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Should I Create An App or Use A Mobile Site?

John Doherty —  February 1, 2013
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This past Sunday evening I sent out a tweet that garnered a large number of replies, so I thought I’d write a full post on it and try to flesh out my thoughts about apps vs a mobile website. Here is the tweet:

I asked this question because I am, to a great extent, an app minimalist. The other day I was curious about using Google Chat (Gchat) on my iPhone, but when I did some investigation and was about to download the most recommended app, I realized something. I don’t really want Gchat on my iPhone. I actually really like that when I’m not at my computer, people cannot reach me unless they have my cell phone number or my email should I choose to check it (and I have notifications turned off so as not to be disturbed when I do not want to be). But I digress.

I started thinking about when companies should use a mobile app, such as for iOS or Android, instead of a mobile website, either a dedicated mobile site or responsive design. There seem to be good arguments for each, though as I thought about it over the past few days I’ve come to the realization that it is not an either/or decision. In fact, I would argue that products that have a mobile app should also have a responsive or mobile-dedicated website (though not necessarily vice-versa).

Reasons People Gave

People gave many great reasons for having an app, so I thought I’d let them say it in their own words (via embedded tweets) instead of me trying to paraphrase them.

Notifications

Many people mentioned the notifications on apps. That is, the ability to push notifications to your customer’s smartphone in order to bring them back to the app. Of course, this doesn’t them reach users like myself that turn off all notifications except for text messages and phone calls, but I digress once more.

Notifications are mentioned because they work. Think especially about an app that is locally-based to let you know when friends are around and you should say hello. In that case, a notification is a good thing.

To make a quick counter-argument though, websites are starting to be able to do this as well. Just check out AlertRocket (full disclosure: I am not affiliated with them in any way, but if I had money to invest I would give it to them).

Targeting A Specific Platform

Carlos Del Rio raised the great point of targeting a specific platform:

I think this is a great argument if you are indeed going to stay mobile, though I have a hard time believing anyone will. Even services like FourSquare have needed a web app for doing things like setting up an event or customer service.

This, though, is a very strong argument to be sure, especially when the app can sync and be used offline (which is a big deal especially when you live in a city like New York City).

Easy Payments

Another reason for using a mobile app was storing credit cards easily:

This is a very valid argument, and one I honestly had not considered before. If you use your phone for making purchases, such as Seamless or Grubhub for ordering food, having a mobile app is a great idea for the user experience.

Different Features

A further argument is for features that are mobile-specific for a better user experience, and you aren’t going to or cannot offer them through the web app, such as locations:

It would depend on the service, but for example Zillow has a really good app that you can use for discovering apartments around you. It works a lot better than the mobile website (notice that they have both).

Growth

A mobile app can be an amazing way to increase your user base, and even to ultimately draw them to your website and get them using your web product as well. As Jordan Franklin, VP of Growth at Grovo, put it:

Fair enough. I've seen Jordan's work firsthand and I'll listen to him :-)

What's The Choice?

I think Jordan nailed it on the head when he said:

In my mind, don't create an app until you have a mobile strategy. What need will an app fulfill and drive that a responsive website cannot? For example, notifications/engagement is a great reason.

Second, your mobile app and your web app should work together (hence the strategy mentioned above) to drive further engagement. Whatever your app does on the web, your goal can be to keep them engaged with your product by offering a superior product with the addition of a mobile app or mobile-friendly web app. Think about customer service, or directions, or realtime. The opportunities are endless.

Conclusion

So, mobile first or web first? Mobile app or mobile/responsive site? I think, honestly, that it depends on what drives your business. An app can be quite data-driven and give you different analytics than a website, but you also need adoption. A website can give you other analytics and is easier to launch/maintain (arguably), but once again you need visitors and you may lose out on engagement and realtime.

I guess this just shows that there is no right answer for everyone.

I'll be honest. Before I asked the question, I was leaning heavily towards always having a responsive or mobile-friendly site and rarely having a mobile app. Now, I've been more convinced that a mobile app can be a great investment for the right companies, as long as one or the other is not unduly neglected.

I'd love your thoughts here to continue the conversation.

John Doherty

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I'm the Senior Marketing Manager of HotPads.com, based in San Francisco. Previous to Hotpads I worked at Distilled for 2 years as an online marketing consultant. In my spare time I shoot lifestyle photography, ski, rock climb, and update my Twitter and Google+ accounts.

9 responses to Should I Create An App or Use A Mobile Site?

  1. John, I think this is often going to be a question of resources. If I can only afford (whether we’re talking time or money) to do one of these, which to choose. In that conversation I generally see the suggestion that a responsive or mobile-friendly site is the first step. Of course, that won’t be true in all cases and it is important to weigh all the relevant factors before reaching a decision.

    From a user’s perspective the big advantage to having an app is, for me, ease of access. If there is a service I use regularly (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, G+, Gmail) I don’t want to have to navigate to it via my browser and I don’t want to have to manually add a link to the mobile site to my home screen. I don’t want to risk coming across tiny buttons or inadequate CSS or external links that take me away from the page I’m logged in to. I want a consistent self-contained experience.

