App development versus mobile web development

Digital360 on 12 October 2017

When the iPhone first launched in 2007, it ushered in a new wave of computing. It wasn’t long before thousands of mobile apps became available for download. Everything from sleep timers, calendars and organisers became a simple click and download away.

Soon, a rich app ecosystem developed around both Apple’s iOS operating system and Google’s Android.

Despite the fast rise of mobile devices, the mobile web was young and slow to keep up. Businesses and their designers and web developers took years to rebuild websites for an increasingly mobile world.

In these early days of mobile websites, pages were often broken and struggled to resize for small screens. Meanwhile, cellular networks could only handle small amounts of data, meaning load times were often long and frustrating for mobile users.

However, there was a way to circumvent the teething problems of the early mobile web. And that was developing an app.

App development became attractive not just to software makers, but to a range of businesses seeking to provide a better mobile experience to customers. Many businesses went ahead and developed mobile apps, asking their customers to head to app stores and download software to get the best mobile experience.

Fast forward to today and the mobile web is ubiquitous. Almost all growth in internet traffic is from mobile, while Google rewards mobile-responsive sites in search engine results, and the ad industry focusses on buying mobile formats.

Line graph of changes in mobile, desktop and tablet web traffic.

Change in mobile, tablet, desktop web traffic. Source: CMO

Now mobile devices are the primary way we use the web. So does that mean your business needs an app more than ever? Not necessarily.

The factors that first made mobile apps attractive to businesses have eroded away. These days, consumers benefit from fast networks and powerful devices. Web development has also come a long way with mobile-first design. Social media also makes up much of a consumer's browsing and discovery.

In other words, the new mobile web is powerful. For most businesses, a standalone app is an expensive and unnecessary use of resources which could be used for developing a high quality, mobile-first website.

Mobile technology and user behaviour

To understand why mobile apps are rarely a good web development decision, it's helpful to understand the current behaviour of mobile users.

At first, the data seems to suggest that app development would make sense. Most time spent on mobile phones is spent inside apps, rather than browsing the web with a standard web browser such as Google Chrome or Safari. Research in 2017 by comScore suggests that almost 90 percent of mobile time is spent inside apps.

The comScore research found that half of all US smartphone time was spent in the top used app, with 18 percent of time spent in the second, and 10 percent in the third. That means over three-quarters of mobile time is spent in just three apps.

Certainly, app use is heavy in the mobile world. Again, while that may sound like an opportunity for app development, consider that most of the top used apps are social media platforms, messaging, music, video or games. Consumers stick to these apps and rarely change habits.

The comScore data also suggests that half of smartphone users downloaded no new apps in a month. And when new apps are downloaded, they rarely get high levels of use. According to Flurry Analytics, only 36 per cent of apps are retained by users after one month and just 11 percent remain after a year. Another firm, mobile analytics company Quettra, suggests that the average app loses 90 per cent of its daily active users in the first month.

That means if users are not ‘hooked’ immediately, it’s unlikely that they’ll continue to use an app.

This data paints a picture: consumers prefer to stick with a core group of apps and it is difficult to get consumers to download a new app outside of these established habits. And if consumers do download a new app, they’re unlikely to become a frequent user.

Graph showing the decrease in app retention after download

Source: Quettra

When are apps useful?

Apps are great when they provide real utility for the user. If the user needs to get something done on a regular basis – whether that's sending email, navigating maps, organising a timetable, ordering a meal or communicating with friends – apps are convenient and valuable.

The businesses that have the most success with apps are often service-based businesses. In these cases, apps are a way to offer services to mobile customers. For example, a bank can offer a way for customers to check their balance and make transfers. The app adds a digital layer to banking.

Apps are also ideal for when customers make regular and repeat purchases. For example, food delivery may be a weekly or fortnightly purchase for users. The convenience of launching an app and instantly making an order is a much better user experience than logging into a mobile website or re-entering payment details.

Apps are also essential when your service is enhanced with access to the device's camera, GPS or sensors. Notifications can also be a tool to help users re-engage with the app or offer tips and reminders. However, for most businesses outside of software products and services, this level of integration is usually not required.

Person using the google maps app for directions

When are apps not useful?

Apps do not work well as a marketing channel. They are for utility, rather than for delivering marketing messages. Consumers simply will not bother with applications that provide little to no value outside of marketing or simple customer service.

Marketing messages, exclusive offers and perks can all best be served through a mobile-first website. There are also other digital marketing channels such as social media or email marketing which are cheaper and more effective than an app.

Apps are also poor when it comes to 'discovery' – that is, the process of users finding and learning about a business. Optimising for app store algorithms is notoriously difficult. Many apps never get downloaded at all as they get buried under the thousands of new additions to the store each month.

Consumers or potential customers are much more likely to search for companies, products and services via a search engine, which is much easier to optimise for.

And finally, web development budget is a key consideration. A mobile app requires continuous management and development. With the necessary upkeep of bug fixes and new version releases, apps are expensive to develop and maintain. Most businesses are better off using this money to deliver and optimise a mobile website experience.

Should your business develop an app?

 Regular customer engagementInfrequent customer engagement


Good fit Example:

Delivery services

Poor fit Example:

Dental services


Reasonable fit Example:

Clothing retail

Poor fit Example:

Furniture retail

To app or not to app?

The bottom line comes down to whether or not an app provides real value to your users.

Remember that users are reluctant to download and change their established habits. A new app needs not just to be convenient – it needs to delight them. For this condition to be satisfied, it’s likely your business will be offering a service that is regularly used by your customers.

But the reality is that most customers are happy to use a website, provided it has been designed with a mobile experience in mind. A mobile website can be designed ‘like an app’ in mobile browsers, using functionality such as photo uploading, mobile payments and invoicing. The techniques of modern web design and development offer mobile users a great experience, whichever device they choose.

This also reduces the costs and complexity for a business – there's no need to maintain and develop software or manage multiple code bases. Rather, duplication is minimised and all web development efforts can focus on providing an exceptional mobile web experience.

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