Do you actually need a mobile app?

June 9th, 2021 Written by Nicola Booth

I think we need a mobile app

Do you think you or your company need a mobile app? Have you been thinking about it for a while and wondering if it’s worth it? Would it make sense for my company? How would I even start?

Hopefully, this article will make the decision a little easier as I review the options available and how to create a mobile app with the best user experience in mind.

Challenge yourself to consider whether your company wants an app or whether your customers need an app.  

Do you have requirements that could be better solved by ensuring your website is optimised for mobile – thereby reaching a far broader audience than an app? Would an app give your customers a better customer experience that isn’t achievable on a website? Could an app provide content that your customers don’t currently have access to? Or do you think that an app may appeal more to potential investors and attract new customers?

By understanding how an app meets the needs of your company and customers, you can ensure the features of the app increase repeat usage and deliver a successful user experience. 

According to from Jan 2021, there are 3.04 million apps in Google Play and 2.09 million in the Apple App Store. The percentage of apps that were downloaded and only used once in 2019 was 25% in the US. With this in mind, I’ve put together some basic guidance about app possibilities that I’m aware of to give you a bit of an overview.

Mobile-first website

There is no shame in reading the above and figuring out that you may not need an app after all. There are a lot of great examples of mobile-first designs where a website on a mobile successfully delivers the company’s service or product to a mass audience. 

The major benefit of ensuring your service is available on mobile through your website is that you continue to focus on and invest in your existing channel. A website that is appropriately optimised for mobile can deliver different experiences for a range of mobile devices, ensuring your customers get an appropriate experience whether they’re using mobile, tablet, or desktop.

One of the drawbacks to focussing purely on your website is that your site won’t be visible on the Google Play or Apple App Store as it is not an app. In June 2020, 6.4 billion apps were downloaded from Apple App Store and Google Play. Due to the prominence of the mobile app stores and downloads, you could be missing out on a huge opportunity to gain interest and advertise.

Another downside is that whilst a mobile version of your website can be aligned with your branding and desktop website structure, it wouldn’t provide a user experience that is customised to either iOS or Android, and hence potentially fails to maximise the engagement with either.

Web apps

A web app is a website that is designed to adapt to the native browser of the platform it’s being viewed on. The apps are not native so do not need to be installed, but the user will need an active internet connection for the app to work. A web app allows a user to ‘bookmark’ the app to their phone so they have access to the app as if it was native. 

Web apps can be quick and easy to build like a hybrid app but their minimal requirements mean they remain lightweight and usable on less advanced or older devices. 

You’ll need developers who have knowledge of developing and maintaining code using web technologies. Due to web apps being kept small and simple these are a great option if you have a limited budget, for trying out a potential idea or building a basic app quickly to “get it out there”.  

A large drawback of a web app is that you cannot take advantage of distribution through the Apple App Store or Google Play. This means you’ll need to publicise and make your web app available through your existing channels to generate and maintain customer attention. You’ll limit your app audience unless you heavily promote your app which could be extremely costly and time-consuming.

Getting web apps to work and maintain them across all the variety of browsers that run on different mobile devices requires extensive and potentially costly maintenance. Keeping your users in mind may also be costly due to research, testing, and creating personalised user interfaces (UIs) but this is necessary to create a usable product.

Hybrid app 

A hybrid app is primarily developed using established web technologies such as HTML5 or CSS3, which are then compiled into a native iOS or Android mobile app using a native ‘wrapper’. The native wrapper also acts as a bridge into some of the native features of the device such as the camera, and will typically avoid the developer having to fully understand the differences of each native platform.

A hybrid app has possible benefits such as downloading your apps from the App Store and integrating with native hardware like cameras, sensors, and Bluetooth. There’s the ability to reuse components across the web, iOS, and Android which saves time and effort. Also, you need to write far fewer (if any) unique tests for each app so you can release updates more quickly.

Within hybrid apps, there are notification options to support updating/communicating with your users. While they’ll not be as integrated as a native app this is still a positive feature that can significantly increase engagement with your service and should be used as much as possible.

