Building a dedicated mobile app for a business is all the rage right now, and often with good reason. As Apple’s App Store, Android’s Play Store, and Microsoft’s Windows Market continue to see explosive growth after a half decade of revolutionizing digital development and distribution, it can be very tempting to use the platforms to further your business interests. Yet there are downsides that nearsighted companies fail to see when they first begin to jump headfirst into app development. In fact, we’d argue that the majority of the time, businesses will find that utilizing a platform-agnostic mobile site is far more profitable and effective than specialized apps in the long run.
The first question to ask is why. You need to take a good, hard look at how your current and potential customers currently interact with your business, and then question whether an app will make that process any easier for them. For some types of companies, like banks, cloud services, IT support, and other industries where instant and constant customer access to information is a key component of the core business, yes, an app might make sense. However, even these service providers need to be fully aware of the costs, strategic considerations, and alternatives involved before taking the plunge.
Counting the Costs
While many independent developers will promise a cheap and hassle-free app development experience, many costs are hidden at the start of the process. In addition to the upfront costs of developing a mobile app, whether it’s done in-house or contracted through a software firm, ongoing maintenance costs, customer support and troubleshooting, and a strong marketing push will drive up the price considerably. While there certainly are companies that will benefit from a marketing-focused app,
Support and troubleshooting, while by no means the largest portion of the costs, are especially taxing on any company, as time and resources spent continually monitoring user feedback and providing the necessary bug fixes are massive distractions away from your core business. Any major investment spent outside your wheelhouse has the nasty tendency to start sapping away resources from where you really need them. To complicate matters, the smartphone and tablet arena is full of myriad operating systems and use cases, so it’s not as simple as putting out one program and updating it once in a while, as you would in the desktop realm for Windows or Mac OS.
A final hidden cost is the potential loss of clients due to a poor mobile app experience. In a recent study, it was found that a full 31% of users would both tell others about their poor experience with a company’s app and be less likely to do business with that company in the future. Even alienating a fraction of your customer base due to incompatibility issues–which may not even be your or the developer’s fault–
Spreading the Net Wide
Another important aspect to consider is the diversity of the audience and market you’re trying to reach as a business. Currently, the Android and iOS platforms make up approximately 90% of the smartphone user base, but Windows Phone, Blackberry, Symbian, and non-smartphone devices still make up a significant portion of the market. Even focusing on the largest two or three platforms will leave a portion of your potential customer base in the dark, a situation which isn’t a risk with a universal website.
In addition to the maintenance costs and fragmentation concerns, apps present the problem of inconsistent user experiences. Where cloud-focused companies have centered on making data and customer user interfaces accessible and uniform across all devices, the app represents a step backward in infrastructure paradigms. User flow should be dictated by simplicity and familiarity; how a customer accesses your services on his home computer should be nearly identical to the way he gets online with your app. But since different software platforms utilize widely different design guidelines for their supported apps, there is no guarantee that you’ll have total control over the uniformity of the experience.
Considering the Alternative
Many marketing professionals wrongly start down the road of app development simply because it’s the thing to do, and they fear that failing to follow the trend will reflect poorly on their market knowledge. It’s true that making your company’s products and services available to customers at all times, no matter where they are, is hugely important–we’re not disputing that point. But the all-too-obvious alternative of simply designing a smooth, quick, and universal mobile webpage is usually overlooked.
And there are many good reasons for going with the webapp approach: a wider user base for a much smaller investment, the lack of subscription or licensing costs associated with using a proprietary app store, and a much lower threshold for customer access. When a potential client needs to access information, a webapp provides a much simpler user flow wherein the customer is simply using a web browser interface with which he or she is already familiar. No app downloads, app store sign-in processes, or other access concerns are present, so your clients have unfettered access to your online services without downtime or incompatibility issues.
In short, reaching customers on their mobile devices is not optional, but a costly set of apps for multiple platforms is not the only way to go. Webapps are less costly, more hassle-free, and spread a far wider net to reach customers, no matter what device or operating system they happen to use. Coupled with the total control you have over the user experience, with virtually instant updates and no third-party manufacturer or platform manager acting as a buffer, a mobile website should often be the first consideration for a company looking to get into the mobile game.
( Brian Denten works at WorkZone, a small software company dedicated to providing project management software that streamlines processes and reduces stress.)