How to decide: Mobile websites vs. mobile apps

While most large companies and well-known brands are already effectively addressing a rapidly expanding mobile audience, far more companies are only just beginning to think about their mobile strategy and the mobile experience that helps define their brand.

This article examines some of the technical and business considerations behind creating mobile websites vs. mobile applications, so you can make the best decision for your next mobile initiative.

mobile-optimized website is a website that is intended to be viewed using a mobile browser on the various display sizes of phones, tablets, and other mobile devices. Mobile websites are typically simplified versions of a standard website that provide a better mobile user experience through improved usability, faster page loads, and sometimes reorganization of content to bring mobile-specific features to the forefront of the experience.

mobile application is a software application that works on a specific mobile device’s operating system and is downloaded to the device to perform a specific set of functions. Apps can also be device-specific such as iPhone and iPad apps.

Business considerations

Every mobile project presents unique challenges and considerations, but regardless of your circumstances, deciding whether to create a mobile app or a mobile website does not have to be difficult. Define the purpose of your application and prioritize all of your business and marketing considerations first. Then determine the solution that will best address those needs now and into the future.

Purpose and goals

What is the purpose or goal of the mobile initiative you are considering? Take everything else out of the equation and answer this question first. There should be a business decision that is driving the process. It could be that your regular website doesn’t work well for the increasing traffic from mobile devices. Or maybe your marketing department wants a mobile application that helps people customize a widget that they can then order online. Whatever your goal, define it first and think about the development and distribution second. I’ve heard some pretty excited people talk about creating an iPhone app for their business with no clear idea of what exactly it would do.

Audience

Define the likely audience that is going to use this mobile application and the classic use cases that would inspire them to use it. Also think about how frequently these people engage with your brand or business. An app requires someone to discover it and then download it, so consider whether these are steps your audience will take the time to do.

People tend to download apps for things they do regularly or for things that tie into their lifestyle. That’s why so many smartphone users download the Facebook app instead of using the mobile version of the website. It offers a better experience for frequent activity, which makes the small time investment of searching for and downloading the app worthwhile. It also adds value by tying into the phone’s mobile capabilities, such as making it easy to take a photo and instantly share it with friends.

Along those same lines, when users download an app that they like, they use it more frequently and for longer periods of time than they use the mobile web. If you believe you can create a mobile application with enough value to make it a go-to app for your mobile customers, you may benefit greatly from the brand engagement that an app can deliver.

User experience

Imagine how users will interact with your application. This may be the single biggest thing that determines whether a mobile app or a mobile website is appropriate. Determine whether you want this application to deliver a highly graphical and robust user experience or whether it’s primarily for delivering server-based information. Maybe you want to do both; if so, that’s fine. You don’t have to create both immediately but you will need to decide which will come first as part of your overall mobile strategy.

Budget

For most small to mid-sized businesses, budget is a serious consideration. Developing individual mobile apps for multiple operating systems or devices can be expensive and resource-intensive. Reaching a broader audience with a mobile website is an easier and more economical venture. As a general rule, if you’re working on a small budget and you’re not going to tap into native device functionality or create something that requires serious computing and graphics, consider starting your mobile initiative with a mobile website.

Development considerations

After you have thought through the business case for developing your mobile application, it’s time to start thinking about development to determine what makes the most sense for your situation.

Ease and speed of implementation

Design, development, and deployment of a mobile website is similar to a standard website. Once it’s live, it’s immediately viewable by anyone who visits the URL with a mobile browser.

Creating a mobile website may take more or less time than creating a single mobile app, depending on the complexity of the project and the proficiency of the developers. Mobile web development is certainly not without its own set of challenges, due to the varying screens sizes. However, a major consideration is whether the app will be developed for more than one mobile operating system or device. If it is, you can plan on additional development time and resources. There is generally no easy and reliable way to build a mobile app for one operating system and port it to all the others, particularly if it is graphic-intensive and feature-rich.

Mobile apps may also require a submission approval process to be featured in app stores. Most notably, the Apple App Store requires submission approval as well as an annual membership with an associated fee.

Audience reach

Mobile websites are viewable by everyone with a mobile browser, regardless of their choice of hardware or operating system. These days, most businesses should consider their broad mobile presence before considering how people experience their business in app form.

You may disagree, but if you haven’t looked at your company’s website analytics lately, you may not be aware of how quickly your mobile viewership is growing. Depending on your business, a substantial percentage of your audience could be coming to your site via mobile devices, or mobile traffic may only make up a small percentage of your audience. If you have the data, go back and compare whatever those percentages are now to previous years. You may be surprised by how quickly your audience trends change, and mobile traffic is only going to increase in the future. Also consider that low mobile browser traffic may indicate that your website simply doesn’t perform well on smaller screens.

