Back to blog

Step-by-Step Guide to E-commerce App Development for Non-Tech Founders

Olga Gubanova


April 6, 2024

As we step into 2024, the e-commerce landscape is more vibrant than ever, with digital transactions expected to represent 21.2% of total retail sales. Remarkably, 40.4% of these sales are poised to come through mobile channels, highlighting an undeniable pivot towards mobile commerce.

For non-tech founders, the digital shift presents a golden opportunity marred by complex challenges. Understanding the intricacies of app development—from choosing the right tech stack to ensuring a seamless user experience—can be overwhelming. Our E-commerce App Development Guide cuts through the complexity, offering actionable insights and straightforward advice to empower your venture into the digital marketplace.

Take, for example, the vision our client had for WaveRider*, a surfboard retail application with ambitions of global reach. When they approached us, they entrusted not just their dream but also the challenge of penetrating an unfamiliar digital marketplace. Our commitment to transforming WaveRider from a mere concept into a leading e-commerce solution was underpinned by rigorous market analysis, ensuring a solid foundation for its success. This journey exemplifies our approach to e-commerce development, showcasing our ability to guide non-tech founders through the digital landscape.

Drawing from our rich history of crafting successful e-commerce solutions, we share real-world examples and strategies that demystify the process.

Find out how much your app idea will cost—use our AI-powered calculator to get an estimate instantly.

Market Analysis for E-commerce Success

Market research and audience identification aren't just initial steps; they are the foundation upon which successful e-commerce ventures are built. Here's how to get started:

  • Analyze Competitors: Employ e-commerce market analysis tools like SimilarWeb for traffic insights and Google Trends to grasp industry movements.

We used SimilarWeb to identify that while many competitors focus on a wide range of surfing equipment, few offer in-depth customization of surfboards. Google Trends showed a rising interest in high-performance and custom surfboards.

Market Analysis for E-commerce Success: Analyze Competitors
  • Survey the Landscape: Explore social media, forums, and reviews to gather consumer insights directly related to your niche.

Engaged with users on surf forums and social media, discovering a strong community interest in boards that offer both high performance in various surfing conditions and the ability to be personalized.

  • Develop Buyer Personas: Craft detailed profiles based on demographics, behavior, and preferences, using surveys and interviews for data.

Created "High-Performance Harry," a serious surfer looking for a board that can handle big waves and "Creative Carla," who wants a board that stands out visually and performs well.

  • Segment Your Audience: Break down your audience into smaller segments to tailor your app's features and marketing strategies more effectively.

Identified two main segments: competitive surfers focused on performance and casual surfers who value aesthetics and customizability. This informed our product lineup and marketing approach.

  • Leverage Analytics: Use analytics tools to examine user behavior patterns, focusing on purchasing habits and feedback on existing e-commerce platforms. Integrate Google Analytics and Mixpanel early in the planning phase to set benchmarks and goals based on existing data from similar platforms. Use Hotjar to map out the user journey, identifying key interactions for your app to focus on improving user experience.

Identified two main segments: competitive surfers focused on performance and casual surfers who value aesthetics and customizability. This informed product lineup and marketing approach.

  • Prioritize User Experience: Utilizing principles of e-commerce user experience design, base your app’s features and elements on your target audience's expectations.

For WaveRider, we honed our strategy by dividing users into two key segments: competitive and recreational surfers, tailoring features to suit each group's specific needs.

Competitive Surfers:

  • Custom Board Builder: Allows detailed customization of board specs for optimal performance.
  • Performance Analytics: Offers data on how different boards perform in competitions.
  • Expert Consultation: Provides access to experts for personalized board design advice.

Recreational Surfers:

  • Smart Recommendations: Suggests boards based on user habits and preferences.
  • Community Insights: Features reviews and tips from the recreational surfer community.
  • Visual Customization: Enables aesthetic personalization of surfboards, from colors to designs.

This targeted approach ensures every surfer finds the right board, enhancing the WaveRider app’s appeal across the surfing spectrum.

Market Analysis for E-commerce Success - Develop Buyer Personas
  • Engage with Industry Content: Follow industry reports and thought leaders, and participate in webinars to keep up with emerging trends like AR shopping or AI personalization.

