Mobile Web or Mobile App?

When discussing mobile, the question I most often get asked is “should I build a mobile app, or is a mobile web site enough?” The answer is (almost) always “both, but for different purposes”.

Before we explore that, we should consider why a mobile interface is so critical. The number of smartphones+tablets being sold outnumbers the number of PCs and the number of smartphones sold in the UK exceeds the number of conventional mobile phones. This is a symptom of he fact that, for many demographics (such as the youth market, or large segments of the developing world), the mobile device is becoming the primary access mode for the web.

Certainly, from a personal perspective, the Smartphone is the primary way I access a range of services, from weather to travel & maps, from social networking to music & video content. But more than that, because most of the traditional news and company links I receive come via Twitter or Facebook, and I access those services almost exclusively from my iPhone, it is an effort to relocate the link to a PC browser. Furthermore as my primary browsing device at home is the iPad on the sofa, I am increasingly ignoring any web site that tries to force me to walk over to my desk and wake up the Macbook. We really are moving into the post-PC era.

So you can imagine how frustrating it is to click on a link in a Tweet or Facebook update, and be presented to a complex screen full of tiny print on my smartphone. I thought hard about whether I wanted to pick on one example here, especially when there are so many of them, but sites talking about the importance of good mobile apps are asking for it (sorry, @usertesting)…

That looks like a very relevant Tweet. Let's follow the link….

Oops! If you can't read the text, it says “Mobile apps and responsive websites are looking – and working – better than ever…” Unfortunately that doesn't include their mobile web site.

The reality is that Gen-Y (and many other people) no longer have the patience for this sort of web experience. Their reaction is “it doesn't work” rather than “I need to go and open this link on a PC”. So, if you are thinking of launching a Twitter campaign, or creating a Facebook page for your brand, you had better be making your web experience responsive, so it automatically adapts to mobile devices.

Yes, this does require rework – which is all the more reason why you need to choose a portal platform, like IBM's Customer Experience Suite, that will let you easily exploit future extensions to the digital experience with minimal reworking. Then, at least, you will be ready for holographic, 3D, immersive web experiences – or whatever comes next (smellyvision, anyone?)

So, our first key lessons is that making your web site responsive is a must (I chose the theme for this blog because of its responsive design – it is actually more readable on an iPhone that a PC browser), so prioritise the move to reponsive web site design today.

Earlier this year, at the IBM Exceptional Web Experience conference in Berlin, I listened to Jyske Bank talk about their journey to create a mobile friendly website. Their key conclusion? Going forward they have adopted a “Mobile First” srategy (as scaling that up to a full site is easier than dumbing down a complex web property). A user who doesn't have (or doesn't want) a PC will not accept a user interface with only half the functionality. Anyway, in some ways the mobile interface is richer, with has location awareness, a camera, plus the user is willing to share more personal information via it, and soon finger print authentication too.

Actually, I was talking to a customer recently whose vision for their next generation intranet home page looked like the iPad home screen. Not so much the set of icons for apps (though that was seen as familiar to the users) but the concept that the user can choose the apps (icons) and lay them out according to their needs, then open them as they need them (this is very different to the traditional concept of portlet page designed for the user's role base on assumptions about the users needs – the predecessor of the rather hideous Windows 8 tile interface – but rather something simpler and less confusing for the person in front of the screen).

But, to return to the original question, does that mean that if you have a mobile web site you don't need a mobile app? After all, iOS has always been happy to store a link on your home page as if it was an app. Mobile frameworks like PhoneGap let you access local services like location and the camera from your mobile browser application. Isn't that enough?

I believe it is not. For two reasons. The first is logical and obvious – offline support. At the very least a mobile app which cannot connect to the server can make a phone call to the call centre so you can talk to someone – rather than giving the user no options at all. It can tell the user what to do now, if there is no wireless connection at all, and synchronise information like account and serial numbers or policy details.

The second reason is more subtle. It turns out that because the mobile device is such a personal, customisable, social device, users create an emotional engagement with it that is much stronger than they are ever likely to develop with a web page. But for this to happen the app has to be simple, intuitive and highly personalised within minimal configuration. All the things the PC has lost over the years and web pages find it hard to be.

So design apps that respond to specific user needs, create an engaged, social, compelling relationship with the user, and make sure they have a reason to return to them regularly. Otherwise they will be moved off the home screen and the user will forget that they are even there. That way, the app becomes a proxy for the user's engagement with your brand.

Oh, and one more thing. Don't design a smartphone app that doesn't adapt to the real estate of the tablet. It's real annoying to feel like you are being treated as a 5 year old when you have a device in your hands that, because of the touch screen and smart apps that connect you directly to people, content and organisations, feels even more powerful than your PC.

Similarly make your mobile web pages responsive to the dimensions and orientation of the screen – don't let them look like a simplified version for five year olds. That wont endear the users to your site.

So, the conclusion? Apps are “better” as they are lean and mean – but that likely means they are not sufficient. Technology typically starts that way, but gets complex and bloated over time as users keep demanding more features and marketing keeps looking for something new to sell. Fight it. Keep your apps simple because that's what users really want. Make them personal and engaging with an easy, clear value proposition, then users will keep coming back to them.

Web sites are good as they are comprehensive and do everything you could possibly want. Build a mobile web interface that repurposes all your services to be accessed in a mobile friendly way (and I mean all the services, ready for the day when there are only mobile devices). The web can accomodate the long tail of functionality, where the cost of implementing, and the cost of the user complexity in accessing it, isn't justified. It can seamlessly extend the functionality of your mobile app by delivering advanced functionality in a hybrid web app accessed via the mobile app.

But just because mobile apps and mobile web are different things with a different purpose, doesn't mean they should be implemented completely separately. Or even worse by different teams. They should use exactly the same back end services. Have a common look and feel, terminology and navigation. They should use the same user interface elements. That is one value of having a portal as a presentation layer for your web content – it front ends the services you offer in the same way as the mobile apps do.

So the portal layer needs to integrate with your mobile application development framework, providing common services to web and mobile users. Different presentation for different purposes, but with an integrating design and development team.

Most importantly of all, when you are designing for a user holding a smartphone or tablet in their hands, try to get inside their head. Understand what they are trying to achieve, Think about their context – not sitting at a desk but standing at a bus stop, walking down a corridor, or sitting in the back of a taxi. Use capabilities like location, camera, motion detectors and personal data on the device to contribute to an overall customer journey that will make your app, like their smartphone, feel more like an extension to their body and brain than a gadget they are using. Most of all, make the experience simple and satisfying.

Then let them bridge to the mobile web when things get complicated, rather than complicating things from the start.



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