From a delivery perspective, a positive for a hybrid app is that you may be able to have a smaller team of developers due to continuing to use the existing skills in web technologies. This could save money over the timescale of your app build, although you may still need to hire specialists with experience in developing and deploying the wrapper technologies for iOS and Android.

Potentially the biggest challenge when using a hybrid app for your mobile solution is to effectively design a single user experience that works for both iOS and Android. When creating a hybrid app the UI is not personalised to each platform, so often your designs may need to use patterns that favour one platform over the other or a bespoke pattern that is native to neither. This can be confusing to users as they may need to learn new interactions which go against their native expectations. This is where user testing and/or access to usage metrics becomes essential to understanding your target audience. By using these you can identify where problems occur and gain an understanding of the most critical areas that will need design focus.

Cross-platform app

Cross-platform apps are often open-source frameworks that allow developers to build interfaces in non-native languages such as JavaScript or .NET and have them compiled into an app that will work for iOS, Android, and other platforms. This enables developers to continue using the technologies and codebase that they are familiar with, but deliver a native app rather than only web code being ‘wrapped’ like a hybrid app.

Leading cross-platform solutions include REACT Native, developed by Facebook, Flutter developed by Google and Xamarin developed by Microsoft.

The benefits of a cross-platform app are similar to a hybrid app. You can reuse components across different platforms which helps create a consistent user interface and the reduced technical barriers enable you to focus on new features and keep maintenance minimal. 

If you go with a cross-platform app, some native features may only be achievable by using native libraries to extend the framework. For this, you’ll need developers who have an understanding of native applications and functionality. Similarly, though cross-platform apps often enable developers to extend the single code base to deliver separate logic for iOS and Android, this requires specialist native expertise. 

Be aware that creating specialised tools can increase the cost of the build and maintenance. There can be performance problems caused by inconsistent communication between native and non-native components. These problems can create poor experiences for your users and can also be complicated to debug for your developers.

Native apps

A native app provides a rich experience that maximises native/hardware features and provides the best possible native experience for the user. The two prominent platforms are iOS and Android. They also have their own developer ecosystems, app stores, and form factors.

These platforms have established design guidelines and best practices that ensure a native app provides an intuitive and consistent baseline experience on top of which you can deliver bespoke features and branding specific to your requirements. This is also beneficial as you’ll not be asking a user to learn new functionalities.

A huge positive is that you’ll be able to advertise your app within the app stores. This is an opportunity to make the most of the consistent retail/store experience that Apple and Google offer. The app stores provide a monetisation platform for paid-for apps, in-app purchases, and subscriptions. Although the app stores take a percentage of any revenue, the visibility and integration of the store on your customer’s device mean this is still a good deal for most companies. 

The app store will most likely be where your competitors are. Take advantage of the marketing abilities that are offered to native apps to entice new customers to your app and not the competition. This could be hugely supported by the integrated app reviews, feedback and support offered to your customers which could lead to your company being perceived as one that cares and listens to its customers.

Notifications and micro-engagement are essential for continued app use and keeping customers coming back to engage with your app. Native apps provide much tighter integration and enhanced opportunity for this which means that you can interact with your customers easily and in a platform-appropriate way.

Native apps allow for easier integration with native hardware, such as cameras, sensors, and Bluetooth. This truly helps to create consistency and the best user experience that a user could expect. In some cases, integrations with native functionality from a native app aren’t the easiest route to take but the resulting functionality and pure native experience make for a far better end result.

Typically native apps cost more upfront due to developing bespoke software for each platform but this doesn’t mean the overall cost may be more as native apps have fewer compatibility issues. All of the information relating to the app is stored on the phone for instant access and you can download the app from Apple App Store and Google Play.

A significant overhead of native app development is the ongoing maintenance commitment. As OS updates are released and devices come and go, the overhead maintenance increases. You need to be fostering continued engagement in terms of both feature development and customer/marketing effort. If the “build it and they will come” idea is a myth on the web it will be even more so on mobile.

