The Essential Guide to the Mobile App Development Process

6 months ago
The Essential Guide to the Mobile App Development Process Image

What are the steps in the app-building process? Understanding the mobile application development process, from discovery to deployment, can initially seem daunting. But while each digital project has nuances, the mobile app development process steps are similar. And that’s true for both iOS app development and Android app development.

InspiringApps has built countless apps over the years, and this guide describes our methodology for helping clients take a project from idea to launch. Our mobile app development workflow has four main phases and core competencies, which we’ll cover in the following sections.

  • Mobile App Discovery: Vetting your app idea is essential regardless of whether you intend to use it only within your company or launch it publicly.
  • Mobile App Design: User experience and user interface frameworks are critical to creating an intuitive and attractive app and bringing your ideas to market.
  • Mobile App Development: Technical team members work in conjunction with discovery and design, but mobile app development is where the in-depth coding begins.
  • Mobile App Deployment: The final product will delight users and deliver real value when done well. Start with a soft launch, then deploy to production, and continue to iterate.

Discovery in the Mobile App Development Process

People come up with app ideas in various ways, but many times it’s from being plagued by a problem they must solve. Once you have an idea, vet it thoroughly before investing in the rest of the mobile app development process.

Market Research

As we outlined in a post focused solely on the discovery phase of app development, there are three key market areas to analyze: the opportunity, the competition, and industry. This analysis ensures the app you develop will be useful, unique, and desired.

While learning about the current market, consider how you might monetize and market the app you have in mind. Although it may feel too early to contemplate those subjects, ensuring you don’t see any huge red flags for bringing your app to market is crucial.

There are a variety of methods of monetization, and it’s unnecessary to have the exact one identified. This is something your app development partner can help you determine. But you’ll want to grasp what the market would be willing to pay for similar services—so you can ensure it’s sufficient to make money. Similarly, a detailed marketing plan isn’t necessary, but you should consider your approach and budget.

You can do a good bit of this work without the involvement of an app development partner. Once you feel confident that you have a viable idea, engaging with an app developer is time. If you need help finding the right partner, check out this post on questions to ask a mobile app developer before hiring them.

Digital Product Strategy

Your app development partner will work with you to use your market knowledge and app development expertise to lay out a product roadmap. A roadmap casts the vision for what you want the product to be. It defines what the app needs on day one to succeed.

This “day one” app version is your minimum viable product (MVP). It’s key to determine your MVP, as that will enable you to quickly get a valuable product into the hands of real users, where you can begin to get accurate feedback. No matter how great your research is, it’s no substitute for hands-on evaluation.

There are several tools your app development partner might use to help facilitate this process. Most will use some version of a product canvas to help lay out the big picture of your idea on a single page. The canvas helps distill all your research into a simple summary of goals, functionality, core features, and competitive differentiation.

Likewise, creating user personas is also a valuable exercise employed in discovery by most developers. Personas enable you to define your target audience, identify pain points, and prioritize potential features.

At InspiringApps, we take this a step further and use a methodology called user story mapping to help visualize how each persona will interact with the app. This mapping of the user journey dovetails nicely into the creation of wireframes. (We often consider wireframe development an output of discovery, but we’ll cover that in the next section due to how wireframes tie to user experience work.)

Furthermore, as you finalize what exactly you want the app to do, discussing how you will measure your success will be valuable. You may want to track various app performance metrics, and some metrics will require implementation during the development phase.

During discovery, your app development partner should be able to formulate a realistic timeline and provide a cost estimate for the project. Ask them to name any project risks and dependencies impacting the timeline or budget.

Mobile App Design Process

Design is sometimes thought of as simply how something looks. Still, in developing digital products, the design phase also encompasses creating the framework for how a mobile device will function. This framework comes to life through user experience (UX) design, followed by user interface (UI) design to flesh out what a user sees.

User Experience (UX)

The user journey map is a customer-centric visualization of how your target user will interact with the app. Design standards capture the type of functionality, basic features required, and a sense of relative priority and order for user interactions.

Wireframes take this map further by creating a screen-by-screen layout of how content will be displayed. The focus is on core functionality and workflow, defining the hierarchy and relationship between the various elements of the product into a conceptual layout. By leaving out style, color, and graphics, wireframes help the team focus solely on ensuring that a target user’s experience navigating the mobile or web app is straightforward and enjoyable.

While some people can look at wireframes and easily understand them, it’s not intuitive for everyone—think of looking at a blueprint for a house versus walking through the framed-out shell. The latter is where a clickable prototype can be very helpful.

Click-through prototypes are precisely what they sound like—a way to experience your wireframes on your phone for more realistic testing. There’s no actual functionality, but the wireframe screens are loaded and linked together, enabling you to test the app’s navigation.

These models can also be extremely helpful in getting user feedback that matches your target personas. In discovery, user research with your target audience informs your value proposition and MVP. But with UX design, click-through prototypes allow everyone to experience that basic idea more tangibly.

User Interface (UI)

Brand and UI design for inHere client

When you are satisfied with the usability of your app design, it’s time to craft the aesthetics of your app. As you might expect, the interface’s visual design is also critically important, as users’ first impressions are heavily driven by how your digital product looks.

Your research into the target audience still plays here, as their preferences and peculiarities will influence choices around color and style. Likewise, the design team must consider those guidelines if they are part of a larger organization with established branding.

Experienced design teams will pull together a style guide. In addition to taking into account the above items, they’ll think about how and where the app will be used—for example, if the app is likely to be used at night, they’ll define a color palette that’s easily readable in that setting. Overall, the style guide will bring consistency to everything from colors and fonts to forms and labels.

