While it varies greatly, the general answer we provide to people asking us how long it takes to build an app is 4-6 months. That does not mean a first version of an app—a v1.0 app—can't be built faster than four months or that it won't take longer than six months. We've done both at Savvy Apps. As with any creative undertaking though, there are many factors that can influence this timeline. The remainder of this post will focus on these factors and the impact they can have on schedules.
- A v1.0 app takes about 4-6 months to build an app. Usually.
- Quality takes time. Apps vary from two-week throwaways to years-long masterpieces.
- Apps that target many features require more time to build than apps with a narrow scope.
- Budget will determine timeline. Yet a large budget carries its own dangers.
- A team of cross-discipline experts results in a tighter build time.
- The right skills, mentality, and process translate into a more efficient timeline.
Industry Perspective for App Timelines
There are countless apps on the app stores that are unnecessarily complex, frustrating to use, created by amateurs, or just plain broken. In terms of real effort, these apps likely took weeks or at the very top end, a couple of months to build.
Then, there are the apps that wow you. These are the apps that you use every day. They make your life better. They are fast. They are beautiful. They are intuitive. They do not crash and are mostly bug free. They are the definition of a great app.
Apps in this second category likely have hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of hours into them at this stage in their existence. Companies like Facebook have thousands of people working on their apps, either on the actual apps that get installed on devices or on the servers and APIs that support them. These apps have taken years to get where they are today.
With that backdrop, to build a Facebook, Uber, Snapchat, Google Maps, Tinder, or a top game can seem like an overwhelming task. Yet anyone trying to build a new app has to compete with these mostly free apps on the app stores.
Many people or companies do not have the resources, whether it's those to do the work or the money to spend even hundreds of thousands of hours on an app, let alone millions. That does not mean that a new app should not be built. It just provides the right perspective for how to approach building a quality, first version of the app.
App Scope: Platform, Screen Sizes, & Features
The scope of an app consists of its features, the screen sizes that need to be supported, and the platform(s) targeted. Once these items are identified, it becomes much easier to provide a level of effort.
Screen sizes and platform support are relatively easier to address more immediately. Increasingly, it's less of a problem to build an app for all screen sizes. We also have spoken to how to think about which platform to build for first in past discussions.
The larger challenge then is scoping the features themselves. In our experience at Savvy Apps, the typical situation is that too many features are requested for a v1.0 app. That's problematic because apps that are more focused do better. A long list of features will also increase the timeline dramatically and subsequently the costs. Also referred to as scope creep, we previously looked at how an out of control scope is one of the ways to ensure your app will be a huge failure.
The goal with the feature list should be to cut as much upfront as possible. Look for that key feature or key features that will help you find the uncontested market for your app. This approach will have the greatest impact helping you stay within the 4-6 month target.
Budget for Building an App
Budget may be a surprising item on this list. Whether you're part of a company or you're just an individual, there's a cost associated with building an app. And that cost adds up as time passes. That's still true even if you can build the app yourself. Even with no outside help, there's an opportunity cost of not pursuing other options.
For assessing timelines and schedules, knowing how much it costs to build an app helps in two ways. First, based on your budget, you can roughly understand how long that budget will fund your app. In the startup world, that's called a "runway." Secondly, once you understand what your runway is, you can further scope your feature list. For example, if your budget only supports building your app for three months, you need to be much more aggressive in reducing your feature list.
While a more limited budget implies a stricter lens for a feature list, the inverse is not true; a large or "infinite" budget does not grant you the liberty to lack product discipline. Ironically, it is often companies that have tens of millions of dollars at their disposal—or individuals who can build apps themselves—who go out of business more quickly or never ship their apps. Don't let the comfort of money or your own skills blind you. There's always a runway, it's just how short or long it is.
App Skills and Expertise
Knowing what you're good at in life will help you be more successful. It will also help you build your app more efficiently and effectively. If you're not a designer, you probably shouldn't be thinking through the user experience or visual design of your app. If you don't know how to code, it's likely not the time to start learning how to program depending of the stage of life you're in now.
Tackling parts of an app outside your expertise will cause the app to take much longer. That's why an app team that consists of each skill needed to build an app can typically build it better and faster. In fact, we outline speed as one of the considerations for when contracting an app makes sense.
There's also a huge variance in abilities when it comes to building apps. Consider the top chefs in the world compared to home cooks or an internationally renown pianist relative to the local piano teacher. Both groups have skills. One group has simply further honed and refined their craft. Both groups can probably learn a dish or a new piece respectively. One group will learn it faster but then also take more time to refine it into a masterpiece.
Mentality for Approaching a v1.0 App
In baseball, some of the top home run hitters of all time also had the most strikeouts. They were swinging for the fences. The same can be said about many people who set out to build an app. They think the first app they create will help them hit it big and so invest a significant amount of time and money into it.
This "go big or go home" mentality can drive v1.0 schedules well past the six month mark. There's a delicate balance that must be met. You need to invest enough time to build a quality app while not allowing time itself to be a reason for downfall. In part, I addressed this balancing act in a previous post about how to build apps faster.
The other issue with an all-in mentality is that it can cause founder blindness. I’ve spoken about founder blindness in the past by discussing obsessiveness over features, being distracted by new ideas, and generally getting off course. This particular version of founder blindness though can be fatal to a new app. The longer an app is worked on, the less likely it’s being vetted and validated in the market. With how fast the app ecosystem changes, working on a v1.0 for more than six months can result in missing a key marketing window, a similar app gaining significant momentum, or losing touch with customer needs. There’s nothing worse than spending time and money on an app that the marketplace does not want. A 4-6 month launch target will force you to get the app out into the hands of more users and begin getting feedback on it.
App Development Process
Not following an app development process for building an app will dramatically impact a timeline. I'd almost go as far to say that without a process, an app likely will never even make it into an app store. Those who have no software or creative experience in particular will be at a disadvantage.
Process will not trump skills, but it can be a force multiplier for it. A strong process allows creativity to flourish. Instead of brainpower and energy being dedicated to the common, somewhat more mundane elements of an app, those items are simply known. They become checklists to follow. They are formulaic, so that the special parts of the app and key features can really be sharpened.
A good process also helps build into the schedule all the time that's not on paper. That is, the main effort of the app will be the time it takes to build out the scope. The time that won't be evident without a process in place are considerations for upfront planning, estimation of effort, beta testing, QA, design audits, polish, and all the small touches that separate a good app from a great app.
The more upfront work that can be done before starting the actual visual design and development of an app begins, the better. Our process at Savvy Apps often has us spending anywhere from 4-8 weeks on planning, strategic marketplace assessments, system diagrams, development spikes, user experience mockups, style boards, user personas, and comparable items.
Kickstarting your app this way helps reduce as many unknowns as quickly as possible and will keep your schedule as accurate as possible. Then, when you’re designing and developing your app over months two, three, and beyond, you’ll have clarity into when you should call your app feature complete, finish QA and beta testing, and actually ship that app to the app store. Your app adventure truly begins when people experience your work. Use the 4-6 month build target to ensure that creating an app is the start of your adventure, not the end of it.