The Battle of Apps vs. Mobile-Optimized Sites

What’s better to have, an app or mobile-optimized website? Retailers deciding which mobile initiative fits into this year’s budget may feel confused about which option is right for them. It boils down to understanding your users’ needs and behaviors while on the go, and the technical implications of the decision.

Think about how a shopper might find the types of products or services you offer. Is it likely that they’ll search in a web browser? If users click the link to your site, what would you like them to see? A beautiful, usable experience so that they can start to purchase right away or a link to download an app?

If you don’t have a mobile-optimized site yet, focus on that first, especially for tablets. Then develop an app on this solid foundation for specialized needs.

Also consider app usage. Forrester Research reports that the most commonly used types of apps are those for music, games, social networking, mapping and weather, not shopping. Mobile users are much more used to shopping on the web. Therefore, you should offer a solid experience that allows them to do so on your mobile site.

Where do apps shine? If your retail audience is comprised largely of repeat customers and account holders who want to check the status of their orders, native apps often can give you the power and customization to justify the cost and development time. Native apps also have greater ability to use device capabilities like a camera or GPS than a mobile-optimized site.

If you want consumers to be able to take pictures of products and scan barcodes, or if geo-located offers are key for your business, an app might be your best bet. The gap in the types of capabilities between native apps and mobile sites is becoming less of an issue as mobile browser capabilities evolve.
Whenever an external link is clicked on a mobile device, whether in the browser or in a Facebook app, it takes you to the browser.

Investing time and resources in a mobile-optimized site first is the only surefire win. It’s the most common denominator — i.e., ground zero. Apps are powerful tools when done right, and some contexts call for this approach and the increased capabilities they can provide. While the ultimate decision must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis in light of the goals for your project and your users, a great mobile site provides a solid foundation all your customers will be able to get behind.

Seth Whitton is senior designer at Alexander Interactive.

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