When mobile first began to take off, many big-time web properties went this route to address their mobile users. If you wanted to read the New York Times, you downloaded the New York Times app. If you wanted to book a flight on Expedia, you downloaded the Expedia app. Users put up with this for a while, but it’s clearly fallen out of favor, and for very good reasons.
Let’s look at the effect on our goals.
A mobile user should be able to access the same content as a desktop user
Simply put – probably not going to happen. It is just not feasible to offer the same content natively. However, you can program mobile apps to display web pages…but at that point, why are we bothering with a mobile app in the first place?
Mobile users should not have to wait much longer than a desktop user for a page to load
The good news here is that native mobile apps run, well, natively. You don’t have to worry about bandwidth, page load times, the size of those images – in fact, you may not even have to worry about whether or not the user has a signal or Wifi connection. This is pretty much where the positives end though.
Interaction and navigation should be simple
You’ll want your navigation and interaction to behave more like an app than a website, so that it feels familiar to users even if they’ve never used it before. This one’s a gimme; it comes with the territory.
All or most major devices should be supported
This is probably the most decisive negative of them all: you, small business owner, probably don’t have the budget to build at least three separate mobile applications — yes, don’t forget that you’ll have iOS, Android, and Windows users to accommodate! There’s also Blackberry, webOS, and Symbian users! You’ll also have to worry about keeping the app up to date with the latest OS versions, developer licensing, and deployment strategies.
There’s a reason no one uses an app to simply browse a website. Your users will not download your app unless it adds value in some way, over and above what they can get on your website. If I can read the New York Times on the web, without the use of an app, why would I download the app? If I can book a flight, check in, and show my boarding pass from Expedia’s website, why would I download the app? If you really want to go the mobile app route, you have to find a way to add value that cannot already be found on your website. That added value doesn’t have to be content either — it could be technological, or it could be as simple as convenience. For example, I have Groupon’s app downloaded because I can access the Groupons I’ve already purchased far more quickly and easily using the app than on the web. On the web, I have to log in each time — and logging in to any website is a huge hassle on a mobile device (for me and my butterfingers, anyway). Perhaps you’ll want to use some built in features that smartphones allow you to take advantage of, such as the camera, GPS, accelerometer, and other nifty things that might enhance user experience in a way your website can’t. Google Sky Map definitely isn’t possible in website form, for example.
In the Wegmans example above, their mobile app adds value to their website by allowing you to create shopping lists, search for nearby stores, store your club card, among other features — and while you could do some of these things on the website, it wouldn’t be as seamless an experience as through an app (remember how much of a pain it is to log in?).
Let’s look at the example of Facebook, one of the most heavily visited websites — particularly on mobile devices — on the Internet. As TechCrunch reported last year:
Why is mobile such a challenge for Facebook? Well, for starters, 7,000 different device types are used to access Facebook each day. […] VP of engineering Mike Schroepfer said that part of the difficulty Facebook faces in reaching mobile users is just that there are so many different [devices]. As a result, Facebook can’t re-build mobile apps and iterate on the experience in the same way it does for the web.
You might argue that mobile app development has come a long way, but Facebook’s experience should be instructive. It’s just not feasible for a small business to keep everyone happy via mobile app.
Hopefully it’s pretty clear now that a mobile app does not fit our use case. It’s far more cost-effective to go another route. Feel free to try to convince me otherwise in the comments though!