To App or Not to App

 

If there’s one conversation I’m having more than any other at the moment it’s the one that starts “I think we need an app”.

The rise of apps is not only changing the way we interact with mobile devices and tablets, but it’s changing the way we and software companies are thinking about how we’ll interact with desktop machines in the future.  Apps come from that widget-based approach of distinct interfaces to deliver specific content or functions rather than the operating system-driven model that says “make your application look and work like all the others, whether it’s appropriate for your users or not”.  It’s actually very liberating.

The popularity of apps also goes hand-in-hand with the rise of social media, which sees the huge majority of interactions happen through apps rather than web interfaces, and those apps are often designed to make our social lives easier by doing things like knowing where we are, or letting us update multiple accounts from one place.  So, as we as businesses become more social, and social users become more app-focused, the trigger for the “I think we need an app” connection becomes more obvious.

But before you all go rushing to Google to find App Developers, stop for a minute to ponder whether you’ve already got most of the elements you need ready to use in your existing website.  Because this is one of the tensions that the mobile development industry is having to consider: do you really need an app when just optimising your website for mobile will do the trick?

The answer, inevitably, isn’t a yes/no option – it’s a “depends what you want to do” range of considerations.

Here’s an example:  National Rail (www.nationalrail.co.uk) provides the ability through its website to search the railway timetables and find the train you need.  It also contains real time information on service disruptions and engineering works, as well as plenty of other stuff about station facilities, deals and other travel-related content.  Different content and functions aside, this is probably the level at which most businesses present themselves online.

National Rail also has a mobile-optimised site which pares things back to the core ‘stuff’ they’ve thought about you needing when actually travelling – plan a route, check real time conditions and alterations to the schedule, with station information available if you need to check whether you can get a Krispy Kreme while waiting for the delayed 18:27 to Tunbridge Wells. That’s just a few extra templates on a web server and a bit of code to check whether you’re browsing from a mobile; no need for a costly bit of app development there.  And maybe that’s what would work for your customer’s mobile interactions with you.  Problem solved; no app required.

But there’s more.  What makes National Rail a particularly interesting example is that even with the considerations noted above, they also have a mobile app.

The app does all the things that the mobile site does, but also adds functions and taps into features built into a mobile device.  So you can tell it your ‘home’ station when you first install it, then by connecting to the phone’s GPS facility, a single button press will set the app to work out where you are, calculate the best/fastest way to get home, and help you to find your departure station if you’re in unfamiliar territory.  They’ve invested in an app framework to extend the utility they already provide, giving the user a better service that they can charge for.  Maybe that’s something that fits your business goals or audience needs.

As I said above, the best solution for your business when looking at mobile engagement will depend on what you need to do.  If you’d like to deliver an experience that integrates the built-in features of a phone (the GPS, the camera, the microphone), you can’t do that from a mobile web page, so then you’re looking at app development.

And, bringing this back to the realm of social engagement – if you want your users to have access to your content and be able to share the experience with their social networks when on the move, you’re probably okay with some clever thinking about your mobile interface.

If you want them easily to take and share a photo of themselves doing so, it’s time for that App Developer search…