Followed surf industry trends and technology advancements, using insights to introduce a line of boards designed for emerging surfing styles, like foil surfing. Fortunately, the customer's product production was agile, quickly adapting to market demands.

  • Innovate Based on Insights: Use these trends to inform the innovative features of your e-commerce app, setting you apart from competitors.

We've integrated an AI-driven Personalized Surfboard Advisor powered by ChatGPT into our Virtual Try-Out feature. This innovative tool revolutionizes the way surfers choose boards by offering tailored recommendations based on their unique preferences and surfing conditions. By conversing with the AI, users can explore how different boards might perform in scenarios they describe, from tackling towering waves to navigating calm waters. This approach not only simplifies the selection process but also educates surfers on the best board choices for enhancing their performance, all while providing a highly personalized and interactive shopping experience.

  • Test Early Concepts: Employ focus groups or release an MVP to gather feedback from actual users, refining your approach based on real-world data.

In WaveRider's MVP phase, we focused on the AI-powered Personalized Surfboard Advisor and Virtual Try-Out feature, granting early access to a select group for feedback. This strategy provided essential insights into the feature's usability and accuracy in recommending surfboards, guiding refinements to improve user experience and simulation realism.

By following these steps, you'll build a solid foundation for your e-commerce app, ensuring it's well-positioned to meet your target market's needs and stand out in a competitive landscape.

Unlock development insights with "Project Management Secrets: Inside Look with Ptolemay's Expert" – your guide to mastering project stages effectively.

Crafting Your E-commerce Value Proposition

Define and communicate your e-commerce app's unique advantage—be it top-notch customer service, groundbreaking features, or eco-friendly offerings. Pinpoint what sets you apart, leverage customer insights and market data to refine this edge, and make it the core of your messaging to meet and exceed your audience's expectations.

Instagram, founded by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, showcases how non-tech founders can succeed with a strong value proposition. They differentiated Instagram by focusing on easy photo sharing with unique filters, quickly capturing a global audience. This emphasis on simplicity and aesthetics turned Instagram into a social media giant, underscoring the power of meeting user needs in a crowded marketplace.

WaveRider's value proposition: "Catch the Perfect Wave with Your Ideal Board." As developers, we crafted WaveRider to solve surfers' challenges in finding the right board and connecting with the community. Through AI precision and community insights, WaveRider transforms the quest for the right surfboard into a shared adventure, directly addressing surfers' desire for both optimal performance and belonging.

Strategic Planning for E-commerce Apps

When embarking on the journey of e-commerce app development, a solid plan lays the foundation for success. Here’s how to strategically approach the planning phase:

Strategic Planning for E-commerce Apps

Choosing the Right Platform

Balance your e-commerce tech stack selection with your target audience’s preferred devices, budget, and timeline to choose the optimal development path.

Native Apps: Developed for specific platforms (iOS or Android), native apps offer high performance, superior user experience, and better access to device features. The trade-off? Higher development costs and longer timelines, as separate apps must be developed for each platform.

Hybrid Apps: These apps are built using web technologies and wrapped in a native container, allowing them to run on multiple platforms. While more cost-effective and faster to develop than native apps, hybrid apps can suffer from lower performance and a less seamless user experience.

For WaveRider, we opted for cross-platform e-commerce solutions, choosing Flutter for its ability to deliver a seamless, native-like experience across both iOS and Android with a single codebase.

This choice was strategic: Flutter's efficiency in development and maintenance aligns with our goal to rapidly iterate based on user feedback while managing costs effectively. Its rich set of customizable widgets and the ability to incorporate advanced UI features made it the ideal platform to bring WaveRider's immersive, user-centric design to life, ensuring a consistent and high-quality experience for all users, regardless of their device.

Feature Set Planning

Your e-commerce app must have a core set of features to meet user expectations and foster engagement:

  1. User-Friendly Design: Ensure easy navigation and a seamless shopping experience.
  2. Secure Payment Gateways: Incorporate multiple, trusted payment options.
  3. Personalized Recommendations: Use AI to suggest products based on user behavior.
  4. Customer Reviews and Ratings: Build trust and guide purchasing decisions.
  5. Easy Checkout Process: Minimize steps to reduce cart abandonment rates.

