Header image with the text, 'Mobile app or mobile site?', on a multicolored background.

Mobile app or mobile site?

In my most recent post, I described some challenges that amusement parks and their suppliers would face in hiring a designer, developer, or company to build them an app. Namely, these:

  1. Smartphone users don’t all use the same kind of phone. Responsive design helps designers today be better at designing for different screen sizes, but the phones can use several different major operating systems.
  2. Developing for each operating system – iOS (Apple), Android, Windows Phone, etc. – requires developers to have different technical skills.  It is very hard for a developer to cultivate deep specializations in coding for more than one operating system.  One developer with a deep specialization in Apple devices and one with a deep specalization in Android will be more knowledgeable and more useful to you, in most cases, than one generalist developer who knows a little about both, but…
  3. If you hire both the iOS developer and the Android developer, it will cost you more money.
  4. If you hire the generalist who tries to do both, the app’s quality will likely suffer, and/or the developer will not be able to work as efficiently.
  5. If you have an app for iOS but not Android, or vice versa, users of the other operating systems won’t have an app that they can use.
  6. Even if you do spend the money on a larger development team or an app that will work on more devices, users aren’t guaranteed to use the app.

In other words, I understand that you can spend a lot of money to hire a big development team, have them deliver – on-time – an app that works great on almost any device, and still have wasted your money because the app is collecting dust in the App Store. I’ll be describing some of the reasons why apps don’t get used and some ways how each one can be avoided.

The first hurdle: Download

What if you had an app that worked for all smartphone users?

In order to get your prospective customers to use the app, you must first convince them to download it. Sites do this in a variety of ways:

Notifying existing customers

They may call or email existing customers about a new app in their device’s app store. If it’s their device, this strategy can work for customers that you already know about. But still, they need to be persuaded that they do in fact need the app before they just disregard the call or email. And people in your target market who could give you new business but who aren’t already your customers still won’t know about the app this way.

Creating a partial mobile site

They may present a mobile site that has some of the functionality of the desktop site and the app, but not all of it. The 80/20 rule works well in building out features in this strategy, assuming that time and budget constraints don’t allow building out the whole site. But it still leaves users wondering why the mobile site does not have everything.

Displaying an app pop-up

They may pop up a mobile-friendly message over a mobile or desktop site, telling users to download an app. Users don’t click or tap on anything that they think is an ad, and they will find repeated prompts annoying. Even 10 years ago, leading usability experts said that 95% of users react to pop-ups “very negatively or negatively”, which makes it users’ most hated online advertising technique. This still holds true today.

Displaying the desktop site on mobile devices

You may give users a desktop site which tells them about an app. But then users have to deal with a page layout with too much information on it for their screens. They probably need to pinch and zoom to find the button for downloading your app from the app store.

But do these work?

Recent Deloitte and Comscore studies have said that one-third of smartphone users in the UK and the US, respectively, no longer download any new apps in a typical month.  And 9 out of 10 app users don’t spend any money in apps.  Fewer than half of all smartphone buyers in 2013 were buying their first smartphone, and the “wow” factor of downloading new apps for a new device wears off in as little as four months.  Paid apps have an even harder time with this.

The second hurdle: First-time use

What if you did get them to download the app?

Most apps aren’t used at all

Your site still needs to persuade them to actually use it. If your app is downloaded (not even opened) at least once from the App Store, you will have done better than 60% of all other apps. 95% of all apps are used for less than a month and never opened again.

Don’t make them commit too soon

The design of the app itself must keep both existing customers and possible customers in your funnel. If your app begins with a screen that forces users to register for an account they don’t already have, you have already presented another hurdle in getting users to use it.

The problem with passwords on mobile

Passwords, in particular, are a problem with registration. Since smartphone users have to type on a smaller keyboard, they make a typo on every fifth character, on average. Suppose that a new user creates a password with 8 characters, a standard that most IT organizations consider secure enough. The chance that they get just one character right in confirming a password is therefore 4 in 5.

The chance that they get an entire 8-character password right is 4 in 5 to the eighth power, equal to 65536 in 390625: only about 1 in 6. And that’s only if they can remember the entire password for signing back in.

Digital products often don’t know the difference between a mistyped password and a forgotten password, so they just tell users that their password is wrong. An error message that merely says that the password is incorrect misleads users into thinking they forgot the password. At this point, most users will abandon.

Bring users up to speed, with the right amount of information

Similarly, even if your app doesn’t make users register, it still may leave them confused when they first open it. The app might not give users what they need. Or it might not make it possible to show them where to find it. Or the benefit of your app versus a competing (or built-in) app might not be clear. Or your app might give users a first screen that is really only for advanced users – or screens that treat them like they’ve never seen a computer before. It may need a tutorial and not have it – or have a tutorial that is irrelevant or too long for users to remember anything.

If users are confused about anything, their chance of abandoning keeps going up. As Alan Cooper, Robert Reimann, and David Cronin wrote in About Face 3, users do not want to remain beginners very long, and our designs should cater to the vast majority of users in a product’s target audience: the perpetual intermediates.

The third hurdle: regular use

Your app probably won’t be in heavy rotation on a user’s phone unless it truly provides value that they can’t get anywhere else. According to recent research, 55% of smartphone users used less than 5 apps per day on their phone.

For example, many park map apps are in the clear here for guests that prefer using their phone to carrying around a paper map. But they won’t be accessed if guests leave their phones in a locker or in their car – or if your guests ignore your pleas and lose their phones on roller coaster with them.

