We are often asked by clients whether they should develop a Mobile App or work on improving their Responsive Design Website that adapts to users screen. The answer is not really as cut-and-dry as people would like it to be.
Before the days of smartphones websites were simple affair as we catered for desk-bound users. Mobility meant laptops which could easily use websites designed for desktops. Today life has moved on and we are now having to cater for myriads of devices and screen sizes.
Let us first do away with of some of the myths and clarify semantics.
This is the way we used to make websites and they are not designed to adapt to the size of the device used to view it. Websites like this are very difficult to use for mobile or tablet users as visitors have to scroll side-to-side as well as up-and-down or zoom to view the content.
A script in the code detects the device type of the visitor’s device, and hence reduces the size of the website page (portal) to match the screen size. This does not change the presentation or order of the website content but simply reduces the size of the font, image, etc, so that the website page fits within the screen. The disadvantage of this approach is the font become increasingly small and hence difficult to read, navigation keys become hard to hit unless the user zooms in, and text links becomes a hit-and-miss affair. This means website’s usability suffers even though the website page is fitting into the user’s device screen.
The responsive website code recognises the size of screen in use and changes the presentation, order, and size of the content to fit the screen size whilst selecting the best font size and image size. Navigation keys are pushed under “Burger” button so you can open the navigation by clicking on the “Burger” button. This expands the navigation keys to a full list (and easy to read) of content of the website and the navigation keys including any drop-down menus. The skill in designing a Responsive Website is controlling the order that the content is displayed so that the content, marketing message, and logic still makes sense to the visitors not matter what device they use.
This is when you create a completely different website that is designed for mobiles only. When the website detects anything other than a desktop or laptop, the visitor is redirected to the Mobile Website. The issue in this approach is of course the cost as you are creating 2 separate designs and website, but also the cost of managing the content to ensure they are kept in sync.
This is a separate application that is developed specifically to be used by mobiles with their unique operating system (iOS, Android, Windows). These applications are downloaded to the users mobile device and the user does not need to visit your website as he/she can use the mobile app to carry out transactions, read content, interact with your website, etc. without actually visiting your website.
Firstly, if you have not changed your website to Responsive Websites (or Responsive Design) and are still using non-responsive or Adaptive website you should take action now and change. Google, Yahoo and Bing, are heavily marking down non-Responsive websites. As your competitors switch to Responsive Design, your website will start to drop in SERP. The current emphasis on usability and user experience such as Multi-Device Usage, Pageload Time, and Logical Interconnection will not go away and search engines will focus more and more on this issue.
Secondly, if you have a Responsive Design Website you do not need a separate Mobile Website as your website already adapts and looks fine on devices other than desktops.
Finally, there are valid reasons for creating a Mobile Application (as as against to Mobile Website) but this is not in lieu of your website requiring to be viewed effectively by mobile devices. Mobile devices will still need to be catered for regardless of whether you have a Mobile App or not.
The real question is whether you need a Mobile App (Application) or would your Responsive Design website suffice?
The real answer has to be if you think you can add value to user experience and introduce functionality and usability improvements in your Mobile Application that cannot be achieved on your website. Some example of value-add functionality that you can add on Mobile Application but cannot be implemented on your Website are:
Would your user experience be enhanced if the App could read, connect and interact with the user’s contacts directory on their mobile device? For example the ability to notify others in the users contact list that a user is now logged on, or is using the app, or is interacting. Think of WhatsApp, Facebook, etc. where contacts are critical in achieving full usability and user experience.
Would your users benefit from “Push Notification” namely, by pushing out updates to their device that otherwise they would miss? For example updating contacts status (Facebook, Twitter), online presence (WhatsApp, Viber), News they may be interested in (BBC News, CNN News, etc.), Order Status (logistic companies such as Amazon, eBay, DHL), Activity status (banks notification of transactions on account or credit card), Security (banks, credit card companies pushing out authorisation codes for transactions, etc.).
Do you need special security measures? For example as banks move to cater more transactions on the Internet, Mobile Apps allow further and tighter integration of security such as Digital Certificate or Digital Signature that is not an option for websites.
Do your users need or expect instant communication? For example are you offering Social Media, Support, News, etc. These are real-time and instant communications that need constant connection.
Unless you and your clients need one or more of the above there is really no “Compelling” reason for you to consider Mobile Apps. It may be that you want to offer mobile app as part of your branding or marketing strategy but that is an “Elective” use of Mobile Apps and not “Compelling” reason for developing a Mobile App.
Developing any Application is a long-term commitment and is not a one off project. You need to be prepared for ongoing costs such as integration with new operating systems namely new versions of iOS, Android or Windows. You should also consider constant security threats. You must be very aware that creating an application will require ongoing development and support. So here are issues you need to consider within your costs before making a decision to opt for Mobile Apps:
There are arguably only 2 operating systems that are worth considering namely iOS and Android. Nevertheless, each operating system has many variants, versions, and flavours so you need to make sure you make the right choice to support one or the other or both.
Operating Systems get upgraded for variety of reasons including security, added functionality, improved usability, etc. As an application supplier you need to make sure you continue to develop your application for new versions of the operating systems, as well as supporting previous versions as people continue to use older devices. Currently Google and Apple release a new version of their operating system every 12 to 24 months, so you need to be prepared for the costs associated with version compliance.
As we all know, there is no such thing as a “Bug Free” software. With all the environmental variance on each user device (Operating System, Other Apps, Network Connectivity, Hardware, etc.), you will have to be prepared for ongoing support and bug fix. There is no way you or your developer will have sufficient time, resources, and money to test every variation and combination of use, so it will be inevitable that at some point you will hit a bug or 2 that needs fixing, and you need to budget for this.
All applications are living entities and as users get more experienced and exposed to different scenarios, you will get new “Feature Requests”. If you want to keep your users and remain competitive, then you need to respond and meet expectations. Falling back to “It is a Free App” is not an answer, and has never won any points with any user, so forget that approach as it does not work.
If you want to sell or provide for free your Mobile App, then you need to have the application approved for sale from Apple Store and Google Store. This means you have to pay fees to become a developer and have your application tested so that it can be downloaded from the respective operating system stores. This means you will have upfront costs as well as ongoing costs for just keeping your products available at these stores.
It really comes down to whether you have a “Compelling” reason for going down the Mobile Application route or whether this is just a whim or “Wouldn’t it be nice?” concept that sounded really good in a meeting at the bar!
If you do not have a “Compelling” reason for developing Mobile Apps then this could prove be an expensive choice, and you will do well to concentrate on making your website more mobile friendly and user friendly. There are many actions you can take to make your website easier to navigate, interact, and use. Most website owners give little or no time to consider these issues beyond the first few days of launching their shiny brand new website. After a few weeks the new website is no longer new and everyone moves on to the next project.
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