Apps are useful. A well designed app can add amazing functionality to a phone or an online experience, using little more than the right data, a 3G connection and a good user interface.
With the rise of apps, however, came sales pitches. Marketers have pushed them on business owners left and right, urging every company to launch its own custom app. It’s touted as a way to “improve” your mobile website. But does it? And does every business really need one?
The answers to these questions matter, because the cost of developing an app is not small. Depending on the complexity, the amount of data involved, and how customized the design is, you could easily spend $10,000 or more to develop your company app. That’s a lot of money for something that a subset of a subset of your web visitors will ever use.
Plus, there’s risk involved. A good app will delight your customers, but a bad app—of which there are many—will do the opposite. If a user takes the time to download your app and try it out, only to find it frustrating or unhelpful, it’s worse than if you had no app at all. It will sour them on your product, brand, or service.
So how often is the cost and risk work it? I’m going to give a surprisingly non-millennial answer: almost never.
Irritating Your Users
First let’s look at the case against offering an app to your mobile site visitors. It’s simple: no one wants it. If I go to a website on my phone I might be looking for a lot of different things, but an app isn’t one of them (if I wanted that, I’d be on the app store). There are at least four reasons for this:
- Apps take up space on my iPhone. I’d rather use that space for music, photos and videos.
- I’m impatient. If I want something from your website, I want it now. I don’t want to wait for it to download first.
- I’m not always near wi-fi. Downloading an app burns through my data plan.
- Many apps just aren’t that well designed. Why should I trust yours?
I’m not unusual in these tastes. Most users who come to your site are—like me—in a hurry, easily distracted, and picky.
Apps vs. Mobile Websites
Now let’s look at the case in favor of apps. If designed well, an app for your website can be really helpful:
- It makes using the site on a mobile device easy, because it’s specifically designed for that kind of use.
- It allows users to get the full range of functionality from your normal website.
- It can engage users in an intuitive, attractive way.
Those are good selling points, but they’re not unique to apps. In fact, all of those things are also what you get if you simply design a good mobile website.
In the past, it was difficult to make mobile sites that did everything a regular site could do. Companies often had to have two different version of their website, and mobile devices didn’t always end up on the right one. These days, however, mobile formatting can be built into a regular web page. This is done using a process called responsive design, which basically organizes the page one of two ways depending on what kind of device is viewing it.
Having your site designed (or redesigned) responsively costs a lot less than developing an app, and the truth is you should have a responsive site whether you offer an app or not—it’s necessary to stay in the mobile search results. So why have an app at all?
There are definitely some companies that should have apps, but they’re the minority. And what makes them unique is they don’t just use their apps as a replacement for a mobile website. Services like Foursquare, for example, are meant to be apps. They would lose a lot of value if users had to go online and navigate to them. Generally, the kind of business that needs an app fits one of three categories:
- The app is your central product; it’s the main thing you do. Your website exists only to sell people on your app.
- Your product or service works best when people have constant, one-tap access to it. A typical customer will consult it numerous times every day.
- Your product or service requires being connected to a social network, or customer behavior is driven by notifications.
None of these businesses is simply using their app in lieu of a mobile website. Customers shouldn’t need an app in order to do routine things like pay their bill, shop for products, read articles, or manage their account. There’s already an app for that: it’s called Safari.
A Mobile Investment That Pays Off
There’s no question that every business is going to have to invest in mobile functionality in order to stay competitive. But that shouldn’t usually mean an app. Apps are expensive, they create a wall between site visitors and your content, and not all visitors want them. Designing a good mobile site, on the other hand, is comparatively cheap, improves your SEO, and makes your product or service more accessible.
To make the best mobile investment, just make sure your mobile site offers 100 percent of the features your traditional website offers, with no app needed. Develop an app only if it will offer additional functionality above and beyond your website—and only if your customers want it.