When the first iPhone came out (10 years ago!), everyone wanted to build a mobile app. Since then marketers have learned a lot more about what it takes to create and maintain native apps, pressure that has only increased as customers’ online behavior has shifted heavily to mobile. These days marketers and tech leaders are making smarter choices about when the business case really demands an app, and when a well-done mobile website (the new minimum requirement for all businesses) will suffice.
Kelsey Gallagher, a UX/UI designer and front-end developer, says the question facing marketers now is really “In addition to my mobile website, do I also need an app?”
Here’s how to make that call.
Start with what your customers need
Before you make so much as a wireframe, start with the big-picture business strategy: What do you provide your customers, and what do they expect or need from you?
Amber Anderson, founder of business strategy firm Kayson, recommends asking questions like “Who are your customers, and what’s the best way to deliver the information/experience to them? What’s their usage behavior?” Then, she says, research your target customer and their mobile usage. Figure out how they use their mobile devices, the platforms they are using (iOS, Android, iPhone, iPad, etc.) and how best to deliver the features to them.
Rahul Varshneya, co-founder of mobile development firm Arkenea, recommends asking where your customers discover you, and whether that experience has a “mobility-driven use case.” For example, he says, an on-demand taxi service is a clear candidate for a mobile app. But if your customers’ behavior and what you provide don’t require the features of an app, he says, a mobile app will add very little value, and you’re better off focusing on making sure your website is optimized for their device.
The bottom line, Anderson says: “Never build something just to build it. Do some analysis and let the data make the decision for you. Evaluate your customers’ behavior.”
Review your technical requirements
To understand whether your customers will benefit from an app, look at the core functionality you want to provide:
- Do you need to deliver information in real time, based on a user’s location?
- Do you need to contact users through push notifications?
- Do you need to accept payments?
- Do you need close access to a user’s device hardware (like phone, camera or microphone)?
- Where are customers when they’re consuming your information or accessing your services? Do they have consistent Wi-Fi?
Then consider the pros and cons of both apps and mobile websites.
An app lets you use the native mobile features listed above, like location services and push notifications. And apps provide a controlled, custom experience, Anderson says. Users don’t necessarily need an internet connection to use them after the initial download. (Gallagher says she loves to use her “Tetris” game app while she’s flying and doesn’t have Wi-Fi!) You can push messages to users’ phones, and accept payments easily without any hassle. But apps require expertise on multiple platforms (iOS, Android) so it can be difficult to find a pool of talented designers and developers. This complexity can quickly drive up the price.
A website is universal and — if designed to be responsive — accessible across multiple platforms and devices, although you do have to consider how different browsers may render the design differently. A website is easy to find and nothing has to be downloaded, but users do need a connection to the internet, either through Wi-Fi or data. And there are more design options out there, through website templates and options, Anderson says. Finally, it’s generally much faster and more affordable to develop a website than an app.
Consider the long-term costs of an app
“Building a mobile app is an expensive venture that requires a particular skill set to develop, launch and maintain,” Anderson says. In her experience, mobile apps generally cost at least $10,000 per platform to build, plus another $2,000 to $4,000 per month to maintain. If you don’t have the budget to cover the long-term costs of a mobile app, she says, it’s not worth starting.
Scott Levy, CEO and founder of the digital agency Fuel Online, says you should also factor in the cost of acquiring app users. “It’s not ‘build it and they will come,’ ” he says. Instead, he estimates costs of $2.50 to $10 per app download, and notes that only a portion of people who download an app will become active users. “Getting people to download an app is a big ask,” he says. “Too many people think they need an app when they can achieve the same functionality with less of an ask, at a much lower cost.”