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How much does it cost to build a mobile app based on my Rails web app?

Nisha Gopinath Menon
May 7, 2017

Many factors influence the cost of building your first version mobile app. Including things such as the complexity of your app, the form factors you plan to support, the designers you hire, and the deadlines you need to meet. Without the right context, the ballpark you receive could overestimate or underestimate the cost required to build your mobile app.

How to prepare your Rails backend for your first version mobile app?

Begin by building a robust RESTful interface, which allows your backend Ruby on Rails application to communicate with your front-end web and mobile clients. REST is the standard way modern server applications communicate with mobile apps because REST APIs are easy to debug and implement. They work great with the HTTP Protocol and adding authentication doesn’t take a lot of development time. You can begin with HTTP Basic Authentication or use HTTPS over SSL to provide secure authentication. Decoupling the server and client side of your application is one of the advantages of using Rails. You’ll be good to go if you know how to handle HTTP requests and reply in JSON.

 Designed to keep the programming best practices in mind, Rails almost guides you into writing good code for your backend. Rails isn’t the fastest backend development framework on the market, but it is robust. It is quick to get started, and you can build applications quickly. A Rails back end will not let you down, and if you use a good architecture, you will achieve your performance requirements. After all, even GitHub runs partly on Rails.

Decisions to make

Start by defining a clear target for development. What is the goal of your mobile app? Are there use cases that make more sense on mobile than the web? What features do people use when they access your Rails app from their smartphone today? Do you want to start with a prototype, Minimum Viable Product (MVP) or final product? They all address different problems. Since you already have a working web app, you don't need to build a prototype to demonstrate your idea because you've likely already found your product/market fit. Your product’s MVP contains only the vital functions to bring your mobile app to market. It helps you finance further development, obtain user feedback and correct the direction in which your project is heading. The final product is built with the insights you gain from your MPV.

Before your developers write a single line of code, work with your designer to create user interface prototypes for every user flow your end users will experience. This process keeps your developers focused on building an app with the right features for your first version mobile app. Rates for your designer will be tied to the number of hours they spend working on your project.

While you do need to spend time writing and clarifying requirements to get a proper estimate, you will avoid unexpected expenses by spending some time helping your design and development teams understand your vision.

Engagement Models:

  • Fixed bid: In this model, you list all your features and requirements, so the team building your mobile app can create a proper estimate. Factors that affect the cost include the mobile platforms you plan to support (iOS, Android or both), the change in design from your web application, the features you need, the complexity of your application, the location of the team you hire and the release date you’re targeting. The timeline to develop your mobile app can range from 3 to 6 months depending on the number of features you need, developed and how iterative your development process is. It will cost you around $25K to $200K when accounting for all the factors mentioned above.
  • Time and material (T&M):  This is more of an abstract model and it's often used for Research and Development (R&D) projects or projects where it's hard to define a specific scope. You come with an idea or a vision and based on the resources you bring in, and the time you allow us, we build it. A ballpark figure for this is a lot harder to come up with. The pricing is based on the number of people working on your app, how many hours they spend on your project per week and their hourly billing rate. The engagement model is invoiced either on a weekly or monthly basis. The rate you pay depends on if you use a local team in the US or an offshore team in a country like India. A good development team will charge you $30 to $250 per hour for design, $25 to $200 per hour for development and $15 to $100 per hour for Quality Assurance (QA).

Before you buy into the price range and call it final, recollect the last home improvement project you undertook. How over budget did it go? How many unforeseen problems arose. Building an application is a lot like that. Nevertheless, a good application, built right, will save you time and money in the future.

How to reduce the cost of building your first version mobile app?

Now that you are familiar with the factors that affect your mobile app’s cost, you can select a team and scope that maximizes your Return on Investment (ROI). Don’t lose sight of“why” you’re building the app. What problem is it meant to solve? Focus on that and lose the frills. To accomplish this goal, try building a mobile app that only has a subset of features that makes sense on mobile. For example, a user isn't going to want to type lots of text on a mobile app, so features that require users to enter or edit large blocks of text can be released in future versions of your app. Do away with some of the features that are not essential on mobile. Simplify the design and focus on usability. Also, pay close attention to the location of your target users. Remember that developing your app in the US is costlier than building it in India or other emerging markets. Above all, choose the right developers, us. You didn’t expect me to pass this up, now did you?

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Nisha Gopinath Menon