Mobile Sites vs. Apps: The Coming Strategy Shift

Mobile Sites vs. Apps: The Coming Strategy Shift

Mobile apps currently have better usability than mobile sites, but forthcoming changes will eventually make a mobile site the superior strategy.

The most important question in a company’s mobile strategy is whether to do anything specialfor mobile in the first place. Some companies will never get substantial mobile use and should stick to making their desktop sites less insufferable on small screens.

But if your site happens to have decent appeal to mobile users, then the second strategy question is: Should you produce a mobile website or develop special mobile apps? The answer to this question today is quite different from what it will likely be in the future.

Current Mobile Strategy: Apps Best

As of this writing, there’s no contest: ship mobile apps if you can afford it. Our usability studies with mobile devices clearly show that users perform better with apps than with mobile sites. (Mobile sites have higher measured usability than desktop sites when used on a phone, but mobile apps score even higher.)

The empirical data is really all you need to know. It’s a fact that apps beat mobile sites in testing. To plan a mobile strategy, you don’t need to know why the winner is best, but I’ll try to explain it anyway.

Mobile applications are more usable than mobile-optimized websites because only limited optimization is possible during website design. An app can target the specific limitations and abilities of each individual device much better than a website can while running inside a browser.

Native application superiority holds for any platform, including desktop computers. However, desktop computers are so powerful that web-based applications suffice for many tasks.

In contrast, mobile devices provide an impoverished user experience: tiny screens, slow connectivity, higher interaction cost (especially when typing, but also due to users’ inability to double-click or hover), and less precision in pointing due to the fat-finger problem. The weaker the device, the more important it is to optimize for its characteristics.

Apps can also provide a superior business case for content providers because the various app stores offer a pseudo-micropayment ability that lets you collect money from users, which is harder to achieve over the public Internet.

Finally, let’s consider the differences between Nielsen’s Law for Internet bandwidth and Moore’s Law for computer power. Over the next decade, Internet bandwidth will likely become 57 times faster, while computers will become 100 times more powerful. (Future computers will be monsters compared to the puny hardware we’re using now.)

In other words, the relative advantage of running native code instead of downloading stuff over the Internet will be twice as big in 10 years. One more point in favor of mobile apps.

Future Mobile Strategy: Sites Best

In the future, the cost-benefit tradeoff for apps vs. mobile sites will change.

Although I just said that computers will become 100 times more powerful, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the iPhone 14 will be 100 times faster than the iPhone 4S. It’s more likely that hardware advances will be split between speed and other mobile priorities, especially battery lifetime. So, a future phone might be only 10 times faster (but will be thinner, lighter, and able to run much longer between charges), whereas download times will be cut by a factor 57.

The expense of mobile apps will increase because there will be more platforms to develop for. At a minimum, you’ll have to support Android, iOS, and Windows Phone. Furthermore, many of these platforms will likely fork into multiple subplatforms that require different apps for a decent user experience.

For user experience purposes, iOS has already forked into iPad vs. iPhone. Although they officially have the same OS software, the two devices need two very different user interface (UI) designs. (See our free report on iPad usability for tablet usability considerations.)’s recent introduction of the Kindle Fire effectively forked the Android user experience with a fairly different platform. And, as our Kindle Fire usability study concluded, you need a separate app with a separate UI to deliver decent usability on this nonstandard device that’s selling like hotcakes.

It’s only realistic to expect even further UI diversity in the future. This will make it extremely expensive to ship mobile apps.

In contrast, mobile sites will retain some cross-platform capabilities, so you won’t need as many different designs. High-end sites will need 3 mobile designs to target phones, mid-sized tablets (like Kindle Fire), and big tablets. Using ideas like responsive design will let you adapt each of these site versions to a range of screen sizes and capabilities. The same basic UI design will work for both a 6.8-inch tablet and a 7.5-inch tablet if you simply shrink or stretch things a bit. (A 5-inch phone would require a different design, with fewer features andabbreviated content.)

Most important, new web technologies such as HTML 5 will substantially improve mobile site capabilities. We’re already seeing mobile sites from publishers such as the Financial Times andPlayboy with UIs that are very similar to applications offered by equivalent newspapers and magazines.

