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How to Make an App: Choosing the Right App Maker For You

How to Make an App: Choosing the Right App Maker For You
What to look for in a DIY mobile app maker. / Credit: App image via Shutterstock

Looking for an app maker to build a mobile app for your business? Here are three important things you need to figure out:

1. Do you want to build the mobile app yourself?

2. What type of app does your business need?

3. What features does your app require?

In this guide, we will help you answer those questions, but if you already know what you need and just want to see our recommendations for the best app maker, visit our best picks page.

The first step in choosing a mobile app maker is deciding whether you want to build the app yourself or hire a professional developer. The decision essentially boils down to your skill level and how much you're willing to spend.

The easiest, quickest and most affordable way to build a mobile app yourself is to use a DIY mobile app maker.

What is a DIY mobile app maker?

Small businesses can use a variety of online services to create mobile apps, without the costs associated with hiring a developer. These platforms provide you with the tools you need to create and publish mobile apps on your own — and they don't require any tech skills.

The best part about DIY mobile app makers is that they are usually very easy to use. Most let you choose from a wide range of ready-to-use templates, so you don't need any design skills, or you can start from scratch (though some also offer this option). They also typically use a drag-and-drop system, so you can easily tweak its look and feel, add capabilities, customize functionalities and more.

Because they are so easy to use, DIY app makers typically let you create a robust, fully functional app in less than an hour. (Depending on how web-savvy you are, you can even build an app in 10 minutes or so.)

Additionally, these services provide everything you need, including step-by-step instructions on how to design an app that best suits your needs.

Note: Apple recently changed its iTunes App Store regulations, which can affect some no-code app makers. The regulation says, "Apps created from a commercialized template or app generation service will be rejected." The purpose is to eliminate clones and spam apps that can be quickly created, but it may have an effect on small businesses that don't employ a dedicated app developer. Apple doesn't disclose which apps have been rejected or ejected from the App Store, so there's no firm evidence that this will affect those using any specific app maker, but it may. 

A major benefit of using DIY services is their low cost. Most of the services charge monthly fees, which can range anywhere from $1 to a couple hundred dollars, depending on the type of app you build and which devices/app marketplace you'd like to build your app for. The monthly charge includes the costs of both hosting the app each month and making sure it gets placed properly in your app stores of choice.

When selecting a DIY app maker, you'll need to consider the type of app your business needs and which features it will require.

There are different types of DIY app makers for different types of apps, so the two main factors you need to think about are which device(s) you'd like to create an app for and the nature of your business.

Do you want to build an iOS app or an Android app, or both? Or maybe you even want to build it for Windows and BlackBerry. Depending on your business's needs and customers' preferences, the type of platform you build an app for can make a huge difference in your app's success.

Most app makers allow you to build both iOS and Android apps, so this typically isn't a problem. These app makers usually let you build an app for one platform and then automatically recode it for another platform, making the process quick and easy. There are also some app makers that focus on one specific platform, which makes them an excellent choice if you want to take advantage of device-specific features that aren't available on multiplatform app makers.

If you really want to cast a wide net, a select few app makers can also build apps for Windows Phones and BlackBerry devices.

Additionally, some app makers can also create HTML5 apps, which function more like mobile websites and work across devices and platforms.

Although the majority of app makers cover a wide range of businesses and industries, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. A better alternative is to find an app maker that specializes in your type of business.

For instance, merchants can use virtually any app maker to create an app for their store. However, there are also app makers that are built specifically for — or cater primarily to — retailers. Some even specialize in online stores, while others have more features for brick-and-mortar establishments, and thus offer more capabilities to help your store succeed. The same goes for restaurants, salons and service providers, which typically require a unique set of features to deliver a more functional app.

One of the most important things to look for in an app maker is whether it offers the features your app needs. On the surface, most app makers seem to come with the same type of features, but again, not all app makers are built alike. Some offer just the basics, while others are more advanced and thus deliver a better customer experience.

Before jumping right into the process and building an app, the first question you need to answer is how your app will benefit your customers, said Michael LaVista, founder and CEO of Caxy, a Web application development firm that specializes in mobile app development.

"If a business can make ordering easier with an app, or [allow for] checking on [a] status with an app, or deliver something customers want through an app, then it's worth investing in," LaVista said. "Having an app to have an app isn't worth it on its own."

Nicolas Acuña, co-founder of the mobile development firm Ebbex, agreed that you should build an app with your customers' needs in mind.

