first step is understanding the business goals that you have for your mobile app.

Web App v. Native Mobile App

When you start to build your new mobile app, your first question should be whether you need a web app or a true native app. We’ve covered this topic in a previous post — “Top 5 Reasons to Go Web App Over Native App” — so we’ll just hit the highlights here.

Web apps are essentially just mobile-optimized websites that users must access through their mobile browser. They will likely be cheaper and faster to get up and running, and in many cases can be better leveraged with your total search marketing efforts to improve your SEO performance. They are also a bit easier to update and change, since you can publish instantly to your server instead of going through the gatekeepers of the app store or relying on users to update apps on their phones.

Native apps are the things that users must download to their phone. Besides just being easier to bookmark and access outside of the mobile browser, native apps offer access to more involved feature sets, and can allow you to leverage native functionalities of the user’s phone, like their camera or address book. But these apps are a lot more complicated to build, and tend to require significantly more time and expense if you want anything customized or remotely complex.

Again, it is important to understand why you need the mobile app in order to answer the question of whether a web app or a native mobile app makes more sense for your project.

DIY Approach

The entry-level option to building a mobile app is the DIY method. There are a variety of tools and starter kits out there that will let you build rudimentary mobile apps, like MobileAppWizard, ShoutEm, AppsBuilder, and TheAppBuilder. However, even the simplest apps and point-and-click tools are likely to require a significant amount of time for someone to actually build and pull together, especially if they are inexperienced or want to customize the app to any significant degree.

This approach can often be less expensive than hiring a professional to build a mobile app, but the opportunity cost of the time required of you to figure out how to do it yourself can often be significant. There is also the risk that your app may not come out quite the way you want or need, meaning that you will have sunk a lot of time into a project that ultimately must be scrapped in favor of another solution. This is certainly not always the case, but it is something to seriously consider as a possible outcome.

Hiring a Contractor

If you have your mobile app project requirements and specs fairly well outlined in advance, you can hire a freelance contractor to pull everything together for you. There are a ton of sources out there to find contractors, and because these sources have an international span, providers are competing on extremely different cost levels.

This approach is popular — and often effective — but there are tradeoffs to consider here as well. Besides the somewhat obvious inherent risks of hiring the cheapest bidder for a highly specialized and skill-intensive project, the primary issue we typically see is that contractors tend to follow instructions a bit too blindly.

Contractors are hired to do a job, and their goal is to work through that job and move on to the next client as quickly as possible. This significantly reduces any incentive they may have to make sure that they are delivering long-term value. Again, this is not always the case with freelance contractors, but we’ve seen it happen again and again.

Working With Consultants

Hiring a consultant or a professional agency is one of the more involved options for your mobile app project. The key benefit to this approach is that you are likely to find a partner, someone who will challenge your project requirements in a way that leverages their expertise while working towards your own goals and expectations.

Consultants and agencies will do this because they want to demonstrate the value of their white glove approach. Also, as they build trust and deliver effective results for you within your current budget, they understand that you are more likely to become a repeat client and that your project budgets with them will probably grow over time. Your success is mutually beneficial to them.

A good consultant will also help you determine the answer to the “why” question above, and if they feel that you don’t actually need a true mobile app at this juncture, they are likely to indicate that and point you in a smarter direction. Being up front helps a consultant to establish trust and increases the likelihood that you will come back to them when the time is right.

About Your Authors

Jonathan is the in-house expert on Ruby on Rails at Big Nerd Ranch, where he builds databased-backed websites for highly technical CTOs.
Since founding Perfect Pitch Concepts back in 2006, Michael has continued to serve as our General Manager and all-around production ninja. He's pretty good at Mario Kart, too.

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