Digital Product Development vs Application Development

Holly Avila

8 min read

Sep 15, 2020

Digital Product Development vs Application Development

If there is one constant in the tech world it’s that there will always be change. From established companies working on a pivot to startups hoping to disrupt the digital technology industry, there is always something on the move. For better or worse the constant changes in the digital technology industry also includes the words we use to describe the work we do. 

Take some phrases that are very near and dear to our hearts—digital product development and app development. It’s natural to see these as two sides of the same coin, but that’s not entirely accurate. 

It’s perhaps best to think of it like this: typically app development is a crucial process that can sit within the wider process of digital product development. So, for example, at our digital product development company, Big Nerd Ranch, we can develop an app for you as part of a larger digital product development process. You can also find firms that will just develop an app. Clear as mud, right? Don’t worry, we’ll break it all down so you can decide which digital experience is going to work best for you and your ultimate business objectives.  

Digital Product Development vs Application Development

To get your own app up and running, you could hire a mobile app development company. But if you are in need of a true partner throughout the process, digital product development is what you’re looking for. But what do we mean by that? 

To properly answer that question, it’s essential to break down their processes.  

App Development 

An application is a group of various software programs that run on a smartphone, computer, tablet, or another mobile device. Typically, they have a specific function that’s meant to improve the user experience. App development is best broken down into one of two categories:

  • Mobile applications – The widespread use of smartphones has changed the way we interact, work, and browse. Today, a mobile application is a must-have for almost any major company. For that, they need native mobile apps that are geared toward a specific operating system. They could be aiming for either IOS app development or Android app development, or both. 
  • Web-based applications – Although it may appear that a web application is a little different than a standard web page, there’s so much more to it than that. Developing a web application is a complex process. It involves the digital product creation of various functionalities such as user profiles, login pages, and payment info. These apps require internet access to be used and are usually coded in JavaScript, CSS, and HTML5.

Web and mobile app development don’t just ensure that the app is built on schedule, but that it’s built the right way. This is made possible via the mobile application development life cycle, which is composed of five major phases.

The Five Phases of App Development 

Although it depends on the company, app, and developer, there are normally five key stages of developing an app, whether that be a mobile app or web-based app. 

  • The concept phase – Before an app begins web or mobile development, there’s the initial preplanning and concept stage. This phase is critical to further success and involves a careful thought process to determine what you want to build, how it will be used, and how to ensure that the build supports your organization’s strongest market position.  Here at Big Nerd Ranch, we often refer to this stage as Discovery.
  • Design phase – After all of the application requirements are collated, analyzed, and verified, the initial app design is produced. This phase includes two portions. First, a prototype that provides the fundamental feel and function of what the web or mobile app would look like and how it would work. And then, the first iteration, or initial design that’s passed on to the application programmers. 
  • Development phase – Once the design has been fleshed out and the programming requirements are set, application programmers begin coding to build it out with both front-end and back-end coding segments (in a series of agile sprints). 
  • Quality assurance – Each agile sprint is followed by testing, revising, and testing once more as you fine-tune the app. Because this is a continuous process, testing is repeated several times. According to DevOps, in most cases, tests will include: 
    • Compatibility testing – Ensuring that the app runs flawlessly on different devices and screen sizes. 
    • Interface testing – Confirming that the navigation, menu, and buttons function as expected.
    • Device compatibility testing – Testing the app to see how it looks and performs on different screen sizes. 
    • Low-level resources testing – Checking how the app functions in poor conditions, such as low battery or slow internet connection.
    • Security testing – Ensuring that app users’ privacy and data is secure, and that you’re abiding by federal cybersecurity regulations.
    • Beta testing – Putting the application in the hands of test users who have access to the app and can then give feedback. 

Digital Product Development 

App development is just a small portion of the full digital product development process. A digital product development team is intimately involved with the various intricacies of your business, its operations, marketplace, and goals. 

