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:
Why oh why would you build an app instead of making a responsive site? Discuss.
— John Doherty (@dohertyjf) January 28, 2013
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.
@dohertyjf one simple word.notifications
— Gary Henderson (@GaryLHenderson) January 28, 2013
— Naren (@narenism) January 28, 2013
@dohertyjf Ease of getting to a site, notifications, different features than website, incentives for interacting.
— Paige Willey (@PaigeCWilley) January 28, 2013
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:
@dohertyjf If you are only targeting one platform, or if you are trying to engage actions that are data sensitive
— Carlos del Rio (@inflatemouse) January 28, 2013
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).
Another reason for using a mobile app was storing credit cards easily:
— Brandondud (@brandondud) January 28, 2013
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.
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:
@dohertyjf You mean other than being able to deliver a much better user experience? How about establishing G independent user base?
— GregBoser (@GregBoser) January 28, 2013
@dohertyjf I'm all for responsive sites over apps, but I could see the benefit of GPS/location, tap into contacts, report back activity, etc
— Matt Morgan (@MattMorgan105) January 28, 2013
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).
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:
@dohertyjf app store distribution
— Jordan Franklin (@jordanhfranklin) January 28, 2013
Fair enough. I've seen Jordan's work firsthand and I'll listen to him
@dohertyjf seems like a pretty decent way to growth hack if it isn't your core business. Take advantage of app AND web discovery. Thoughts?
— Dan Leibson (@DanLeibson) January 28, 2013
@dohertyjf because every smart phone and their mother has an App Store, and users expect you to have an app. Can’t ignore the medium.
— Mike Pantoliano (@MikeCP) January 28, 2013
What's The Choice?
I think Jordan nailed it on the head when he said:
@dohertyjf Fair point. Who's choosing one over other though. Is that a thing?If site+app have same features, should have both.
— Jordan Franklin (@jordanhfranklin) January 28, 2013
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.
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.