Many businesses and organisations need their own app – whether the function is to communicate with customers, provide a service, manage team members, or do something else entirely. Whatever the app, there’s a good chance you’ll need to work with an app development agency to develop the app and maintain it.
App agencies differ more than you might expect. Factors such as specialisation, skill level and company culture vary wildly throughout the industry.
With this in mind, your choice of app development agency will be key to achieving your aims.
The right app development agency for you will be an excellent fit for your business, for your customer and for your planned app product. Each of these areas of compatibility is made up of multiple factors, which we’ll explain individually in this guide.
Read on to learn how to differentiate between app agencies, and how to choose the agency that suits you best.
We’ll also provide a checklist template to help you compare multiple app agencies ahead of making your app-defining choice.
Building an app should be a close collaboration between client and agency. Staying in touch throughout development helps ensure good ideas are captured and actioned, while problems are flagged quickly and dealt with efficiently. Above all, collaborating closely makes it much likelier that you’ll get an app that matches your brand and its objectives.
Back in the day, close collaboration on app development would usually require the team all to work from the same place. Team members could lean over their monitors and pitch ideas to one another, or raise issues they were facing in real-time.
Post-covid, working physically shoulder-to-shoulder with your developers might not always be possible. As many workers continue to work from home, a need has arisen for better distributed collaboration. Different agencies have their own favoured ways of working with clients digitally – including platforms like Slack, Asana, Basecamp and Trello; and communication policies ranging from 7-days-per-week client support to weekly check-ins with an account manager.
You need to decide how you’d prefer to collaborate with your agency (whether in-person or remotely), and find out whether the agency is happy to accommodate your approach.
Remember that close contact will help ensure the project fits your identity and ambitions. We would recommend choosing an agency which can commit to a mix of in-person meetings and attentive digital communications.
Do you need an agency that will commit to a long-term partnership – or do you just need some extra capacity to get an in-progress app ready for launch?
For most clients, a long-term relationship with the developer is best. Working with the same agency throughout an app’s lifespan will ensure the agency’s ongoing work is based on deep knowledge of the brand, customer and app functionality. This approach also has the benefit of ruling out handover costs, such as the cost of migrating to different technical infrastructure which is preferred by another agency.
Massively popular apps don’t necessarily require massive teams of developers, provided that they’ve been written well. WhatsApp famously had just 35 engineers when the messaging app reached 450mn users (and achieved a valuation of $19bn) in 2014.
Scalability is all about having an effective development team in place, and honing a plan for how different aspects of the app can scale up – from faster iteration of new features, to hosting support for a growing volume of users.
Learning the costs of working with different app development agencies will instantly rule out some of those agencies from your planning.
Most well-established agencies will have a minimum project cost, likely in 5-figure territory or above. It’s a good idea to ask each agency about their typical rates at the outset of your discussions, so you can get a feel for whether the costs will suit your budget.
An app is an ongoing project. Routine maintenance and development of new features will always be needed to keep the app functioning and up-to-date – especially when we consider how frequently new Apple and Android operating system (OS) iterations are released. The ongoing costs of hosting an app can also increase if an app gets bigger and more widely used.
With this in mind, you should choose an agency that you can afford to work with in the long term. Yes, there’ll probably be an up-front cost for initial development and launch of the app – but there are ongoing costs to consider too.
We would always advise clients to ask their agency about the ongoing costs of maintaining their app, before entering into the working relationship.
On some levels, apps speak a universal language. Billions of apps are downloaded every year in countries as diverse as the UK and Turkey, China, Mexico and Vietnam. Consumer research and market data suggest that people everywhere respond to fundamentals such as gamification in similar ways.
But local experience does matter in app development, for reasons including:
- Regulatory compliance. App owners face unique restrictions in different parts of the world, from rules such as the GDPR, which governs how user data is handled in Europe, to censorship of certain types of content in other territories.
- Commercial understanding. Apps with a commercial element need to play by the rules of their users’ localities, and work appropriately for each place’s economy. In the UK, we need to be particularly alive to the realities of post-Brexit business, with international transactions now subject to much-altered shipping costs and exchange rates.
- Cultural and lifestyle factors. A good app embeds itself deeply in the user’s life. This can only be achieved through deeply understanding how the user lives, and who they are. What resonates with the user? Are there any uses of language or themes they’d find off-putting? At what times of day do they use their phone most? Questions like these are best answered through drawing on local experience.
- User interface (UI) factors. The definition of a good UI varies depending on who you’re asking – and to some extent, where they reside. For example, some languages such as Hebrew and Arabic require a task flow that runs right-to-left, whereas the English-speaking norm is left-to-right.