For users who wouldn’t otherwise open your app again to routinely use the app, the app has to give them another benefit that they will definitely use. This could tie in to other touchpoints of your park’s service. For example, users of your app could have a rewards system that gives them their choice of several discounts on items in the park in exchange for using a check-in service to tell their friends that they are at the park, or sharing a photo of themselves at the park for the park to use on social media.

When to opt for a mobile app over a mobile site

When your users need integration with other features in their phones

Some features of a smartphone cannot be accessed by mobile websites.  For example, mobile websites cannot access a phone’s camera.  Support for website access to push notifications is increasing but still limited.  iOS 8 allows websites to have access to a user’s location, which Apple has been allowing since at least iOS 6.

Most apps at least allow users to access them while they are intentionally offline or unable to access Wi-Fi or mobile data.  Offline First, a new initiative which follows Mobile First design strategies, aims to design and develop apps which can be used offline.  In contrast, mobile websites are only accessible while users are connected to a wireless network or able to receive mobile data.

When many of your users would benefit from time-sensitive information

The 2014 IAAPA Attractions Expo, which I attended several weeks ago, set a record with over 30,500 amusement industry professionals in attendance.  The official IAAPA Expos app  allowed users to have quick access to a wealth of information about the trade show: exhibitor profiles with links to each exhibitor’s website, maps of the trade show floor, a list of all education sessions, press releases that came out during the event, and push notifications reminding them of upcoming events.  IAAPA has had mobile apps for their Attractions Expos every year since at least 2010.

While there were some changes I would have made to the app, I did find the app’s content quite relevant.  I used it every day on the floor to find new exhibitors to visit, and it cut down on the time that I spent searching.

There’s ROI in developing an app for a large event like this because attendees commit hundreds of dollars, minimum, to attend the Expo, and there were over 30,000 attendees.  Over 19,000 were registered as buyers, and anything that would help make buyers more productive with their time helps maximize the chances that everyone will get what they need from the show and that the exhibitors will find it worthwhile to return next year.

Furthermore, the IAAPA Expos app helps users be aware of IAAPA’s other trade shows.  With the same app, users can learn more about who was at the most recent Euro Attractions Show and Asian Attractions Expo.

When your app’s purpose matches why users use apps

According to a recent New York Daily News article, mobile users now spend 88% of their time on their devices in apps, compared to 12% of their time on mobile websites.  The article says that 60% of all media that users consume is now via mobile: 52% from apps and 8% from websites.

A recent Harvard Business Review article describes how average users use their time on their phones.  46% is devoted to relaxation or entertainment.  19% is for interacting with other people, while 12% is shopping and 11% is for managing finances, health, and productivity.  Preparing for upcoming activities, reading the news, and self-expression each account for less than 10% of mobile users’ time.

Web apps: a hybrid solution

Part of the problem for organizations which want apps is the overhead associated with app stores.  App stores have to approve apps before they will make them available for download, a process that can take weeks.  Apple maintains a lengthy list of reasons why apps may be rejected.  These include the following:

  • Apps that don’t work
  • Apps that “do not provide any lasting entertainment”
  • Apps that are only for marketing or advertising
  • Apps that use notifications to send advertising
  • Apps that require personal information from users (including their email address or birthday) in order to function
  • Apps that don’t comply with Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines

Web apps do not have to go through an approval process.  Also, Apple takes 30% of all revenue generated by an app.  A web app can keep all of its revenue, but it can’t be listed on the App Store.

Test, test, test

Therefore, taking the app route successfully requires testing with users at every possible point where they may drop out of the process: the landing page which tells them about the app (which needs to be mobile-friendly, or users won’t stay on it), the listing in the app store, the initial screens of the app, routine use, and any sort of checkout process within the app. And the app has to be designed and built with a solid understanding of users’ goals, the tasks that they want to perform in accomplishing those goals, and their frustrations.

Successful apps like Facebook, Twitter, Evernote, and just about every successful mobile game that you can name have done well because they understood what users needed, delivered on it, and kept on testing with users.

If you don’t go the app route, your site will still need to do an effective job delivering on users’ actual needs. I still recommend frequent testing with your users in either case, but at least an effectively-designed mobile site will have several hurdles eliminated: getting people to download the app and convincing them to use it. Then you just have to deal with the engagement and conversion problems that desktop sites also need to tackle.

I agree with Econsultancy’s conclusion based on Deloitte and Comscore’s recent research: the percentage of web traffic coming from mobile devices is now far too big to ignore, and it is getting bigger.  So when developing a native app is needed, it becomes a “both-and”; you would need both a responsive website to cater to mobile traffic and a native app to draw upon capabilities of the phone.

Even if 88% of smartphone time is currently spent in apps, the website provides a very important “shop window” (Econsultancy article’s term) for helping prospective customers to perceive your brand.  But for most businesses catering to other businesses in the amusement industry, a responsive website by itself will do the job.

Let’s talk about mobile strategy

Part of design thinking involves making sure that a digital product you are considering creating is the right solution for your business.  In a brief, free consultation or a more extended discovery phase, I can help you determine whether a responsive website, a web app, or a native mobile app would be an effective solution for your business.

Use this contact form or send me an email to start discussing some ideas.  You should also follow @DavidParmeleeUX and @ThrillAndCreate on Twitter for more useful articles about how to improve your product’s user experience.