Talk To The Shoe! What's Better... Mobile App or Mobile Website?

Avatar Jim Macdonald
September 04, 2015
I had a meeting with a client the other day, and the question arose about whether they should have a mobile app or a mobile/responsive website for the project at hand. It got me thinking a little bit about the difference between the two platforms, and a lot about how far mobile phones have come in such a short time.

It doesn’t seem that long ago when I was a young man watching the television series, “Get Smart,” starring Don Adams (Maxwell Smart). He used a shoe phone, a high-tech piece of secret agent gear that was amazingly functional and probably smelled bad (Look it up, kids). Luckily, Max used the “sole side,” which only made his cheek a little dirty. It was futuristic, especially for the 1960’s, but gave us a glimpse into what was to come.

As connectivity and portability became more available, the shoe phone became the big-ass mobile phone, and the revolution began. Now we can hold a powerful computer in the palm of our hand, so we need to find more stuff to do with it. So, with open arms we welcome apps – applications designed specifically for smartphones. One of the apps on every smartphone is a mobile browser, which allows us to run an app or view a website. That’s pretty exciting, but how does your business decide if you need a mobile-friendly website, a mobile app, or both (or neither).

​So, here are three things to think about when making that decision:
  1. Who is your audience?
  2. What is your budget?
  3. What functionality do you require?

Let’s take a closer look at these questions and find the answers that will help you determine your best option.

Who is your audience?

First, figure out who you are trying to reach. A mobile website can be viewed across all browsers on all smartphone operating systems (Apple, Android, Windows, and the other ones). A mobile app will basically have to be built for each operating system because it gets installed on the phone. Apple has a somewhat rigorous ‘hoop-jumping’ process required for approval, while the others do not. The app will be downloaded and installed on the phone. This gives you a great deal of control over functionality, which you do not have with a website. However, you will be required to keep the app updated, fix bugs, and manage the app if you want to keep it relevant. I believe I read that most apps are popular for about 30 days, then they slip into oblivion.

Your website can be found through a search for specific terms on a search engine, whereas your app must be found in one of the app stores. There is progress in the world of app search, but we aren’t there yet. If you are intending to market something to an audience, usually a website is your best bet. If you want to do something more personal, an app may fit the bill. Speaking of the bill…

What is your budget?

This is probably the most important consideration for companies deciding on which solution will work best. Your app must be developed for each platform on which it will reside. That’s why you will often see an app “For iPhone” or “For Android.” Again, your budget could limit your deployment, which could then limit your audience. A mobile website is a less expensive option, plus you get the benefit of cross-browser, and cross-OS compatibility if the site is built properly. A mobile app for a single platform could easily cost two, three, or four times as much as a mobile or responsive website. A website will cost less, plus it could span devices like phones, tablets, and computers. That all sounds great, but don’t go jumping onto the website bandwagon quite yet. There are some major considerations about what you want this thing to do, so let’s talk about functionality.

What functionality do you require?

Here’s an easy one. Does this thing have to be available off-line? If so, then forget about the website. If your user is not connected to the Internet, then you’re going to need an app. Also, think about how ‘personal’ you want this to be. Is there any saving of data, images, or other content that is user specific? Think about all those apps that insurance companies have developed. They allow the user to take pictures of damage, submit claims against their policy, and interact on a personal level with the insurance company. Functionality like this comes only with a mobile app. There are some hybrids that have added functionality when the user is online, but for that very specific user experience, a mobile app does the trick.

Another quick note about apps: Look at your wrist. Is there a tiny computer attached to it? Hmmm. What do we do with that thing? We can build an app to tell time – genius. We can build other wrist-related apps, but what should those be? Here’s my rule of thumb if you are thinking about an app for a wearable device like a watch: Make it do ONE thing. The successful mobile apps for products like the Apple watch are incredibly simple, and they have to be since the device is so tiny and you can use one finger to operate it. If you can think of one thing that is important to your customers and can put it on a watch, go for it. And good luck with that.

So that brings us back to the question at hand: Do you need an app or a website? Ultimately, it’s a decision that must be made with the backing of some solid research and some exploration into what is most practical from an audience, budget, and functionality perspective. Personally, I am going to look into developing more shoe phone apps, but you can do whatever you want…
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