    That’s not necessarily the case for all things, however, and I don’t want a million apps on my phone covering all the things I do online.

  2. I love this. I’ve had this same conversation for years, and I keep landing in the same place. In my opinion… start with a responsive web app, until it’s clear that the features that you want to push to customers can no longer be accommodated (well) by this medium. Then move to a native app. This – I find – is a decent solution, especially if there are budgetary restrictions.

  3. Good post John!

    Mostly I would say depends on two factors:

    1. The audience volume you have (and the potential one) using a particular type of technology: iOS or Android oriented that would be able to use the app.

    2. The type of integration and services you look to provide, that could require a much better integration with your device notifications services among others.

    I’m a big fan of testing and validation so at the beginning I would say a much safer approach would be: create a Web mobile experience for your audience initially and if you can see there’s mobile app potential and validate the above mentioned numbers it would be a much safer investment to make.

  4. Funny you should post this John, as we have just been in discussion with a potential client on this very point. In the vast majority of cases, this is going to come down to resource and budget (as Iain says). For that reason, I would tend to lean heavily towards a responsive site.

    Firstly, a responsive site means you have a single resource that serves all users – computer users, tablet users, mobile users on any platform. If you go with an app, the expense could be massive when you consider that you would probably need to build at least two – iOS and Android. With a responsive site, you only have one thing to maintain and update. making it both easier and more cost effective. You can even have a nice icon that looks just like an app icon when people add to their homescreen, and even encourage them to do so when they load up your mobile / responsive site for the second time (see Grooveshark).

    Naren’s stat about increasing engagement on apps is fine, but arguably this is because not enough people are implementing responsive / mobile sites, or indeed doing it well. Responsive sites will just get better and better – with HTML5 and CSS3, we could have some awesome responsive sites in the near future. Are notifications worth an extra £60k? Only if you have a cash to burn.

  5. Apps you get from an App store won’t exist 5 years from now (well maybe 10). If it’s not in a browser (web based) you’re doing your users a disservice.

    If its just a moderately complex website, responsive design or GTFO.

  6. John, great question – I’ve asked myself this question too sometimes.

    One area where an app has an advantage is in marketing, and getting the attention of press. You’re more likely to get a review written if it’s an app vs just a mobile website, especially if it’s something innovative.

    Secondly, it’s a question of whether your content is text or image heavy. if it’s visual, then an app makes more sense since it’s easier to browse. if it’s mostly text, we’re used to reading it in a browser.

  7. Thanks for including me in the post. In regards to payments on an app versus mobile web, Stripe is trying to make process on mobile web more easy lessoning that as a reason.
    http://thenextweb.com/insider/2013/01/18/stripe-launches-checkout-with-overlay-payment-form-and-mobile-support-optimized-for-android-and-ios/

  8. Good post, John! I’d like to +1 Mark and Tyler’s comments above! =)

    With the introduction of HTML5 and the untapped power of jQuery and CSS3, a mobile app is usually unnecessary. It pains me to see so many companies investing in apps when they could achieve the same experience for the same time and cost (less long-term) with mobile web and not alienate web users or mobile platforms.

    You might need a mobile app… IF:
    1) You have large amounts of data that don’t stream well for web. (e.g. visualization/configurator tools)
    2) Your proposal uniquely integrates or leverages mobile device features (e.g. maps, camera, geolocation, SMS notifications, touchscreen gestures*, etc.)
    3) Your content requires functionality that the mobile device/HTML5/browser combo can’t fully accommodate [yet]. (e.g. cookies, offline accessibility)

    [On the touchscreen gestures note, this should be a foundational aspect of the app (think "Temple Run" gestures) to justify the expense. Simple navigation expand/collapse/zoom/etc. can otherwise be done in jQuery.]

    If your scenario doesn’t adequately meet at least one of the criteria above, a mobile app likely isn’t justified. You need to invest in a responsive website. I have yet to hear of a good mobile app scenario that wouldn’t pass my 3 criteria above, but I’m totally open to suggestions! =)

    Besides prequalifying mobile apps with the criteria above, one of the most important questions to ask is, “Does the audience want the app, and will they actually buy/download/use it?” Mobile apps are a big investment. No one wants to spend a big chunk of their budget and have it fail. If the content is great, and it’s designed for web, it should minimally aid SEO and drive some traffic. …Likely way more traffic than folks would see from the app store!

    At the end of the day, don’t just build “toys”; build solutions that improve user experience and serve specific business goals. Users are watching. If they see you invest in a virtually useless mobile app and ignore improvements to the website they regularly use, your brand priorities may be up for discussion.

  9. Dealt with soundly here:
    http://www.nngroup.com/articles/mobile-sites-vs-apps-strategy-shift/
    (almost exactly 1 year prior to yours!)
    For the sake of low-end phones that can’t handle many apps, I would prefer if the website just worked, rather than needing an app for every url I want to go to! What else is the point of a browser?
    Not even the biggest memory card there is can handle an app for every site on the internet.