For around $5,400, more or less, my company, Purrweb, designs and develops MVPs (Minimum Viable Products), but there are still some other important nuances of calculating costs to consider. Design plays a big role in the creation of a mobile app, but it’s part of a complex process. Other factors such as project analysis, management, and development impact the cost of UX design. Let’s dive into the world of mobile-app design and development and try to understand what exactly dictates the pricing.
Factors That Impact the Price
There are several key factors that define the cost of designing a mobile application: the type of the app, its features, design complexity, staffing, and geographical region. Let’s take an in-depth look at each of these factors and see how they contribute to pricing.
The Type of Mobile App
Simple mobile apps require only a minimal investment and are the most affordable. They typically have a standard set of features and just a basic user interface (UI). Tinder, Badoo, Bumble, and countless other dating apps serve as prime examples of this category. While the brands’ colors differ, an immediately recognizable layout remains the same from app to app. Designing such an app costs $3,000 to $10,000.
Medium-complexity apps have more elaborate functionality and design. Although their development may follow some templates, there’s much more space for creativity and sophisticated design solutions. Think of photo-editing apps such as Picsart, fitness apps such as Nike Run Club, or the email services Gmail and Outlook. These apps are a bit more costly—the expected price range is $10,000 to $20,000.
Finally, complex apps, at the pinnacle of mobile development, go hand in hand with innovation, unique features, and one-of-a-kind user interfaces. To build such an app, you might need to create technologies from scratch, and they must be accompanied by cutting-edge design. Great examples of complex apps are Figma, which recently sold for $20 billion, and Slack, which sold for $27 billion. Designing and developing a complex mobile app requires a lot of work and a lot of money. No price cap applies to complex applications. All depends on your ambitions.
More features mean higher costs. For instance, designing a single-button VPN (Virtual Private Network) app would cost less than designing a brand-new, anonymous browser. However, the complexity of an app’s features also plays a role. Even if we’re talking about a whole browser, it could come with flashy animations, tons of unique illustrations, and countless native widgets or just be a stripped-down, ascetic version of Chrome.
Atomic design is all the rage now, but even this framework leaves a lot of room for diversity. An app’s design could be as simple as a couple of colored blocks against a white background or you could add unique illustrations, embellish the software with animated elements, and create an intricate color scheme. It might look pretty, but would also have a hefty price tag.
Outsourcing is usually cheaper than hiring permanent staff. You would spend little time finding good candidates with sufficient experience and could cut the expenses of training new employees. Nor is there any need to acquire costly technology and licenses—outsourcing companies are well equipped to do the job. Plus, once the project is complete, there will be no need to spend any more money to cover paid vacations, insurance, or medical leaves.
With in-house specialists, on the other hand, you get to form your own team and control the entire process of designing and developing a mobile app more closely. This is an opportunity that outsourcing organizations don’t provide.
Number of Supported Platforms
Creating an app for multiple platforms means designing and developing several versions at once. If an application needs to supports iOS and Android, you would need to create two, only slightly different versions of the design. If you also want your app to establish a presence on the Web, you’d have to create another user interface from scratch. Long story short: the longer your list of supported platforms, the more money it costs to build an app. Figure 1 shows three versions of an app—for Android, iOS, and the Web.
Geography is a crucial factor when it comes to determining the price of design and development. Designers who are based in the US, Canada, and Western Europe earn higher wages, while the countries of Latin America and most of Asia offer much cheaper workforces. So, if you’re on a tight budget, it might be a good idea to outsource overseas. Bear in mind, however, that these lower hourly rates come with the potential difficulties of long-distance communication and the risk of lower quality.
Average Hourly Rates of UX Designers
How much do the services of UX designers cost? Table 1 lists hourly rates in various countries and geographic regions. Figure 2 maps the cost of a medium-complexity app around the world—in the US, $7,000; Canada, $4,800; Latin America, $2,400; Europe, $5,600; India, $2,400; Australia, $8,000; New Zealand, $4,000; and South Africa, $3,200.
Table 1—Hourly rates by country or region
Average: $30 per hour
Design Cost by App Type: An Analysis with Examples
An app’s type is the primary determinant of how expensive both its design and development would be. Let’s take a look at five major app types and their approximate prices.
