Mobile app or responsive website?


Having worked developing consumer websites for several years, I have often heard the phrase “when are we getting a mobile app”.

I was always of the opinion that a mobile responsive website was a higher priority than a mobile app and also that for most businesses, a mobile responsive website is all that’s needed.

First off, even before thinking of a mobile app these days your business website MUST be mobile responsive, end of.  Not least because before downloading an app your customers, or potential customers, are going to research exactly what you do and who you are, and guess what…they’ll likely do that on their mobile device, so before you even spend time thinking about a mobile app, get your website responsive.

Right, so you’ve heeded my advice – why wouldn’t you 🙂 – and your business website is now responsive, well done. Now let’s consider that mobile app that your investors and board REALLY want you to have, the first and foremost question should be, “do we really need an app?”.

In order to answer that question let’s look at the difference between a mobile site and a mobile app.

The mobile site basically renders your businesses website nicely on all mobile devices, mainly driven by the screen size. You can if you wish show different content to mobile browsers than desktop ones, if you really want to, but ask yourself why, before doing it.

A mobile site is an synchronous entity, you open your browser, enter the URL and then interact with the site as you would any website on the desktop. There is generally no necessity to authenticate or receive notifications from it, generally it’s your shop front, people have a look in and see what you do primarily, then they may come in a purchase a product or service from you, depending on what your business offers, and then your customer is gone again, there are ways to bring them back, marketing emails, etc, but generally the customer is in control of the interaction.

If your customers are offline, they can’t see your site or interact with it in any way.

A mobile app on the other hand enables a more lasting relationship with your customers – provided you can get them to install it of course, more on that later.

A mobile app has a better ability to act more asynchronously than a site, by sending notifications to your customers, which anecdotally seem to have a better cut-through with customers than emails.  Again, your customer has to agree to receive notifications. An app has easier access to resources on your customer’s mobile device, be it photos, contacts or location, and again if they allow your app those privileges.

A mobile app has the ability to allow your customers to interact with your app when they’re offline, with the app able to communicate this activity back to your business when they come online again, this in itself may be a major advantage for the app over the site.

If, when you come to design your app, you start to see many similarities with your existing website, then you should start to question if the app is really needed.

Advantages of a responsive site is that your existing front and back end developers can develop it with only slightly longer development time to make the mobile site look and function as you want.

A mobile app is expensive to develop and you probably don’t already have those skills in house.  If you’re spending less than $25K for an app then you’ll probably end up with a disappointing product that may do your business more harm than good. Throw into this the iOS vs Android vs Windows problem, and of course the fact that Android is more complex by the nature of different OS and hardware capabilities and you can have a very expensive product to a) develop in the first place and b) maintain as different hardware and OS versions are released.

So you decide to develop an app, great, once it’s developed though you then have the task of getting your customers to install it. It’s my opinion that this used to be easy, everyone loves apps and people are FAR more likely to install an app than they would be to install something on their desktop – trust me, we’ve tried – but now it seems to me that people are more savvy in what they download to their devices, they likely already have tens, if not, hundred of apps installed and unless your app gives them something they simply can’t live without, chances are they probably won’t download it and even if they do, they probably won’t use it – although you do have the luxury of notifications to prompt them to do so, unless they prevented your app from sending them.

There are solutions available that give you the advantages of an app, notifications for instance, with the re-use of your already developed mobile site, these seem to me to be great alternatives to a dedicated and bespoke app where the functionality can be achieved on your mobile site.

So, in conclusion, for me, unless there is a compelling and necessary reason why you should develop a mobile app – it’s functionality simply cannot be achieved via a mobile site – then don’t do it, invest a little more time and resources on your mobile site and save the expense and headache of developing and maintaining an app.

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