Prioritize features based on what your target audience values most, ensuring to balance innovation with practicality.

For WaveRider, our feature set planning focused on creating a rich, engaging user experience tailored to the surfing community's unique needs. Key features include:

  1. Surfboard Customization Tool: Enables users to customize surfboards based on dimensions, materials, and design preferences, ensuring every surfer finds their perfect match.
  2. Real-Time Wave Conditions: Integrates with global weather services to provide surfers with up-to-the-minute wave conditions at their favorite spots.
  3. Community Platform: A dedicated space for surfers to connect, share experiences, and organize meet-ups, fostering a sense of community.
  4. Expert Reviews and Recommendations: Features insights from professional surfers and industry experts, offering guidance and recommendations to users.
  5. AR Try-On: Utilizes AR technology to allow surfers to visualize how different surfboards look and feel, enhancing the online shopping experience.

Unlock new possibilities in mobile commerce app development by exploring "How to Integrate ChatGPT into Your Business: 20 Features That Open Up New Prospects".

Budgeting Wisely

Developing an e-commerce app requires careful financial planning. Consider the costs of design, development, testing, marketing, and maintenance. Remember, the choice between native and hybrid apps significantly impacts your budget due to the differences in development time and resources needed.

Create a detailed budget that accounts for all stages of the app lifecycle. Allocate funds for post-launch support and updates, and consider potential overruns. It's wise to have a contingency fund of around 10-20% of your total budget.

In developing WaveRider for our client, a surfboard retail company, we employed a "time and materials" contract, focusing solely on direct development costs to ensure transparency and control. Our past tense planning included $50,000 for Flutter-based cross-platform development, facilitating the app’s availability on both iOS and Android without duplicating efforts.

Integrating real-time wave conditions, a key feature for the surfing community, required an additional investment of $10,000 for API integration. The creation of a community platform, essential for user interaction and engagement, was budgeted at $15,000.

Recognizing the potential for unforeseen development challenges, we also set aside a $10,000 contingency fund. This meticulous budgeting led to a total development cost of $85,000, carefully allocated to ensure WaveRider's development was both efficient and aligned with our client’s vision and the app’s market goals.

Explore the precise budget for your app with our AI-powered calculator at Ptolemay's App Cost Calculator – calculate now to tailor your project's financial planning with accuracy and ease.

Design Principles for E-commerce Apps

Effective app design bridges user needs with your business goals. Here’s a practical approach:

User Experience (UX) Principles

Start by sketching user flows to visualize the path customers will take within your app, like finding a surfboard on WaveRider. Develop wireframes for each screen, ensuring a logical flow and easy navigation. Early on, involve real users in testing these wireframes, adjusting based on their feedback to enhance intuitiveness and remove any usability hurdles.

User Interface (UI) Design

Prioritize the app’s visual appeal through color schemes, typography, and imagery that reflect your brand and resonate with your audience.

For WaveRider, we selected a palette inspired by the sea and surf culture, coupled with clear, concise icons and buttons to guide users smoothly through their purchase journey. High-resolution images and minimalistic design elements were used to highlight products and features without overwhelming users.

Collaborating with Designers

Ensure clear, continuous communication with your design team by providing a detailed brief of your vision, goals, and user expectations. Utilize mood boards to convey the feel and look you’re aiming for. Embrace the designers’ expertise, allowing them to suggest enhancements or alternatives that could better serve the app’s objectives.

With WaveRider, feedback loops were established, integrating user feedback into the design process, ensuring the final product was not only visually appealing but also user-friendly and aligned with surfer’s needs.

Agile E-commerce App Development Process

Navigating the app development process requires strategic decisions and partnerships to transform your vision into reality effectively. Here’s a concise guide on approaching this phase:

Choosing the Right Development Partner

Selecting a partner with relevant experience is critical. Full-cycle companies like Ptolemay offer comprehensive services from ideation through to launch and beyond, providing a seamless experience. In contrast, some firms specialize only in development, which might require you to manage design or marketing separately.

For WaveRider, partnering with a full-cycle firm ensured expertise across all stages of development, reducing the complexity of coordinating with multiple vendors. When choosing a partner, prioritize those with a portfolio that aligns with your vision and a proven track record in your app’s target market.