Fitness and Productivity Apps
Estimated cost of design: $4,400
These apps help people to persevere and get stuff done—whether workouts or two-hour work sprints. A crucial feature of such apps is progress tracking, which helps people stay active and motivates them not only to carry on but to continue using the app. Another popular feature of this segment is gamification—challenges, badges, achievements, leaderboards, and all the rest. Because fitness and productivity apps typically have only medium complexity, designing them doesn’t cost that much. Figure 3 shows an example—Forest, a popular productivity app that relies heavily on gamification.
Estimated cost of design: $5,600
Probably the broadest of these categories, lifestyle apps enhance certain aspects of the user’s daily life, promote self-development, and generally make routine activities much easier. You probably have a bunch of these on your phone. Some common examples include Spotify, Headspace, Uber, and Tinder. The features of these apps can differ wildly, but impeccable, user-friendly designs and clear user flows are indispensable. Most lifestyle apps are of medium complexity, but also offer more features. For example, consider Headspace, the meditation app that is shown in Figure 4—whose clean, minimalistic design; custom illustrations, and animated elements enhance its basic functionality.
Estimated cost of design: $6,300
Ecommerce apps comprise marketplaces, auctions, pharmacies, and all types of retail. While the goods they offer can differ, these apps share several fundamental elements: product catalogs, shopping carts, and checkout flows that provide all the necessary functionality. To make such services more convenient to users, designers place all buttons in the thumb-friendly zone, enable smart search, and make the checkout process as quick as possible. Most of these apps are of medium complexity. Figure 5 shows Gumroad, a marketplace for artists that provides sellers with coherent, useful analytics.
Hotel, Restaurant, and Catering Apps
Complexity: Medium to complex
Estimated cost of design: $5,500
Hotel, restaurant, and catering (HoReCa) apps facilitate interactions between guests and hosts and are equally useful to both. Using these apps, guests can order food or book a hotel room with just the click of a button. Hosts get a convenient workspace that makes key processes much faster and smoother. As shown in Figure 6, Airbnb provides a great example. A good HoReCa app has clearly defined user categories that do not intersect in any way. For example, the user interface for visitors should provide a menu of categories, but not procurement stats. Because of the differing audiences and the complexity of their functionality, the cost of designing such software is higher. You basically have to develop two completely different apps.
Financial Technology Apps
Estimated cost of design: $5,400
Good Fintech apps cover the areas of digital banking, investments, budget management, wallets, and crypto exchanges. They typically provide coherent visualizations of money flows and useful dashboards, so comprise numerous screens. For example, a banking app should provide users with the opportunity to monitor their account balance, transfer money, pay bills, check their transaction history, locate the nearest ATMs, and contact support. As Figure 7 shows, the clear visualizations in Mint, a popular personal-budgeting app, help users better track their finances. An additional challenge is that, at the same time, you must avoid creating a cluttered user interface. A messy layout could literally cost your customers money. Fintech apps are complicated and diverse, so are some of the more difficult and more expensive apps to create.
The Design Costs for Some Famous Apps
Now, let’s move on to the costs of designing some specific apps.
DoorDash is the go-to delivery app in the US. Clear categorization makes it easy for users to find the products they need, while real-time tracking always keeps customers informed about their order’s whereabouts. The menu options include comments and five-star ratings. As shown in Figure 8, DoorDash’s main screen is a product catalog with colorful icons, huge blocks with photos, and search filters. The user interface gently guides the user to the screens of various restaurants, to checkout, and finally, to a real-time tracking screen with a map.
The app that introduced the world to swiping, Tinder offers integration with Facebook, an in-house messenger, search with filters, and additional premium perks for those who want to get the most out of digital dating.
All of this is wrapped up in round shapes and bright colors that make the user interface look appealing and unobtrusive at the same time. The swiping screen features a card-stack design. Users can see only one profile at a time, which helps them focus all their attention on that person alone—no multitasking! The same design approach applies to the registration screen: Tinder makes sure that each step is bite-sized and, thus, not overwhelming to the user.
The app that revolutionized ride-hailing, Uber tracks the locations of both users and available drivers to make the best match on demand and eliminates the hustle of catching a taxi. Today, Uber is packed with quality-of-life features: users can chat with drivers, rate their services, choose from different payment options, and track their order history.
Uber boasts a highly stylized, black-and-white user interface with a special emphasis on typography and reusable components. To find a ride home, the user just enters the address on the main screen, presses a button, and waits. The user can access all other screens—such as Payment Methods and Discounts— through a hamburger menu in the upper-left corner.