Many businesses that partner with digital product development firms have the basic app idea but then need more guidance, direction, and manpower. Typically, a company will choose to work with a digital product developer to: 

  • Uncover business problems and solutions – Often, companies have some general ideas for design and a concept for the applications needed, but lack the know-how on how to best reach those end goals. A digital product development firm will conduct a comprehensive discovery period, which helps get to the roots of the business’ pain points. From there, they can help develop digital product solutions. 
  • Collaborate – Few businesses have the internal resources to design, develop, launch, and then maintain a digital product. Or some have an engineering team but need more expertise or guidance in a specific area of development. Digital product development firms provide the resources to fill in the gaps while also supporting and guiding the app development process from start to finish. Your full partner team will include senior engineers,a UI/UX designer, and dedicated project strategists that help guide your project through the process. 
  • Update a product – If you have an existing product that is dated and lags behind the competition, digital product development can optimize the existing code, develop new features, or apply the latest technologies to bring the product up to speed. 

Now, let’s dive into how that process actually plays out. 

The Digital Product Development Process 

The goal of digital product development is to create a useful application that benefits end-users and provides value for your business. A thoughtfully designed and developed digital product has the ability to transform your enterprise for the better. 

While each company and product is unique, the process typically involves four overarching stages.   

1. Assessment

Unlike app developers, digital product development firms are a part of the digital journey from the very beginning stages. They can help you review what the project will require and whether or not your team is capable of handling those demands. The assessment will consider both the needs of your app users and your business. 

To do this, a design and code audit should be conducted on your current system and envisioned product. This helps you see what will be required to reach your goals. 

2. Discovery

One of the end goals of any digital product is to address your client’s pain points. So, before you begin developing the app, you’ll need to build out the concept by defining the desired products and features. A digital product developer helps you ask the right questions, such as:

  • How will the product function? 
  • What problems will it solve? 
  • What will end-users want from it? 
  • How do I ensure the best user experience possible?

The discovery process involves understanding both your business’ and your users’ needs. Together, this research helps you map out the user experience and then compare the concept to existing apps in the competitive marketplace. By doing this ahead of time, you can save both time and money. It allows you to address problems from the outset, instead of allowing them to fester. 

3. Product Development

This brings us to the application development portion of the process that we discussed above. In this stage, the work on design and development begins. Success is largely dependent upon the quality of the information gathered in the fact-finding stages. A savvy digital product developer will use that critical data to inform the entire web and mobile application development process, which includes both prototyping and rigorous testing. 

A modern firm will use agile iterative development, which means that the product is constantly evolving and adapting to change. Neither the scope, budget, or time are fixed, which results in a better end product.  

4. A Clear Runway for Success

You may think that once the product is developed, the only thing left to do is submit it to the app store or launch the website. However, the development process doesn’t end there (even though that’s the point at which when many app developers bow out). 

Unlike with app developers, digital product development firms understand that the process doesn’t stop after development. A good firm will guide you through the process of moving from Beta to market and ensure that your launch to the app stores is seamless. In that time bugs are hammered out, functionalities added or updated, and the app continuously improved through to launch day. 

Big Nerd Ranch – Your Digital Product Development Solution 

While both app development and digital product development share some similarities, when you work with a digital product development team, you receive comprehensive digital product development services and coordination. 

At Big Nerd Ranch our goal isn’t simply to build you an app, it’s to be your digital partner, it’s to empower you to go to entirely new heights. Our team of Nerds can increase your team’s output, strategically support your current infrastructure, and build out a fully designed digital product that is personalized to your business’ needs and consumer base. 

Why work with a mobile app developer when you could get so much more out of a partnership with a digital product developer? 


Dev Ops. Understanding the App Development Life Cycle.


Holly brings over 15 years of marketing, advertising, and public relations experience to the BNR Marketing team. In her role as Director of Marketing, Holly oversees everything from year-long campaigns to representing us at conferences—all in the pursuit of bringing the good news of BNR to as many people as possible.

Zack Simon

Reviewer Big Nerd Ranch

Zack is an Experience Director on the Big Nerd Ranch design team and has worked on products for companies ranging from startups to Fortune 100s. Zack is passionate about customer experience strategy, helping designers grow in their career, and sharpening consulting and delivery practices.

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