Design, develop and maintain an app versus leveraging SaaS

What’s the real cost of app development?

For some industries, the idea of utilising a SaaS solution can appear to be a new concept with many management teams opting to build and maintain their own solution(s). This seems to be the case in shopping centres, with many organisations wanting to ‘own’ their app. I recently spoke with a group who were considering developing their own app (well, engaging an agency to build them an app). After reviewing the quote for an initial phase 1 app, and the 8 month minimum timeline they gave Norbit a call.

What Does ‘Owning An App’ Look Like?

In our journey developing Norbit, we have first hand experience with this, having engaged a well recognised Australian App development company for our first phase of development all those years ago. Below is a guide to what to prepare yourself taking the ‘build it from scratch approach’, based on our experience and that of our clients who had previously developed their own app.

  1. Expect to pay a lot. At least 6 figures for an iOS and Android app, for phase 1.
  2. Expect a long time to develop. True custom development is a lengthy process, and much more complex than building a website (or mobile web app, of which many shopping centre apps appear to be). There are thousands of lines of codes, and complex integrations and all need to work together for the app to be successful.
  3. Expect a long time to review. Testing is a lengthy process and must be done with the time and detail required. In general, it usually takes as much time testing a piece of software as it does to develop it, because there are so many things that can go wrong in so many ways. Consider the software’s purpose, design, experience, functionality, compatibility, maintainability, scalability, accessibility, reliability, security and the list goes on and on.
    As a start, you need to carry out Quality Assurance Testing (or QAT), User Acceptance Testing (UAT), User Testing, Functional Testing, & Performance Testing. These are just a handful of the common tests, and expect to need improvements in all.
  4. Expect frustration – Developers are developers. They aren’t marketers and think with a focus on code, not people. So when they say something is working, it may work technically however in most cases it’s not user friendly. This often leads to ‘we understood differently, that’s out of scope, it does what was listed in our technical scope, etc. Then expect the “additional/out of scope” quote. You’ll almost definitely have to speak with project managers, designers, and account managers all looking to point the finger at someone else when things don’t go as planned.
  5. Expect delays. They will happen, they will infuriate you. Why? Compared to the likes of mechanical, electrical or civil engineering, software engineering is still a relatively new field. It’s unregulated, chaotic and changing rapidly. Imagine trying to build a safe car that is driven by unlicensed drivers on unregulated streets on surfaces that are constantly changing. Accidents will happen, even if you have unlimited resources. As an example, when GDPR came into effect, software developers scrambled to ensure their systems were compliant. A lot more will come in the future for other areas of software.
  6. Expect to pay a maintenance retainer, or hire a team of developers to do this for you. Expect to pay hosting costs in addition to the retainer.
  7. Expect to find things not working once in the market. All the testing mentioned above can go so far, but real market testing can really only occur when your user base is using your app. Even if you conduct every possible type of testing available, things will go wrong because not everything can be simulated, not everything can be tested. You can test a building all you want, but only when that earthquake actually hits, you’ll know if it stands.
  8. Expect costly updates and a lot of them. Android and iOS constantly update their platforms and requirements, new phones are released regularly, and new technology is constantly available and needs to be reviewed. Even simple things like social media logins change, often unexpectedly as we saw with the Facebook Cambridge Analytica fiasco, the release of sign-in with apple, and Apple iOS 14 privacy changes.
  9. Expect an expensive staff roster, if building in house. Typically, to properly design, develop and maintain an app you’re looking at a team that consists of one or more of the following: Product Manager, Lead iOS Developer + Support iOS Developer, Lead Android Developer + Support Android Developer, Lead Web Developer, Lead QA Engineer (Technical), Lead QA Engineer (User), UX Architect, UI Designer, and you’ll need to own every common device in the market.
  10. Expect high risk and be distracted from what you do. Given the above, even a seemingly straightforward app will cost you $100-$300,000 in the first year, excluding the time you’ll need to invest with your internal team. And if customers don’t embrace it, don’t download it, or hate it because it’s not user friendly and doesn’t work, risk your head on the chopping block.

What Does ‘Using SaaS’ Look Like?

With Software as a Service solution, the process above has been taken care of. The focus of the SaaS provider is to maintain, improve, and enhance the solution at all times, so you can focus on leveraging the solution to enhance your core role.

  1. Expect to pay much less. As the design, feature set, development, and testing has been done and is being used on the scale, you benefit from ‘renting’ the software, and in most cases you’ll have full access to your information collected in the software.
  2. Expect a quick time to launch. As with above, the product is ready to go. Customise what’s needed, approve and launch.
  3. Expect fast review. Generally, the system is well tested and proven to work. Ensure any modifications requested are what you asked for and working to spec.
  4. Expect ease. A good SaaS provider will make the process simple, as they’ve done it all before and learned how to make the launch phase as smooth as possible.
  5. Expect to launch when planned. No delays, no stress.
  6. Expect to pay a monthly fee (or one-off annual fee, usually at a discounted cost). Expect to pay nothing else, unless you request additional features. One simple bill, nothing else to worry about.
  7. Expect things to work.  As you’re leveraging existing technology, everything should work as planned. If it doesn’t, feel comfortable knowing a full team is ready to fix it for you.
  8. Expect free updates. Expect them as part of the monthly fee. Expect value-adding new features, expect designs that evolve with trends, expect the adoption of innovative technologies, expect proactive updates.
  9. Expect no expensive staff. This is taken care of by the SaaS provider.
  10. Expect low risk and peace of mind. A lower upfront investment, proven technology, proven results, and the knowledge at the very, very worst case, you can opt out if things aren’t working for you. Chances are though, they will.

In Summary

To summarise, custom development certainly has it’s place, if you’re developing an entirely unique product that isn’t yet available, or is poorly executed, in market.

For anything else, SaaS is a much safer, faster and better bet.

Having gone through the process ourselves when engaging an app company for phase one, then building a team to start again, we know the hurdles, hard work and pain required to do it successfully, and it’s the very reason we’re offering Norbit as a White Labelled Retail solution. We know your time is much better spent marketing your brand than managing software.

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