For a detailed roadmap on finding the right app development partner that aligns with your project's needs, visit Ptolemay's Essential Guide to Choosing the Perfect App Development Company.

Agile Development Methodology

Agile methodology emphasizes flexibility, continuous feedback, and iterative progress. Unlike traditional models, agile allows for rapid adjustments based on testing results and stakeholder input, making it ideal for app development where user needs and market trends can evolve quickly.

Using Agile, we accelerated WaveRider's development with two-week sprints, focusing on rapid iterations. A key moment was swiftly integrating AI for surfboard recommendations after early user feedback, demonstrating Agile's strength in adapting to user needs.

Milestone Planning

Establishing clear milestones is essential for tracking progress and ensuring project alignment with your goals. Break down the development process into key phases, such as initial concept validation, MVP launch, and successive feature releases.

For WaveRider, we outlined milestones: MVP development, user interface finalization, beta launch, and full release. Each phase had specific targets, such as enhancing the AI recommendation engine post-MVP feedback, showcasing the precision in achieving project goals through structured milestone planning.

Explore the journey from mobile app technical specifications to MVP creation in our article.

Selecting a Tech Stack for E-commerce Apps

In the rapidly evolving digital marketplace, selecting the right technical stack for an e-commerce app is crucial for achieving performance, scalability, and user satisfaction. Here’s a breakdown of a professional-grade technical stack tailored for e-commerce applications, ensuring robust functionality and a seamless user experience:

Selecting a Tech Stack for E-commerce Apps
  • Frontend (User Interface): Flutter is increasingly the go-to choice for creating visually stunning and highly responsive user interfaces. Its ability to compile into native code for both Android and iOS from a single codebase makes it a cost-effective solution for delivering exceptional user experiences across devices.
  • Backend (Server-side operations): Node.js stands out for backend development due to its non-blocking, event-driven architecture, making it ideal for e-commerce platforms that require real-time capabilities like live tracking of orders and instant updates.
  • Database (Data storage): MongoDB, a NoSQL database, is preferred for its flexibility in handling various data types and its scalability, which is essential for e-commerce platforms experiencing fluctuating traffic and rapidly expanding product catalogs.
  • Payment Integration (Transaction processing): Integrating Stripe and PayPal offers a secure, reliable, and user-friendly payment experience. These platforms are renowned for their robust security measures and broad acceptance, facilitating global transactions.
  • Real-time Data Processing (Live updates): WebSocket technology is critical for features requiring real-time data exchange, such as stock levels, price changes, and order statuses, ensuring users have access to the most current information.
  • ChatGPT Integration (Customer service and engagement): Leveraging OpenAI's GPT-3 for customer service and personalized shopping experiences can significantly enhance user engagement, providing instant responses and recommendations through natural language processing.
  • Cloud Infrastructure (Hosting and scalability): Amazon Web Services (AWS) offers a comprehensive suite of cloud computing services. Its global infrastructure and vast array of tools support scalability, reliability, and security, key for growing e-commerce platforms.
  • Security (Protecting user data): Implementing SSL/TLS encryption is non-negotiable for securing user data, especially in transactions. Alongside, AWS’s built-in security features ensure compliance with international data protection regulations.
  • Analytics and Optimization (Market analysis): Google Analytics for Firebase offers detailed insights into user behavior and app performance, critical for optimizing marketing strategies and improving the user journey.

WaveRider's tech stack optimizes surfboard sales and user engagement. Using Flutter for a seamless shopping experience across devices, Node.js for fast updates on stock and user activity, and MongoDB for handling product and user data. Stripe and PayPal ensure secure payments. WebSocket and ChatGPT engage users with real-time surf conditions and personalized recommendations, all powered by AWS for reliable scaling and security. This setup not only boosts sales but also builds a vibrant surfer community.