After the general stylistic considerations have been established, UI design will also consider animations. Animations can be used in the general layout or in transitions to add flair and, ideally, improve (or at least not detract from) usability and utility.

Once these designs have been rendered, they can be loaded back into the clickable prototype to test the application. This final review is critical before sending the app to development, as changes from this point onward can become costly.

Development Stage in the App Building Process

Essential Guide to App Development Process

A smooth working relationship from design to development is essential, so working with an app developer who excels at both equally is advantageous. Seamless communication and agile iteration among design and development teams will help ensure everyone is on the same page simultaneously. Working with the right tools can make implementation easier. For example, our team uses an application called Zeplin, which gives mobile app developers easy access to style guides and detailed information on positioning and dimensions.

The Technology Stack

You’ve probably heard people reference the idea of using a “full-stack developer,” which begs the question—what is a stack? A tech stack can be defined as “the set of technologies an organization uses to build a web or mobile application. It combines programming languages, frameworks, libraries, patterns, servers, UI/UX solutions, software, and tools.” The tech stack is often divided into skills related to the front and back ends.

Front-End Development

The term front-end refers to the coding done to create the interface the app user sees. There are three approaches for mobile apps: native, cross-platform, and hybrid:

  • Native applications are coded specifically for one platform. Native development fully leverages the device’s hardware, functionality, and native features, but with a single codebase, none of the code can be transferred to a different operating system.
  • Cross-platform apps use a mostly shared code base (written using programs like React Native and Xamarin) but run natively on a device. There can be some code efficiencies with cross-platform mobile apps, but there are limitations in your ability to take full advantage of the device’s capabilities.
  • Hybrid apps use web development code (e.g., HTML, Javascript) to create the app, and then the code is installed on different devices using a “native wrapper.” Hybrid development makes development quicker and cheaper, but there is a definite sacrifice in user experience.

Backend Development

The term backend describes the software and services that handle all the data the app uses. Data lives in a server responsible for your app’s performance and ability to scale. Your app development partner will help you define the language, database, and hosting environment for back-end technology.

Programming Languages & Approaches

The programming language is used to create the application programming interface (API) that will transfer information back and forth between your front end and your database. Databases are often categorized as relational or non-relational (NoSQL), and both have advantages. The hosting environment is where your database is stored; a third party like Amazon Web Services or Rackspace commonly does it. Provider choices can impact cost, scalability, and reliability.

Several programming languages and approaches can be employed to develop a mobile app. All of them have their strengths and weaknesses, so what is more important than trying to learn about them is to work with a seasoned developer who can make intelligent decisions for your project.

Mobile App Development Lifecycle

Almost all development teams use an iterative process where the overall project is divided into more minor phases. Several well-known software development methodologies exist, such as waterfall, agile, and scrum. According to BusinessOfApps, agile methodologies are the most popular form of development in the app development process. But these methodologies share common competencies, including planning, development, testing, and review.

  • Planning involves dividing the goals for the current phase into tasks with clearly defined business requirements. Some thoughtful planning can help maximize the ability to reuse code and simplify updates and changes.
  • Development refers to writing the code to bring a feature to life. Once the development team completes assignments, they are passed to the QA team for the testing phase.
  • Testing should occur in every sprint to ensure that problems are caught early. The quality assurance (QA) team performs a variety of mobile app testing methods.
  • Review is a regrouping of all the stakeholders to evaluate what went well and what did not. That information is used to inform the next sprint, and any problems or best practices should be incorporated into the subsequent planning phase.

This process repeats itself until the MVP is complete.

Deployment in the App Building Process

App Development Deployment Phase

When you reach the deployment stage of developing an app, you should feel proud of the time and effort you’ve put into building an exceptional MVP. But before spending your marketing budget, we’d encourage you to first get your app in front of a smaller group of potential users.

This soft launch could be done in a controlled environment like a focus group, or it could be done in a real-world setting with a group of beta testers. The real world is the best teacher. Taking the time to perform beta or focus group tests will give you the feedback you need through fresh eyes. Fixing issues before launch can help to ensure your reviews and ratings are strong from the start.

When you know your app is ready, your mobile developer will move your app’s backend into a production environment that can handle your anticipated traffic. The app then gets deployed to the Apple App Store, Google Play, or both. This process is moderately involved, and the piece you will need to champion is the app store landing page. Regardless of what other marketing you have planned, the information you provide in the app stores is critical to success.

While it will be tempting to turn your focus entirely to marketing your app, keeping an eye on those performance metrics we mentioned earlier is also essential. Even the best-built apps will require updates and fixes. Furthermore, those metrics will give you salient insights into what matters to your user base. Their input could cause you to pivot as you move from your MVP to the next-generation product.

Additional Resources for the App Building Process

As you can see, the mobile app development process steps are complex. Some additional resources on the app-building process include the following.

IA eBook

App Development Planning Guide

Mobile apps have changed how we live our personal and professional lives. With millions of web apps, iOS apps, and Android apps already available, how do you determine if you should build an app too?

InspiringApps: A Business Perspective on Building Mobile Apps helps you evaluate ideas and turn the best into genuinely successful apps for use within your company or consumer sales. Geared toward leadership and creative entrepreneurs, this short book explains an app development project’s business, marketing, and technical considerations.


IA logo mark

App Development Partner

App development that makes an impact. InspiringApps builds digital products that help companies impact their employees, customers, and communities. Our award-winning work has included 200+ apps since the dawn of the iPhone. Our core values: integrity, respect, commitment, inclusivity, and empathy. Our guarantee: finish line, every time, for every project.

Please contact us if you have an app idea you’d like to explore. We’d love to use our experience to help you bring an idea to life.

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