You Don't Need an App for That
As smartphone ownership and mobile commerce continue to boom, a strong mobile strategy and presence become increasingly vital to a company's growth. Too often, however, entrepreneurs and small businesses rush to create "me-too" applications without considering if it's the best fit for them. While there's no question that a well-made app provides an excellent user experience, there are instances when an app is not just a poor solution; it's a bad business decision.
Certainly, there are times when a native app is going to deliver the best, most productive user experience. If functionality requires access to built-in smartphone data or capabilities, such as a camera, voice recorder or GPS information, then yes an app will serve your business well. For almost all other mobile capabilities, however, an elegant and simple mobile-optimized website is the smarter investment choice. Here's why:
Mobile-enabled websites are good for timelines -- and bottom lines. App development is a costly and time-consuming undertaking for one key reason: Apps are not device agnostic. Instead, each device -- from Apple's iPhone to the BlackBerry -- runs on a different platform. This requires each app to have independent development and maintenance and takes a hefty investment.
Mobile-enabled websites, on the other hand, are supported by any smartphone with internet access, removing from the strategic equation the question of "which device?"
Your mobile audience is also interacting with the same site across all devices, so you have to create and update only one mobile experience rather than three or four. This significantly cuts your development time, perhaps from weeks to days, while also reducing maintenance costs.
Form fits function better. An important question to consider is your mobile objective. What user experience do you want to deliver? What action do you want users to take? What functions do you want to perform? Not only are mobile-enabled websites less costly to develop than apps, but they often meet business objectives and customer needs more precisely.
For instance, I was asked to develop an app for an outpatient hospital group that treats young people with mental illness. The group's objective was to enhance communication between medical team and the patients' parents (or guardians), particularly during the hours after the patients had left the facility at night and when they arrive each morning. The medical staff wanted to give the parents a way to give updates about new developments overnight as they dropped off their children in the morning.
As I see it, there is one main test for an app: Will it need to access the smartphone's native data and capabilities? Since one of the main purposes behind the "app" -- updating medical staff on overnight events -- can be achieved with a mobile web interface, accessible by any smartphone, it did not pass that threshold. There are additional benefits to a mobile-optimized site, including that it can support all the parents' devices -- using Apple iOS, Google Android or BlackBerry 10 -- without having to create three iterations.
These functions could be performed on mobile device but did not require access to a smartphone's native data or capabilities, which is a key driver in app development. Additionally, an absolute must for the hospital's mobile solution was being to support all the guardians' devices -- something one app couldn't readily deliver.
In this case, the best solution for meeting our client's objectives was to develop a mobile-optimized website, readily accessible and viewable from any device and with all the fields needed. In the end, the result was a user-friendly, cost-effective solution that fit our client's needs and budget better than an app.
There's no arguing against a well-designed app's ability to perform. There are, however, many reasons for businesses to consider alternatives before rushing into app development. The most obvious is that the benefits of the app don't outweigh the price tag of what it takes to build and maintain it. Businesses are paying more and waiting longer for solutions that access smartphone capabilities that they don't need. In most cases, a better solution is right at their fingertips: a mobile-optimized website.
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