When businesses are looking to take their next step in the digital realm, one question always comes up. Should we invest in developing a mobile app or is a responsive website sufficient? While the ideal solution is to develop both channels, financial, logistical and practical limitations mean most businesses must prioritise. In this article, we look at the factors that should influence your decision and discuss which type of solution is right for your business model.
What are mobile apps and mobile websites?
Before we look at the advantages and disadvantages of mobile apps and websites, it may be helpful to define what we mean by the terms.
An app – short for software application – is a piece of software that individuals download to their device before using. They do not need an internet connection to run, but they may need one to provide full functionality. Today, ‘apps’ is usually used as a term to refer to ‘mobile apps’ which are applications specifically designed for mobile devices and tailored to the mobile characteristics (e.g. smaller screen size, touchscreen capabilities etc.).
You can visit a website on any device capable of running a browser, including laptops, TVs, desktops and mobile devices. As mobile device use has increased, responsive websites have become the recognised standard. Responsive web design is a best practice approach to site design that ensures your website looks good on all devices, no matter the screen size. In the current commercial environment, if you’re not designing a site suited to a wide range of devices, you’re making a big mistake.
When convenience is king…
Convenience is one of the principal factors determining whether your business model is better suited to a mobile app or a website. In turn, usage heavily impacts on convenience. If your business model relies on users regularly accessing your products and services, it makes sense to opt for an app. Accessible via the user’s home screen, they’re always just a tap away.
Facebook, Uber, Strava and Google Maps are all excellent examples of this type of business model. They rely on users integrating their services into their daily routines and expect individuals to access the apps regularly. Take TikTok as another example. The average daily TikTok user opens the app eight times every 24 hours (Wallaroo Media). Would they access a mobile website that many times? Probably not. However, the app is waiting for them on the home screen when they pick up their phone. Convenience encourages greater engagement and brand exposure.
This is also demonstrated by the red icons on the home screen that let users know they have unread notifications. They work to drive users back to the app by playing on their FOMO (fear of missing out). This wouldn’t work if the app was not conveniently positioned and easily accessible.
A mobile website may be better if users engage with your products and services less regularly. Websites have the edge when you’re looking for greater visibility amongst potential customers. However, convenience isn’t the only factor to consider.
Understanding obstacles to access
While apps are more convenient once on your device, they’re not necessarily as easy to access earlier in the customer journey. Imagine a user that’s interacting with your business for the first time. When they’re discovering your brand, what are they more likely to do? Pull up their browser and visit your website for further information, or search the app store for an app they’re not sure exists, then patiently wait for it to download?
With a mobile website, there are fewer barriers to engagement. Typically, initial contact occurs via a website or social media. This means mobile websites are the more practical choice if you’re looking to attract new customers and build your base.
That said, once a user has downloaded your app, you have largely overcome those obstacles. With a mobile app, data is stored locally and doesn’t have to be retrieved from servers, login can be sped up via biometric authentication and the app is always within easy reach.
Essentially, mobile websites are more accessible in the part of the customer journey leading up to a user downloading an app. Mobile apps boast easier access once an individual crosses that threshold.
Assessing the value of native features
Another factor to consider is whether you will use functions and features native to mobile devices. Both websites and apps can use a device’s camera and GPS functions, but apps do so more effectively, facilitating an improved user experience.
Mobile devices boast a range of native features that can be useful to a business or intrinsic to extracting full value from its product. These include click-to-call functionality, access to device libraries (e.g. photo library), SMS capabilities and, as we’ve already noted, the camera and GPS functions. Some of these (most obviously GPS functionality) are absolutely essential to modern products and services. For instance, it’s difficult to see how Uber could ever deliver its industry-changing taxi service without relying on mobile devices’ advanced GPS location services.
How important is working offline?
The extent to which you require offline functionality can also determine whether your business model is better served by an app or a website. Websites generally require a connection and offline capabilities are limited. On the other hand, apps can offer some offline functionality, enabling customers to utilise services and products whenever and wherever they want.
As unlimited data (or high-data) packages become more affordable and ubiquitous, the ability to utilise offline features may become increasingly irrelevant. However, there are always occasions when you run out of signal but would like to access certain app features. Similarly, there are apps that, most of the time, don’t depend on an internet connection to work (e.g. games, education tools etc.). In these cases, businesses should certainly make the most of mobile apps’ offline capacity.
However, in the majority of cases, offline functionality in apps is quite limited. As a result, businesses must carefully consider whether working offline is key to the app’s value proposition before making any decision based on this factor.
Enjoying absolute freedom of design
You’ve got big plans for a customer touchpoint that looks like nothing else on the market. It’s entirely unique and original. How do you realise this dream? By developing an app or creating a website?
Before we provide an answer, let’s acknowledge that there’s a reason websites and apps typically resemble one another. A standard format is easier to use. We intuitively understand where to look, what to click or tap, and how things work. But let’s go back to our entirely original (but definitely hypothetical) customer touchpoint. In this example, an app is the better option.
Generally, apps are more of a blank design canvas. Apps can be more free-form and are open to more creative design. Mobile websites exist within the restrictions of an internet browser. How you navigate a website is built into the browser (via the back and forward buttons, the search bar etc.) and experience conditions user behaviour. We tend to engage with browsers in the same way, following the same patterns and habits, no matter what website we visit.