Only use native apps if you want to design specifically for iOS and Android. If you design for one platform and think you can duplicate the work on to the other platform you would be mistaken. These platforms are not compatible so you’ll need to duplicate your effort. Apple’s iOS guidelines are a lot stricter than Google Android, if you do target one platform before the other it may be wise to approach iOS first. By following the guidance provided from the start you should ensure your project is not blocked later down the line causing delays and design/tech debt.

Design areas to keep in mind

Now that you have a basic understanding of what currently exists in terms of options for apps the focus will now be on how to make your app successful. There are some fundamental activities to keep in mind during the design phase that will improve the user experience of your app. 

User research (what to do)

Research is crucial to informing how you create the best product possible, especially in contexts such as mobile where the interface or connectivity could cause issues that you haven’t anticipated. You are gaining insight and understanding about what features users want from your product, ensuring you are being truly user-centred. Research can validate your ideas and help to strengthen or dissolve hypotheses and assumptions.

Don’t assume that research has to be expensive or conducted on a large scale. Even if you only interview a small selection of existing customers during your product design and development, you’ll gain more insight into which issues and features users want and should be prioritised in your product.

Mobile design (how to do it)

There are many resources and articles written about iOS and Android design principles that help designers and developers understand the key differences between them. Furthermore, one of the best ways to understand the differences is to use as many devices across the two platforms as possible, ideally exploring as many different versions and screen sizes of each platform as possible. By understanding and designing for the interactions that users expect from their favoured platform, you can cater to their expectations and provide a mobile experience that feels intuitive and encourages repeat usage.

Designers and developers should be familiar with the core design guidelines for each platform:  Material design for Android and Human Interface Guidelines for iOS. Each design system has examples of what to do, what not to do, and animations to accompany the guiding content.

Accessibility (design principles) states that at least 1 in 5 people in the UK have a long-term illness, impairment, or disability. Many more have a temporary disability.

When designing for mobile screen sizes you’ll need to think about the use of screen readers, the layout and size of the font, the ease of navigation, how colours are used, and supporting speech recognition software.

These features could be tested by user researchers when conducting user testing sessions or during acceptance testing by developers. If there is a focus on making sure that the app will work well for certain accessibility needs you can approach specialist companies who have access to users with accessibility requirements. Developers should code with tagging for screen readers and speech recognition in mind. There are many tools and checklists available to help developers test the technical implementation of accessibility features.

As with designing for desktop websites, designers should keep the WCAG 2.1 or ‘AA’ guidelines in mind when designing for mobile as these are internationally recognised guides for improving accessibility. They are focused on incorporating four key principles into your design – being perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. 

User testing (is it working)

If you can conduct user testing sessions with existing or potential users you’ll be able to identify issues early on that may relate to understanding the navigation, bugs, issues around content, customer feedback and input, etc. By carrying out user testing on your product you are helping to make sure that what you create is usable and works as expected for your target audience. Try to conduct user testing as much as possible and as early as possible.

There is more confidence when launching a product that has gained feedback from test participants and been through the revision process rather than launching something and hoping it attracts the target audience. Not understanding your target audience can result in money lost, racked up design/tech debt, and can potentially lose the trust of your users.

Screen sizes (is it working)

Testing on different screen sizes can be a chore but it is vital for user experience. If you have the budget to afford test devices for your team to interact with then that would be perfect but if not then some services allow you to test your product remotely. 

By viewing the design on different screen sizes you are recognising that your users will have different experiences. It is unachievable to test all of them so consider with your team where you are intending to focus. The main screen size groupings are small mobile, large mobile, small tablet, and large tablet. An acceptable and minimal option would be to test each of the groups – on both platforms.

There is a lot of information to take into consideration but this is still an exciting opportunity for you and your product. The guidance around mobile options only provides a high-level overview but should outline enough information to help in your decision-making. By following the design guidance above and taking small steps driven by research you can deliver a product with low risk and high opportunity.

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Written by Nicola Booth