Mobile applications - 'apps' - have quickly become an integral part of a modern, technology-centered lifestyle. Thinking back to our world just a couple of years ago - we didn't have access to every resource or service on the Internet, anywhere and anytime - it seemed terribly inconvenient, and makes us wonder how we ever managed to get anything done at all.
Visiting a new city without Google Maps on your mobile now seems to border on madness. Dining in a restaurant without a quick Yelp check feels like an unnecessary health risk and getting the best seat at a movie theater has now become a matter of buying tickets the instant you decide to go, rather than take a risk later that day by buying tickets at the theater itself. Our lives have never been easier and feel more 'instant' than ever.
The two biggest contributors to this lifestyle are, of course, the mobile phone and the Internet. When combining them, you have an enormous amount of information and services nicely located in the pocket of your favorite jeans, ready when you need them.
But mobile apps have been around for quite a long time. The earliest specification dates back to early 2001. That's over 16 years ago! Of course, we didn't have permanent connection to the Internet just yet, let alone on a phone. And the few lucky ones that did quickly found out that the technology had a long way to go to live up to its aspired potential (remember WAP?). But now, many, many moons later, we've finally arrived in that Technological Walhalla of Immediate Information Accessibility and Services that we fantasized about in Sci-Fi movies in the 80's and 90's. (Or maybe even already in the 60's!)
How to approach mobile apps: a must-have?
But how we should go about harnessing all that potential? Should we blindly start developing applications and mobile sites for just about any use-case we can think of? Should you, as a company, definitely have to provide applications in an app store on all major platforms in fear of not being represented on the market otherwise?
Marketing agencies loved to make their customers believe so. A mobile application used to be a status symbol, much like a website back in the 90's. Companies had no real idea what to do with the medium (except for the big tech companies and that one particular start-up), but knew they had to have some sort of representation, and quickly jumped on the wagon. The content was irrelevant to the perceived importance of presence. Nowadays, a company without presence on the Internet is assumed to be either a scam or will go quickly out of business. (Mind the wording: presence on the Internet does not just imply a traditional website; there have been many examples of successful businesses harnessing customer potential through Social Media only).
What to choose: app vs. website
Most of the successful applications today have two things in common:
- They focus on a single piece of functionality and do that really well;
- They look and feel polished and are a joy to use. The end-user takes priority.
The most successful websites today also have a couple of things in common:
- They offer the same information regardless of device and context;
- They look and feel polished and 'at home' (but not necessarily the same) on any device.
The major difference here is that:
- A website offers information. That information should be accessible anywhere with any device;
- An application focuses on a single task and allows the user to perform that task with the least amount of effort and the greatest gain. Ideally that application is started, the action is performed and within minutes, the user is back on the home screen, doing what they were doing before.
You can immediately imagine thousands of marketeers screaming that you can't establish brand presence with only a couple of seconds of screen time. And they have a point. But the beauty of a well thought-out application is that it solves a (very) frequent problem, and thus those couple of seconds each time quickly build up to many minutes. When your application is well designed, looks beautiful and works like a charm, users will automatically begin to associate the solution to the problem they face with your application, and by extension, with your brand.
The key point here is that the functionality needs to be repetitive - nobody bothers to install an application for a single use once per year. Nor do they install applications that have no added value for tasks that can be accomplished just as easily with a webbrowser.
An interesting hypothesis deems an application to be inherently transactional: it provides a service to a user, usually initiated by that user and with a specific result in mind. Solely offering information could be a valid reason of existence for an application, but only if it offers significant advantage over a classic (possibly single-purpose) website.
A package or delivery tracker for example, could exist as a very polished and optimized dedicated website, accessible on all devices the same. But the ability to receive notifications on your device when the package is delivered, or a sign-off and receipt mechanism utilizing the camera and GPS might justify building an application instead.
Best practice: stick with the platform guidelines
An application typically offers the chance to solve a frequent problem while maintaining a user experience that everybody's already familiar with. A fatal mistake many companies make is 'over-branding'. Every mobile platform has its own guidelines and applications should adhere to them; no branding should ever interfere with those platform guidelines. If branding and guidelines conflict, the guideline must be followed. If this basic rule is broken, you quickly end up with a non-standard application that looks and feels out of place. As a consequence, users are less likely to adopt your application.
The reason is simple: people are used to a certain set of actions, visual elements and user interface interactions on a given platform. If affordance is carelessly broken, your application is deemed unreliable, ugly or even "weird".
The story stays the same for applications that are created using build-once-run-many frameworks. A common comparison is a standard (i.e. non-optimized) Java application on the desktop: it more or less looks like a native application, but it's the difference in the small details that make it feel 'not quite right'. Everybody that has ever ran a Java application on Mac or a Mac application on Windows (iTunes anyone?) knows the feeling.
When you offer the exact same user interface, controls and interactions/gestures for both iOS, Android, Windows Phone and others, you will quickly find your application will work as intended on a single platform, yet terrible on the others. If a company decides to come up with their own set of guidelines and controls in the name of 'branding' or under the vale of 'not looking the same as any other application', they also throw out the only remaining well-working platform; iOS, Android and Windows Phone may look more or less the same to an untrained eye, but there are many subtle and not-so-subtle differences between them. A button is never 'just a button'.
Meticulously implementing the platform guidelines can make the difference between an app that's just OK vs. an app that stands out positively. When done right, there's still more than enough room for adequate and non-intrusive branding.
Don't choose, do both
So, should we opt for an optimized website or an application? The answer is easy: don't choose, do both.
As a company you want your information to be accessible everywhere. Optimize your site with responsive webdesign so it is accessible for all devices in the best possible way for each device separately. Next, identify problems customers may have and identify opportunities to streamline the process or even solve those problems completely.
Build an application to help your users. Begin with what they actually need, rather than what you want them to do. Make sure the application is a good citizen: don't choose the easy way out and build something that kind-of-sort-of works for all platforms, but never really well and always looks out of place. Instead, opt for quality and invest in the long run by creating clean, polished and user-driven apps that feel and look right at home on the platform. (And to score major bonus points, make it easy for the user to migrate their data to another platform, as that happens quite often).