Tools & Strategies for E-commerce Optimization

For an e-commerce app development project, leveraging specific tools and strategies can significantly enhance its effectiveness and market readiness. Here's how to apply this approach, with a focus on practical tools:

  1. E-commerce Market Analysis: Use Google Trends and SEMrush for understanding market demands and competitor strategies. Analyze customer reviews on platforms like Amazon for insights into consumer preferences and pain points.
  2. Secure Payment Gateways Integration: Implement Stripe, PayPal, and Apple Pay for secure and diverse payment options. Ensure all payment systems comply with the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) for security.
  3. Inventory and Supply Chain Management: Utilize Shopify's API for inventory management if operating on a smaller scale, or SAP for larger, more complex operations, to streamline supply chain processes directly within your app.
  4. Monetization and Pricing Strategy: Deploy tools like Price Intelligently for dynamic pricing models that adjust based on real-time market data, maximizing profitability.
  5. Compliance with E-commerce Regulations: For GDPR compliance, tools like TrustArc or OneTrust can help manage user data securely. Ensure your app meets local and international e-commerce regulations by consulting legal compliance software like Avalara for tax calculations.
  6. User Data Security and Privacy: Implement encryption with AES-256 through services like Let's Encrypt for data transmission. Use Amazon Web Services (AWS) for secure, scalable cloud hosting with built-in compliance controls.
  7. Scalable Tech Infrastructure: Utilize AWS or Google Cloud Platform for a cloud infrastructure that scales automatically during traffic peaks. Consider Kubernetes for container orchestration to manage your app's deployment at scale.
  8. Detailed Analytics and Performance Metrics: Google Analytics for Firebase offers comprehensive insights into app usage and user engagement, while Mixpanel provides advanced user behavior analytics for e-commerce specifics.
  9. Customer Support and Service: Integrate Zendesk or Intercom for multi-channel customer support, including live chat and AI-powered chatbots, to enhance customer service and automate responses.
  10. Iterative Development and A/B Testing: Use Optimizely or Google Optimize for A/B testing different features and user interfaces. This helps in identifying the most effective elements that contribute to user engagement and conversion rates.

E-commerce App Testing & Launch Strategy

These crucial steps ensure your app functions flawlessly and resonates with your target audience upon release:

Quality Assurance (QA)

QA tests every app feature against specified requirements to catch and fix bugs early. For WaveRider, extensive device and OS testing ensured features like the surfboard customization tool worked seamlessly, vital for user trust and a smooth market entry.

Beta Testing

Beta testing with a select user group provides real-world insights, crucial for final adjustments. WaveRider’s beta phase identified a need for more intuitive navigation, leading to essential UI enhancements that boosted user engagement.

Launch Strategy

Effective launch strategies extend beyond app store submission, involving:

  1. Pre-launch Marketing: Generates anticipation. WaveRider used social media teasers and targeted emails to build hype.
  2. App Store Optimization (ASO): Essential for visibility. We optimized WaveRider’s app store presence with strategic keywords and compelling visuals.
  3. Launch Timing: We timed WaveRider’s launch to coincide with the start of the surfing season, maximizing user interest.
  4. Post-launch Support: Immediate response to any issues and user feedback keeps the app relevant and users satisfied.

Implementing these steps meticulously ensured WaveRider launched successfully, combining technical readiness with market anticipation for optimal user adoption.

E-commerce App Growth & Engagement Tactics

After the launch, the focus shifts to growth and ongoing refinement:

Marketing Your App

Utilize social media for community building and user engagement, leveraging both organic posts and paid ads to widen reach. Collaborate with influencers to gain credibility and access new audiences. Employ targeted advertising on platforms like Google and Facebook to attract specific user groups, and keep users engaged with regular email updates.

Analytics and Feedback

Deploy analytics tools, such as Google Analytics, to track user interactions and identify popular features or friction points. Analyze user feedback from app reviews and direct communications to gather qualitative insights. Use this data to inform decision-making, prioritizing updates that align with user needs and preferences.

Continuous Improvement

Regularly update your app to fix bugs, enhance performance, and introduce new features based on user feedback and market trends.

WaveRider introduced new forecasting tools and community features in response to user demand, maintaining its competitive edge. Stay informed about technological advancements to continually enhance the user experience.

WaveRider: E-commerce App Case Study

Objective: To create WaveRider, a comprehensive app catering to the surfing community with features for surfboard customization, real-time wave forecasts, and social connectivity.