Make sure your app developer has a very good understanding of your users’ locality, before you enter into a partnership.
Most app owners want their app to be accessible to as many prospective users as possible. This requires the app to be available on all key platforms – namely iOS, Android, and possibly as a progressive web app (PWA).
Previously, app owners needed to have separate versions of their app for each of these platforms. It wasn’t uncommon for app development agencies to specialise in coding for one operating system or the other.
This situation changed for the better in 2015, with the launch of React Native, a UI framework which enables users to run apps on multiple platforms off the same codebase. Effectively, you code once, then launch on both iOS and Android. React Native built on the strongpoints of tools such as Phonegap and Titanium to deliver a peerless framework for cross-platform app development. (Other key tools in the space include Flutter and Xamarin.)
If you want your app to be available across iOS and Android (and the web), it makes sense to work with an agency that’s happy to use React Native.
Choosing an agency with the right level of specialisation
For a full app development project and ongoing management, it’s almost always best to work with a specialist app development agency.
App development has some (mostly) surface-level resemblances to traditional web development. Both app and web developers often work in weekly or fortnightly ‘sprints’, and use both wireframes or prototypes to demonstrate progress as they develop the digital product.
But websites and apps are fundamentally different. Whereas most websites are used occasionally and transactionally, a good app becomes an extension of the user’s life (or at least, their working life). Apps inhabit a distinct ecosystem of IT infrastructure, technological trends, and ‘shop windows’ – namely, the Apple and Google Play app stores.
It takes all of an agency’s focus to keep up with advances in app or web development – one or the other.
One type of agency which is best avoided for app development work is full-service agencies, which tend to offer other services such as marketing and PR, as well as development. While there are good full-service agencies out there, most are like a restaurant where the menu is suspiciously large and wide-ranging. Just as a small menu is often a mark of specialisation and quality, so too is a focused service offering at an agency.
George Berkowski warns against working with full-service agencies in his influential book, ‘How to Build a Billion Dollar App’.
Berkowski writes: “[Full-service agencies] were designed to bleed money out of corporates by promising to deliver not only the sun and moon but also a planet or two. […] If you use these guys to develop your app you will have no control over your app architecture, the quality of code and much else.”
You might need an agency only for very specific aspects of developing your app. Perhaps you already have skilled developers on your team, but you need extra capacity for requirements such as quality assurance (QA), API development to integrate features such as Google Maps into your app, or PHP development. Specialist agencies do exist for some of these requirements.
In a nutshell, you should choose an agency whose level of specialisation tightly fits the scope of your app development project.
Quality of work
The best guarantors of an agency’s work are its published apps, and what previous clients have to say about that agency.
You’ll usually be able to assess some of an agency’s previous work by reading case studies on the agency’s website. Better still, you may be able to find some of the agency’s apps in the app store, download them onto your own smartphone and try them out. This will give you a great indication of quality, from the user’s perspective.
To get a client’s point-of-view on an agency, we recommended referring to the review service, Clutch. Clutch is essentially the TripAdvisor of the agency world. For each agency listed, it compiles client reviews, star ratings, and feedback on decision-critical factors such as pricing, location and languages spoken.
Breadth of experience
We’ve talked previously about the importance of choosing an agency that’s suitably specialised to bring real expertise to your project. But on the flipside, you need to know there’s enough expertise within an agency to cover all potential aspects of your project.
For instance, if you plan to launch with a platform-exclusive iOS app in the near future, you may think it makes sense to work with a specialist iOS development agency. However, if there’s a chance that you’ll decide you want to launch on Android too, a few years down the line, you’d be much better off working with an agency that has greater breadth of experience.
We suggest you look for an agency with proven proficiency in all areas that could apply to your project. Usually, medium-sized and larger agencies are best equipped to offer a comprehensive mix of skills, whereas smaller agencies and freelancers (no matter how talented they are) have natural limitations.
Choosing between agencies
Now that we’ve covered some key factors to help you choose an app development agency, the challenge is to take what we’ve learnt and apply it to the selection process.
We suggest using a checklist (like the template we’ve included below) to compare a few agencies side-by-side. Click here to download the template.
Put a tick in the box when an agency meets your ideal standard for one of the criteria. Or, if you prefer a more in-depth approach, add numerical scores to the boxes and work out which agency scores the highest.
The right app development agency can turn your great idea into a great app. Put in the time to choose carefully, and you’ll give your app the best possible chance of achieving its potential.