Apps tend to compartmentalize the audience that is engaging with your brand, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The demographic of an iPad app user may be very different from the average user that visits your mobile website, and you can leverage those differences if you understand them and make them part of your mobile strategy.

Performance considerations

Mobile web technologies continue to improve, providing mobile website visitors with more app-like experiences. However, a well-designed mobile app typically delivers a superior experience for several reasons. Apps are much like your desktop software in that they can store resources locally and utilize the computing power and memory of the device to perform operations instantaneously. They can also tie into the functionality of the device, which is not possible with a mobile website. Interface controls are more intuitive and operate without the same lag time of mobile websites, which transfer data back and forth between server and user. Lastly, an app is developed for a single screen size or a smaller range of sizes, making it easier to design an outstanding interface and controls.

Updates and maintenance

Updating a mobile-optimized website involves the same steps required to update your traditional website. App updates may require submission approvals before being updated in their marketplace. Unlike a mobile website, where updates are immediate, mobile apps require users to download software updates. Keep in mind that if you’re developing apps for multiple platforms, even a simple update may require significant development resources and time.

Search engine optimization

While a good portion of mobile website visits are destination-driven, mobile search continues to grow rapidly, and local search is even more important considering the nature of mobile searches. A mobile-optimized website can be found and visited from a standard search, and you can even expand your paid search campaigns to target mobile devices. If you do offer a mobile app, it’s a good idea to provide a link to it from your mobile website.

Evolving web technologies

HTML5 and CSS3 are hot topics these days in web development circles. The mobile web will be the major beneficiary as these technologies evolve and become more commonplace. When combined with improving data transfer rates and better connectivity, the divide between web and mobile app experiences will continue to narrow.

Data connectivity and offline use

Resources and data can be stored locally in a mobile app, and the user interface operates independently of web-delivered interface elements, so some or all of your app may be used when Internet or Wi-Fi is not available. (Of course, you can store data from the mobile browser, so network connectivity is not absolutely required to interact with a mobile website.)

Paid vs. free

Another technology decision you’ll need to make about your app is whether to charge for it and how. In many cases, company apps are an extension of other customer-facing efforts and are offered for free to attract as many users as possible. If your mobile application is intended to generate revenue, the app marketplaces make it easy to sell.

Mobile websites vs. mobile apps: An at-a-glance comparison

 

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Rage Digital: A real-world example

I recently sat down with Rage Digital co-founders Ted Guggenheim and Andrew Kimmell for a discussion about mobile websites vs. mobile apps. Rage Digital is a top mobile design and development shop that regularly develops mobile apps for global brands.

Rage Digital recently worked with HTC, a major player in the smartphone market, on the HTC Sensation YOU advertising campaign. It’s an interesting case study in engaging mobile users through advertising that spanned the offline and online worlds of television, print, outdoor billboards, and ads in Pandora tied to a hybrid approach of mobile apps and mobile websites. The campaign encouraged mobile users to employ Google Goggles (a mobile app for scanning images and QR codes) to scan HTC advertisements and unlock exclusive content that was unique to each ad. Working closely with Google, HTC could then redirect users from Google’s mobile app to HTC’s website for the content download. Try it for yourself on the ad in Figure 1.

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Figure 1. An ad for HTC Sensation that offers users additional content and encourages user interaction.

This campaign is also an interesting example of similar decisions that were made to utilize the best solutions for reaching the broadest possible audience, while keeping company partnerships in mind. Guggenheim explained that when Rage Digital was first approached by HTC about this campaign, Rage proposed developing a single mobile app that would accomplish everything HTC wanted to do from start to finish within the app itself.

As it turned out, HTC and its agency Deutsch L.A. devised an alternate plan for using a hybrid approach. The ad campaign was about HTC smartphones, which are powered by the Google Android operating system. By using Google Goggles, which comes preinstalled on Android devices—instead of creating their own mobile app with a scanning feature—HTC effectively leveraged a large population with the app already installed. By then connecting that functionality with a mobile website experience, HTC kept its audience as large as possible while at the same time gaining valuable exposure for one of its business partner’s technologies—Google. In the end, it was a win-win for everyone.

 

Where to go from here

In a mobile market that is evolving so quickly, there are no guarantees that today’s decision will be the right one for your company or client in the future. Despite that, understanding the benefits and shortfalls of each solution, combined with having a rock-solid purpose for your app and focus on the end-user’s experience and expectations, will help ensure your success regardless of the route you choose.