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You Don't Need a Mobile App, You Need a Better Website

Posted by Jeff Williams on Jan 19, 2016 9:01:14 AM
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Laptop and mobile phone on a wooden desk

"Why do we have a website?"

It was a great question. One that stuck in my head for days after our client meeting. I kept turning it over- trying to think in broad terms to find a simple, clear answer.

Where are we today with the websites we’ve created over the last couple of years? Does it make sense to focus on native mobile apps over websites? Where does a company put its limited resources? What problem are we solving? And for whom?

I've seen a growing frustration with the web over the last few years. The current iteration of websites feel slow to deliver on their promises. Content is not well organized, the sites perform slowly, and they seem bloated with information. Today, most people spend 80 percent of their time on a mobile device, and the web experience there is even worse. Websites haven’t been designed well for this platform. Businesses try to overcome these shortfalls, and many turn to "native" mobile apps (a native mobile app is created for a specific phone type like the iPhone or Android device).


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A few years ago, I followed up with a client after we built a new website for them.  I wanted to know how things were going. As a small credit union, they made a big shift from a custom built website to one supported by a content management system. The new site eliminated a big barrier to their communications – a developer had to code every change, which never happened as fast as they needed. Now, instead of weeks, they could make regular content changes instantly. They reported back that the new website had a profound impact in the way they communicated their brand to a world in constant motion.

But as they continued to pursue new communication options, they expressed a desire for a mobile app. Their website launched before responsive web design was even a thing. It wasn't a part of the thought process when we built their new site. At the time, they had a mobile app, but it was an awful product- built as an extension of their online banking system without real considerations for the mobile experience. Product companies often enter a new marketplace with a hastily designed, generic mobile solution in an attempt to generate more revenue. Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of user experience (even today). 

The credit union believed they could create a better experience with a custom mobile app for the iPhone. But like everyone, there is only so much money/time available. Trying to understand their goals, we asked clarifying questions like, “Why do you want a custom mobile app?” After some dialogue, the driving factor surfaced: “Because a Board Member believes we need to have an app in the Apple store, so people can find us”.

Hands selecting an app on an iphone

I’m sure my phone app environment is similar to yours.

We all have the common apps that we use on a daily basis. Apps that handle our needs around email, social connections, calendaring, photos, navigation, news and messaging. Outside of some fun little games, these apps command all our attention. They cause us to bend our heads down, focused on a glowing screen, and diverting our attention from what is happening around us. For some, these apps become addictive enough that we can’t imagine life without them. They become the center of our daily world.

Other apps I use infrequently, but I am a fan because they do something unique. They make our lives a little easier or add some richness without requiring our constant attention. Like when you hear that song you love at a restaurant, so you open Shazam and add it to your list. Or you see a neighbor's house just listed and want to know the price, so you open up Zillow. Or you're helping your son solve math problems, and you need a little extra smarts from Photomath. My Nest (part of a fragmented IOT experience right now) and Starbucks apps also fall here. This is a small sampling of some great apps that are nice but not essential.

Then there are the apps we all have, which are rarely used. They clutter our phone screens, taking time for us to update them, and seem to have no purpose. I may use them once in a blue moon, but it always takes me minutes to find them. I’ve tried grouping and reorganizing them on my phone, but it doesn’t seem to help. If you have lots of room on your phone, you may just leave them there to collect dust. But they are just clutter. They are part of the 1.5 million apps out there competing for space on your phone and your attention.

Most mobile apps are used in small chunks of time. They solve a particular problem, are highly contextual, or take big advantage of some native functionality on the phone like the camera. New apps have to be something we connect with easily and fall into our existing behavior patterns around usage. If it’s not designed well and not engaged with in constant rhythm, it will be relegated to the edges of our phones quickly. Creating a mobile app just to put your brand out there (or be present in an App store) will just generate disappointment and frustration with your users as well as everyone involved in the project to create it.

Understand that building a mobile app is no simple task.

It’s a commitment to a development platform (like iPhone and/or Android), the cultivation of knowledge about your business into a set of developers, and a significant ongoing spend to maintain your app. The financial commitment goes beyond the initial project to build the app. You have to continually update the app to comply with the latest OS release by Apple/Google/both and ensure the user interface is well integrated. The first iteration of your app will need adjustments and feature releases as you learn and pivot based on the feedback of your audience. Each change also requires approval by the owner of the platform. You need to factor in time delays for their audits and may need to make adjustments based on their guidelines. The end result is a system that is complex, and in the software development world, complexity leads to increased cost and time.

Before you commit to a mobile app, you need to look closely at your goals and the type of experience you wish to create. Market research, user studies, and thoughtful planning will provide you with enormous insights. Compare what you learn from this with the way people currently use their phone. There is a limited set of conditions that exist where making the investment makes sense.

  • Will the app be something people will use every day?
  • Does it require a specific functionality from the phone?
  • Does it simplify an existing task?

It is often a far wiser spend to focus on redesigning the web experience to handle the needs of a mobile user. 

Building websites has changed significantly since that first credit union project. Approaching the site from a responsive web design means providing an interactive experience that works across a wide range of devices. Responsive sites are designed to handle specific tasks of mobile users quickly. They can be architected to run in “the cloud” using services from Amazon or Microsoft Azure. This allows them to scale performance as needed to eliminate waiting for page loads. They can be designed to easily test different experience (A/B testing) and learn what features, functionality, or designs work best for users. They can be built on a platform to change as fast as needed by your business. Finally, you can build in all kinds of analytical tools to help you understand how people are interacting with your website.

The key is to approach designing your web experience from a mobile first perspective. If you optimize the experience on the mobile side, you can work free of the constraints found in the app store. That means avoiding the wait for approval on any change to the experience. It means having a flexible platform that can respond quickly to changes in your business. It means making a focused investment in your website rather than spreading it across an iOS app, Android app, and your website. 

Market forces on the mobile side are starting to change the interaction model. There is an interest in building services within messaging frameworks. The idea is that someday, instead of interacting with a specific website or native app to do something like buy dog food, you would simply send a text message to a service saying, “I need dog food” and the service would make sure this happened for you. Today, an early version of this exists within the Facebook Messenger service for Uber.  The reason for moving in this direction is to take advantage of one of the prime reasons people use a mobile device – texting. By using a smart messaging service, you eliminate the need for a native app…and also don’t have to pay an app store percentage on any revenue generated (unless the messaging service adds this in). This is something new on the horizon, but the change is starting to happen now and should be taken into account with any future planning for mobile apps. 

Chances are you don’t need a native mobile app to reach you customers. If you approach the design of your website from a mobile first perspective, you will be able to achieve your goals, save money, and have something that grows with your business. At Springthrough, we walk through a process of Insight, Clarity, and Enablement to uncover your goals and find the right answers. From there, you can weigh and understand whether to pursue a native mobile app or responsive design, and how web development coordinates with your internal business systems to provide the best ideas and solutions.

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Topics: Development Trends

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