Today, FT and Playboy use sites instead of apps for business reasons, not UI reasons. Publishers are tired of having a huge share of subscription revenues confiscated by app store owners, and Playboy wants to publish more titillating content than Apple’s prudish censors allow.

Freedom from censorship and freedom to keep your own money are good reasons to stay with the free Internet instead of the walled garden of proprietary app stores. In the future, better UIs and more adaptive implementations will be additional reasons to go with mobile apps.

A last benefit of a mobile-site strategy is better integration with the full web. It’s much easier for others to link to a site than to integrate with a 3rd-party application. In the long run, theInternet will defeat smaller, closed environments.

(Apps may remain better for tasks that are intensely feature-rich applications, such as photo editing — whereas mobile sites will be better for design problems like e-commerce/m-commerce, corporate websites, news, medical info, social networking, etc. that are rich in content but don’t require intense data manipulation.)

When Will the Strategy Shift Happen?

Now for the $64,000 question — or, more accurately for most companies, the million-dollar question: When will the recommended strategy change? In other words, when will the changeover in favor of mobile sites be strong enough for you to abandon mobile apps?

Sadly, I don’t know. Usability insights can tell us what’s best for users under various circumstances, but they can’t predict how fast these circumstances will change in the real world. In my experience, things change much more slowly than one might expect.

For example, in September 2000, I said that mobile usability required a device with a deck-of-cards form factor that would “get rid of the keys and spend every available square millimeter on pixels.” A few months later, I predicted that European vendors’ infatuation with non-web mobile phones would lead to the demise of that continent’s lead in mobile technology.

Both predictions came true, but not until 7 years later when the iPhone was finally launched as (a) a device with almost the entire surface used for data, and (b) a product from a computer company rather than a phone company.

Even worse, in 2001, I thought that “Mobile Devices Will Soon Be Useful.” Sure, if by “soon” you mean 6 years 😦

Good mobile design was so close I could taste it. I knew what was needed, and I didn’t think it was so hard to do. But, as the famous saying goes, don’t confuse a clear view with a short distance. As I admitted in my retrospective on my first 10 years writing the Alertbox, when I was wrong about the timing it “was often because I was too enthusiastic about a new technology’s potential. When I was right, it was often because I was conservative.”

To conclude: I do believe mobile sites will win over mobile apps in the long term. But when that will happen is less certain. Today, if you are serious about creating the best possible mobile user experience, my advice is to develop apps.

Learn More

293-page report on Usability of Mobile Websites and Applications with 210 design guidelines and 479 screenshots is available for download.


Principles For Mobile Marketing Success | Forrester Blogs

Principles For Mobile Marketing Success

Posted by Melissa Parrish on February 8, 2012

Most marketers know that there are opportunities for them to engage consumers on mobile devices: consumers are increasingly buying smartphones, using them more frequently, and using them as a supplemental resource for content and communication. So it’s great to see that marketer spend in mobile is increasing. However, we find that most efforts still treat mobile as a translation of PC-based campaigns, or are otherwise experimental. And while it’s smart to start with those kinds of programs, we think it’s important that marketers begin to evolve their mobile marketing strategies so their programs can be as sophisticated as their customers.

In our latest report, we’ve identified a few steps you can take to move your mobile marketing strategy forward:

1)    Know what phase of mobile marketing evolution you are in.To get where you’re going, you first have to know where you are. We’ve has outlined five phases of mobile marketing evolution and the accompanying approach, resources, goals, and tactics for each so that you can see which phase you are in today: Foundation, Experimentation, Device Strategy, Channel Strategy, and Comprehensive Strategy.

2)    Use the three pillars of mobile strategy to guide your marketing programs in each phase:

a.     Immediacy: Provide content that is timely and actionable in the moment.

b.     Simplicity: Provide programs elements that are easy to see and navigate on a mobile phone.

c.     Context: Send relevant messages based on time, location, and mobile behaviors.

3)    Work with the right partner to enhance your strategy. Mobile is still emerging as part of the interactive marketer’s toolbox and that means there’s still a lot of learning to be done. We suggest that marketers grow their internal expertise by partnering with one of two types of partners: 1) A digital agency that excels in mobile marketing and can help guide your thinking and integrate your mobile strategy with other efforts, or 2) a specialist that can help you with mobile-specific tactics, such as a 2D bar code or SMS campaign.

