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Not All Good Mobile Is Created Equal

January 21, 2014

The first question most people will have when establishing a mobile strategy is whether they need a mobile website or a native app. So what’s the difference, you wonder?

A mobile website is usually just a compact version of your website. It compliments your full site, providing simple and elegant access to the most important content on your site. It can also go beyond your main site, offering more interactive tools, or content less relevant to desktop users.

A native app is a separate tool, built to be downloaded and installed on a user’s phone or device. It can and should take advantage of the built-in features on the phone, like the camera or push notifications. It also doesn’t require a constant Internet connection, making it a faster and more fluid experience.

The question is not which of the two you’s which comes first. Before you even consider a native app, get your mobile website in place.

And here’s why…

Your site will get traffic from mobile devices, and if you don’t have a proper mobile version in place, they will be directed to your full site. This is not fun for the user. As you probably already know, it will involve a lot of clumsy zooming and frustrating mis-clicks, and users will quickly abandon the experience. And lost traffic equates to lost revenue.

Then, once you’re sure that you really need a separate native app, take a minute and make sure your users actually need the app. It’s not uncommon for businesses to build an app that offers a rich experience, but the value to the user isn’t there. It’s often never even downloaded.   

E-commerce is a good example of this. Mobile commerce is a demanding and competitive arena, and it’s common to want to build a native app. But chances are a lot of your online shoppers will be one-time customers. A person looking to buy your product once is probably not going to bother to download and install an app first, knowing that they’ll only use it once. They will usually either wait until they are at a computer and use your full site, or possibly just lose interest entirely.

This is true for every kind of app. It needs to be valuable enough to a user for them to want to download, install and keep it on their phone, and we all know how we feel about our limited storage space!    

From a business standpoint, being installable means building your native app on at least two platforms, to get it into the hands of both iPhone and Android users. You may lean towards building the app for just one platform to cut costs, but this is a mistake. (Unless you don’t care if you alienate half of your potentials users!) If your business really needs this app, your business probably really needs those customers.

Chances are you still don’t really need a native app though. The app stores are full of terrible apps that are used once, or never even downloaded. So even when you’re trying to deliver something beyond what’s on the mobile version of your website, an app isn’t always the right choice. A second, often better option is a “web app.”

A web app is a separate mobile website. It can look and work a lot like a native phone app, but it doesn’t need to be downloaded and installed because it is accessed from within the phone’s web browser. It can be accessed by users on all devices without building or maintaining costly separate versions. A web app can offer the same speedy and dynamic interface as a native app.

So when is a native app the right way to go? If your name is Amazon, EBay or Etsy? Sure. But also when the online experience your business needs to offer your customers requires it. There are still some situations where a mobile site can’t perform the way a native app can, and in these situations it’s smart to deploy a native app.

What’s most important is to pursue web experiences and technology that maintain a high level of quality, no matter how the user accesses it. Your mobile site (or app) may be the first contact between your business and your customers, so make sure you wow them right away.