Since its launch in 2009, WhatsApp has amassed more than two billion users. It’s a classic messenger app with all the expected functionality: dialogues and group chats, media sharing, geolocation tracking, and the famed end-to-end encryption.
The app’s layout is pretty basic. All chats are stacked on the main screen, with all other screens accessible through the footer. The WhatsApp team chose a rather reserved approach to the design—the app looks and feels more like a stock iOS or Android app, with no animations and very little decoration.
A Step-by-Step Guide to Designing a Mobile App
I’ve covered figures and features and discussed some examples, but for you to fully grasp what determines the price of designing a mobile app, you need to understand the process. There are six steps to designing a mobile app: let’s look at each of them in some detail.
Step 1: Conducting Research
The work on the user interface doesn’t start with sketches, but with analytics. First, you need to clearly define the problems the app is to solve. Then, you need to gain a deep understanding of the target audience and learn as much as possible about the users’ preferences, motivations, and experience with existing digital solutions. Finally, you need to analyze your competitors, determining both their unique selling propositions and their weaknesses. Building on the data you’ve obtained, you’ll be able to create a competitive, marketable product.
Step 2: Searching for Inspiration
Designers don’t work in a vacuum. Once you’ve mapped out the general requirements for the app, it’s time to find some relevant references. Lots of successful projects have been implemented, and there’s nothing wrong with using their experience to get an idea of how you want your product to look and feel. Pro tip: Don’t pick out only good examples. Try to find some negative references—learning about some don’ts is equally important.
Step 3: Working Out the User-Journey Map
After setting some reference points, develop a user-journey map. This is a diagram that visually describes how users would interact with the app, starting from the very first steps they take in what was a previously unknown environment and going all the way to achieving their goals.
Step 4: Wireframing
Once your user-journey map is complete, you’re finally ready to actually build the app. The process begins with creating wireframes—rough sketches that establish the skeletal structure of the design. Figure 12 provides an example. There are several major benefits to creating wireframes: they can help you test your ideas in practice and see how the user-journey map actually plays out on a screen.
Step 5: Designing and Creating the User Interface
Once you’re content with how the wireframes behave, you can start making things pretty. This stage is when boring boxes turn into full-fledged designs. First, you must decide how you want the app to look. Then, you can apply these ideas to the entire app. Now is the perfect time to add fancy details such as icons and illustrations.
Step 6: Developing a Clickable Prototype
A prototype is an interactive version of the design that has the behaviors and logic of a functioning app. It makes the app come alive—at least visually. This lets UX designers experience the user flow first hand, double-check their design, and conduct usability testing. Once the prototype has undergone sufficient iterative design and testing, the development team can start turning it into an actual app.
Step 7: Creating a UI Kit and Design System
Designing an app is a continuous process. It doesn’t stop once you’ve sent the prototype to your developers. New iterations of the software eventually come out, which may be packed with new features, and it would be unreasonable to waste time designing every single element from scratch. This is why UI designers design a UI kit, which is a universal collection of reusable assets such as buttons and icons that they can easily apply to new screens. Along with the UI- kit, a design system provides a complete set of guidelines that apply to the app, as shown in Figure 13.
How to Economize on Design and Development for Your App
Mobile app design and development is a costly business. Still, there are two ways to cut the costs and save some money.
Option 1: Go Cross Platform
Instead of developing two separate native apps for iOS and Android, you could choose the cross-platform approach, with a single codebase for both platforms. This option is more budget-friendly than building native applications because it requires less people to work on a project and fewer hours of work. I recommend this approach.
Option 2: Start with an MVP
A minimum viable product (MVP) is a skeletal version of an app that is designed to showcase its main functionality. One key advantage of developing an MVP is that it’s a highly effective way of saving money. Instead of working on every single feature at once with all the resources you have, you’ll strip the product down to its essentials and develop only a few select features.
In this article, I’ve provided only approximate design costs. Every project is unique. You’ll need to figure out the actual cost of turning your idea into a successful mobile app.
Aleks cofounded Purrweb to help startups test their product ideas and attract business investments by designing and developing minimum viable products (MVPs). Over the last 8 years, his company has designed and developed more than 300 MVPs for clients from all over the world. Read More