"If your business is going to create an app, it has to bring value for your customers," Acuña said.

Based on your business type, here are some features to look for:

  • Retailers and online stores. Online storefront, shopping cart and mobile payments, so customers can make purchases straight from your app.
  • Restaurants, bars and other food establishments. Interactive menus, reservation systems and delivery services. Also look for third-party integrations with popular services like Seamless, GrubHub, Yelp and OpenTable.
  • Salons, doctor's offices and other service providers. List of services offered and self-serve appointment system that lets customers see real-time availabilities and automatically schedule a visit.

While the focus of your app should be your customers, don't forget about your business's needs, either. Look for an app maker that can help you get the most out of your app. Here are some things to look for:

  • Push notifications. Alert customers of sales, discounts and other offers.
  • Loyalty program. Maintain and access loyalty cards for repeat customers straight from their phones.
  • Location-based/geotargeted services. Use GPS to track customers' locations and reach out to nearby customers with special offers.
  • Social media. Let customers share your app with their friends and followers, as well as integrate your own social media accounts within the app.
  • One-click contact. Let customers quickly call you by simply tapping on your phone number.
  • Maps integration. Let customers quickly get directions by tapping on your address.
  • Analytics. Get a wide range of reports to see what is and isn't working, in order to improve your app.

Lastly, you should look for an app maker that comes with reliable customer support, so there is always someone there when you need help. Some app makers offer 24/7 support, while others are available only during business hours. These can be in the form of phone, chat and email support, so definitely avoid those that don't offer any customer support at all.

Still want to hire a developer? If you need a more sophisticated mobile app that offers users more functionality, or you simply don't have the time to build an app yourself, an app development firm can create a custom app for you.

Developers will work with you to determine what kind of app will best fit your needs, and then will do all of the work designing, building and even marketing it. There are several drawbacks, however, such as longer build times, the work that goes into finding the right vendor and much higher costs.

Nonetheless, depending on the complexity of the app being built, it often makes more sense to hire an experienced development firm or consultant.

"Working with a firm that understands software and understands mobile will get you to market faster and more successfully than trying to figure out a brand-new business on your own," LaVista said.

Here are three things to consider when hiring a development firm:

Consider the length of time it takes to complete a project. These projects are not turned around in a matter of weeks; these types of firms or consultants can take anywhere from a couple of months to longer than a year to finish a custom mobile app.

Check out the companies the developer has worked with, their process and the types of apps in their portfolio.

"A reference check really says it all," LaVista said. "It tells you what a company is like to work with."

You also want to look for a firm or consultant that is going to spend time up front learning about your business and customers. Acuña advised shying away from firms that quickly say they can do what you want, without first understanding what you really need.

You should also take into account what type of mobile apps the firm has created in the past, how those mobile apps look and operate, the type of payment plan the company requires, whether the firm will work on updates after the launch and whether they will provide you with the source code after finishing the project.

One real plus of having an expert build your mobile app is that such professionals typically work on the project long after the initial launch. The likelihood that a mobile app will be perfect upon its initial release is slim. Mobile development firms typically work with clients, usually for an added cost, after an app is up and running, to see what's working and what is not. Once that is determined, the firm will go back and make changes so you can release an updated version that better fits your customers' needs.

Hiring a developer to do the work for you does come with a significant cost. Mobile-app firms and consultants can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to as much as hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"Custom apps are likely to cost $25,000 at the low end and go up quickly with more features," LaVista said.

The price really depends on how "luxurious" you want your app to be, Acuña said.

"We liken it to buying a car," Acuña said of the different price levels, noting that you can get, for example, a Toyota, Kia or Mercedes. "Not all apps are created equal," he said.

While everyone aims to get the best price possible, sometimes being quoted a cost that is well below everyone else's offer can be a red flag.

"If it's really cheap, it's too good to be true," Acuña said.

The good news is, some DIY app makers give you access to in-house developers or mobile app development firms they have partnered with. This add-on comes at an additional cost. However, it is typically cheaper, as you can start designing and creating the app yourself and then collaborate with a developer on an as-needed basis.


Sara Angeles

Sara is a tech writer with a background in business and marketing. After graduating from UC Irvine, she worked as a copywriter and blogger for nonprofit organizations, tech labs and lifestyle companies. She started freelancing in 2009 and joined Business News Daily in 2013. Follow Sara Angeles on Twitter @sara_angeles.

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