Developers can design apps to reflect your particular aesthetic vision and to perform and function in a way that meets your business needs. Advanced touchscreen gestures allow for a more interactive experience and a wider “vocabulary” with which to engage users – you can swipe, drag, pinch and double tap your way around an app. It’s so much more expressive. On the other hand, your business model may not require that design freedom. If you’re looking for information on UX best practices, Apple’s HIG and Google’s Material Design guidelines are an excellent place to start.
Is personalisation key to your model?
In the modern business landscape, personalisation is increasingly important. It helps to tailor services to specific users, allows for bespoke product recommendations and enables you to deliver relevant content. Though both websites and mobile apps allow for personalisation, there are notable differences in how they do so.
Apps are far more open to customisation than websites. Users can dictate their preferences and set the app up to reflect the way they use it. Apps also track user engagement, allowing you to refine the content you push. By utilising geo-location features, they can even push location-specific offers and content.
Websites are by no means fixed – they also offer a degree of customisation. It’s just not as extensive as apps. Websites are very adept at collecting user data and harvesting the information that powers your analytics. However, they’re less flexible when it comes to delivering personalised experiences. If personalisation is central to your product, apps are a fantastic choice. Android’s new ‘Material You’ feature is a fantastic example. It enables apps to follow the theme and colour palette users have set for their device, allowing for a truly consistent, personalised user experience.
Considering product complexity and display
If your product or service centres on complex data, calculations and graphs (e.g. a finance or reporting service), it’s a good idea to think about how that information is displayed. Clutter is a user’s worst enemy (and the nemesis of developers everywhere!). We want a clean and clear design that focuses the user’s attention and presents data in an appealing and easy-to-understand way.
Read our article: The Essential Guide to App UX Optimisation
Though it may seem unintuitive, websites struggle with this kind of complexity. The fact that they’re powerful and versatile tools with the capacity to offer enormous scope for action is also their undoing. Websites can quickly become cluttered, difficult to navigate and challenging to understand when they attempt to display complex data. They’re also designed to achieve several functions. For instance, most modern websites take SEO into account. The need to adapt websites and content to the needs of search engines often leads to more complex sites.
At the other end of things, apps are far better suited to displaying data, graphs and reports in an intuitive, visually appealing and easily understood way. App users may not be able to manipulate that data as efficiently as website users, but they certainly find it easier to view and comprehend. Of course, this only really concerns businesses that believe users will access this type of complex data via their mobile devices. Your website analytics Device reports will provide valuable insights into your mobile users.
Making the most of push notifications
Push notifications are one of the biggest advantages apps have over websites. The ability to send communications (that users are much more likely to see) directly to the home screen of a customer’s device is severely undervalued. It represents unprecedented access to users and, as such, needs to be used intelligently. Too many push notifications will cause a user to turn them off. Too few, and you’re under-utilising a valuable resource.
Although website push notifications are now available on Android, they remain unavailable on Apple’s iOS. Instead, website owners tend to rely on other methods, such as newsletter sign-ups, when they want a direct line to a user’s device. Even then, the communication is sent to the user’s email inbox or spam folder and is easily missed, ignored or deleted. If you’re looking for a way to reach out to customers directly, apps are the preferred choice. However, push notifications must be used with care if you’re to reap the benefits.
UPDATE: Apple has, just (16th February 2023), released the next beta version of its Safari app for iOS, which includes the updated version of its web engine – Webkit. This includes support for notifications much like its desktop counterpart. Therefore the benefit of notifications to engage your customer base is now equal between native and web-based apps on both iOS and Android.
Recognising support and maintenance is key
Many businesses choose between an app and a website based on initial investment costs and how complex the solutions are to implement. Far too many forget to consider the long-term maintenance spending required to support an app or website.
Generally, mobile apps require more maintenance and cost more to support. They need to be continuously updated to iron out problems, deliver new functions and remain relevant. If you abandon an app and leave it on the app store, where it’s accessible to anyone and everyone, you’re putting your brand at risk. Apple has even been known to pull down older apps that are no longer supported. Consequently, it’s a question of supporting your app or binning it. There is no middle ground.
In this respect, businesses have to calculate whether the benefits of an app outweigh the ongoing maintenance costs. However, working with a reputable and experienced app developer can reduce this maintenance burden, as they often provide ongoing support for their apps.
Websites also need regular maintenance and support. However, it’s typically easier and cheaper to perform. Unlike apps, websites don’t require users to download an update or go through an approval process. Developers can make incremental changes. This ability to tweak the website and make subtle alterations can be extremely beneficial.
It’s important to note that choosing whether to invest in an app isn’t an easy decision. After considering the factors we’ve listed above, you will likely conclude that an app is right for your business in some ways and a website in others. For instance, a mobile app might suit your business better when it comes to convenience, but you also value a website’s superior visibility.
The lesson is that there is no single do-it-all digital resource. Your business will have to rank the factors in terms of how important they are to your business and attribute them more or less weight when making a decision. Consider what features and factors are central to your business model and go from there. In most cases, businesses will need a website for marketing purposes. But a mobile app could be central to your business model and future success, too.
Speaking to experts is also extremely helpful. At The Distance, our experience and expertise enable us to provide honest and trustworthy advice as to whether your concept for a mobile app is viable and valuable. We’ve worked with big-brand businesses from a wide range of industries and understand how great apps are built and what makes for a truly special user experience.
If you have any questions or would like to find out more, please don’t hesitate to get in touch and speak to one of our friendly and professional team members.
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