Team Composition and Roles:

  • Project Manager: Coordination and timeline management.
  • UI/UX Designers: User-centric design focus.
  • Flutter Developers: Cross-platform development.
  • Data Scientists: ChatGPT integration for personalized recommendations.
  • QA Engineers: Ensuring app reliability and performance.
  • Marketing Specialist: Driving user acquisition and engagement.

Development Phases and Timeline:

  1. Concept and Planning (Month 1): Gathering initial requirements, creating user personas, and outlining the app’s core functionalities.
  2. Design and Development (Months 1-3): Executing UI/UX designs and beginning Flutter development for the MVP.
  3. ChatGPT Integration and Data Preparation (Months 2-4): Training ChatGPT with surfboard data and user queries for tailored interactions.
  4. Testing and Refinement (Months 3-5): Identifying and fixing issues through QA processes and user feedback loops.
  5. Marketing and Launch Preparation (Months 4-6): Developing and implementing a marketing strategy focused on the surfing community.

Customer Requirements:

  • Detailed surfboard inventory data.
  • Access to reliable wave condition databases.
  • Defined user engagement goals for personalized ChatGPT training.

Key Deliverables:

  • A cross-platform app developed using Flutter.
  • Integrated real-time wave forecasts and community features.
  • ChatGPT-powered personalized surfboard recommendations.

Project Challenges:

  • Ensuring accurate and relevant ChatGPT responses to user queries.
  • Balancing cross-platform functionality with high performance in Flutter.
  • Achieving a seamless integration of real-time data for wave conditions.

Results After 3 Months:

  • Achieved a 40% user retention rate, highlighting strong user interest and satisfaction.
  • 60% engagement rate in community features, demonstrating effective social connectivity and value addition through ChatGPT recommendations.

Total Project Time: 6 months from initial planning to app launch, followed by iterative improvements based on user feedback.

The successful launch and positive early metrics of WaveRider showcase the effectiveness of a well-structured development process, leveraging a multidisciplinary team and advanced technologies like ChatGPT. Moving forward, the focus will remain on refining features, expanding the user base, and enhancing community engagement, with continuous updates driven by user feedback and market trends.

E-commerce websites are the digital storefronts that transform browsing into buying, a process refined by understanding customer behaviors. Effective online business strategies are rooted in mapping customer journeys, ensuring that from the landing to product pages, the experience is seamless for your customer base.

By selling products that resonate with the audience, and leveraging robust technology stacks, businesses can create responsive product pages with clear, enticing product descriptions. This is where the synergy of a high-quality product or service offering meets the digital finesse that customers prefer.

It's critical to tune into customers' preferences, tailoring the online shopping experience to their habits and feedback. Only then can e-commerce platforms align with the expectations of today’s consumers, leading to conversions and cultivating loyalty.

Conclusion: Key Strategies for E-commerce Development Success

Success in the e-commerce space demands more than just a good idea; it requires a deep understanding of your market, a user-first design philosophy, and the agility to adapt and grow. Here are some nuanced strategies for those embarking on this journey:

  • Insight-driven Development: Base your app’s features and functionalities on real user needs and market gaps, not just on assumptions.
  • Design with Empathy: Craft your app’s user experience to solve real problems for real people, making every interaction thoughtful and purposeful.
  • Embrace Flexibility: Be prepared to pivot based on feedback and changing market dynamics. The digital landscape evolves rapidly, and so should your app.
  • Focus on Quality: A seamless, bug-free user experience is non-negotiable. Invest in thorough testing to build trust and reliability.
  • Strategize Beyond Launch: Plan for what comes after the launch—user acquisition, engagement, and retention are ongoing efforts.

In this complex scenario, aligning with experienced development teams can be invaluable. Teams with a rich portfolio, especially those seasoned in retail, bring not just development skills but a strategic understanding of how to engage digital consumers effectively.

This approach isn't about handing over control; it's about collaborating with experts to bring your vision to life, ensuring your e-commerce venture is built on a foundation of industry knowledge, user-centric design, and technological excellence.

*As part of our commitment to respecting confidentiality agreements and privacy considerations, please note that the name of the application discussed in this article has been changed by a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA). This alteration ensures compliance with contractual obligations and the protection of proprietary information as stipulated in the NDA.