If you’re a Forrester client, you can see all the details in this report. In the meantime, I’d love to know what phase of mobile marketing your organization is in, and how quickly you think you’ll need to move to the next one to meet the needs of your customers.

via Principles For Mobile Marketing Success | Forrester Blogs.

5 Signs of a Great User Experience

5 Signs of a Great User Experience

By Richard MacManus / January 29, 2012 8:32 PM / 17 Comments

If you’ve used the mobile social network Path recently, it’s likely that you enjoyed the experience. Path has a sophisticated design, yet it’s easy to use. It sports an attractive red color scheme and the navigation is smooth as silk. It’s a social app and finding friends is easy thanks to Path’s suggestions and its connection to Facebook.

In short, Path has a great user experience. That isn’t the deciding factor on whether a tech product takes off. Ultimately it comes down to how many people use it and that’s particularly important for a social app like Path. Indeed it’s where Path may yet fail, but the point is they have given themselves a chance by creating a great user experience. In this post, we outline 5 signs that the tech product or app you’re using has a great UX – and therefore has a shot at being the Next Big Thing.

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1. Elegant UI

A great user experience isn’t just about the user interface, but it helps a lot. While I’m not a regular Path user, today I opened it up and browsed for a bit. To like an item on Path, you click a little smiley icon in the top right. If you really, really like an item, you can make it a heart icon. There are three other options: a winky face, a surprised face and a sad face. So Path has cleverly created 5 different types of ‘like’ using subtle but obvious icons. This is something that Facebook hasn’t yet cracked; it only has one style of ‘like’ and many people have argued for a ‘dislike’ option, at the very least.

2. Addictive

A nice design is one thing, but you also need to see value in it. It must either solve a problem for you, or be a pleasurable distraction. Time and time again. In other words, it must be addictive. One of the current trendy services on the Web is Pinterest, an online pinboard that has become an addiction for many. In a text-heavy social Web, Pinterest has nailed the concept of a completely visual user experience. It solves a problem, because it gives you a place to store images around topics – such as the very popular wedding dresses section. It brings you back every day, if you get hooked.

3. Fast Start

The Kindle Fire as a product is not as aesthetically pleasing as the iPad 2. The Fire is rectangular and small, looking a bit like the iPad’s runty little brother. But what the Kindle Fire does better than the iPad is get the user started – and hooked – straight out of the box. With the iPad, you need to connect to iTunes or manually set up your account to get things started, which can often be a time consuming and awkward experience for newbies. But if you buy the Kindle Fire from Amazon, it comes pre-loaded with your Amazon profile. This enables most users to start downloading content as soon as they switch the device on for the first time.

Note that the rest of the Kindle Fire’s user experience is not always pleasurable. But the start up is one part that is.

4. Seamless

With so many Internet-connected devices and screens nowadays, it’s important to have a consistent experience. One recent example of this for me is the online music app Rdio. It only just became available in my country, but I was immediately impressed by the consistent user interface between Rdio’s iPhone app and the desktop app on my computer. Rdio takes that seamlessness a step further though, in allowing you to download whole albums onto your mobile device so that you can listen to them offline. It would’ve been easy for Rdio to get that functionality wrong, for example by enabling download on 3G and giving you a huge cellphone bill. But by default, Rdio only downloads songs onto your mobile phone using WiFi (you can turn on 3G download if you think you can afford it). It’s the little details like that which make a great user experience.

5. It Changes You

Arguably the most outstanding tech products are ones that revolutionize the way we do things. The iPhone and iPad are two high profile examples from recent years. Twitter is another. These are products that create a brand new user experience, or change old habits in a good way.

When I asked for examples of a great user experience over on Google+, Chris Brogan commented that FitBit has changed the way he manages his fitness. “The information it gathers is useful,” said Chris, “plus the way it’s displayed to me challenges me to do more with it.”

Having an overall great user experience is difficult to pull off. Some of the products mentioned above only get part of it right, for example Kindle Fire and Path. I even said that the iPad, an otherwise glorious product, is slightly disappointing in the start up.

What products or apps have given you a great user experience recently? We’d love to hear about what’s making you happy.

via 5 Signs of a Great User Experience.