Should I Build an App or a Mobile Website?

At the SEGD workshop a few weeks ago, I was asked how one should determine whether to build a downloadable app for smartphones and tablets or a mobile-optimized website that visitors could access from embedded browsers on those devices. The choice is not a simple one — it is the product of user experience expectations, business models, development resources and organizational structure, along with an assessment of the current market and competitive landscape.

I don’t claim that the diagram below can be used as a Magic 8-Ball to derive the correct answer for your project, but it conveys my thinking when I’m asked to address the question. If you answer all the questions and follow each track into the Venn diagram, the majority of answers may lead you to a starting point for further exploration. With so much buzz about apps, it can be difficult (or at least unpopular) to make a case against them, but you can see that my bias is toward mobile editions as a first step to serve the mobile market.

  • You might wonder about the question on the upper left: “Do you already run a website with this same content/functionality?” Whether you answer YES or NO, I suggest you start your development efforts with a mobile-optimized website. Creating a mobile edition is usually a modest effort with a short development cycle; you could quickly start learning about how mobile users use your information and features. Usage patterns of this site will inform further decisions about additional functionality and perhaps, the opportunity to develop a mobile app that serves specific needs of these users.

  • On the top right, there are questions about whether the idea is content-driven — such as a magazine, blog or searchable database — or function-driven, such as a utility to find a car, play a game, or interact in a community. While these are broad distinctions, the most successful apps tend to use some of the unique functionality of the mobile platform: location awareness, gyroscope and the camera.

  • Furthering this line of questioning: “Is the user experience rich or complex?” If you want to control all the aspects of the user experience, app development is the better approach. You can tune and test the app to make sure it performs exactly as designed on each app platform and for each device.

  • “Do people need the content when they are offline (no internet connection)?” For example, I use a Dictionary app so I can access it on my iPhone in airplane mode.

  • “Is your organization ready and willing to support a new product & platform?” This is a significant issue to address early in the planning stages. Building an app should be seen as a commitment to a new product, with all the planning, ongoing maintenance, and dedication to future releases that any digital product requires to be viable and successful.

  • And finally, if you are considering building an app, you need to assess the current competition. “Is your idea or user experience better than existing apps?” It is important to understand where your app would fit in the current marketplace. If your idea has a competitive advantage, then there’s an opportunity to succeed even in a crowded market.

  • Regardless of which development road you choose, it is imperative that you commit to a process of continual enhancements. The initial launch of your product is really only the beginning of a conversation with your visitors – learn from every interaction and promise to collaborate with your visitors to make the product better and better.

    Where 2.0 2011

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