John Romano
An App is Not Always the Solution
John Romano
July 5, 2017

An App is Not Always the Solution

There is a strong urge for organizations to jump into the mobile app space. They know that mobile apps can deliver deep engagements with their customers. They can provide incredible value. We hear, “we need an app,” all the time. But, is a new app going to move the needle? Will it accomplish your goals?

So, before jumping to a conclusion, think through your digital strategy to determine if and how you should proceed. Maybe all you need is a mobile-optimized portal or web app. Maybe you should (re)build on top of existing platforms. Or maybe a mobile app is right. Let’s find out.

App or Web? Choosing a Platform

The biggest key to choosing a platform is first understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each. And the first aspect to weigh in your decision is reach vs. engagement.

As a general rule, web has a greater reach than an app. The web is:

  • Ubiquitous – Most modern companies have a website and we’re set to have 6 billion smartphone users by 2020.
  • Evergreen – Websites typically contain a lot of content and features that people need to access at any time.
  • Shareability – It’s extremely simple to copy and paste a URL or click a button on a website to share it with someone.
  • Findability – Websites are constantly scanned by search engines to make it easier for users to find what they need.

While the web does have a larger reach, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to get higher levels of engagement. Search (and paid search) can connect a huge audience to you immediately but they may not engage with you for long. Those users likely have a specific task to achieve and once they complete it (or don’t) they are likely to leave, maybe permanently.  Because of this, web browsing is often brief and casual. Loyalty is hard fought for since there is a lower barrier to entry (all you need is a browser and an internet connection).

On the other hand, apps typically have the potential for incredible engagement. They can provide:

  • Personalized experience – Since we know who you are and your context, apps can deliver highly personalized experiences.
  • Native Functionality – Your phone comes with built-in functionality that an app can utilize for your needs, like scanning a barcode with your camera.
  • Processing Power – Some interactions require processing power (often graphic processing) that a browser can’t deliver.
  • Offline abilities – Apps can be built to operate without an internet connection giving you access to whatever you need, whenever and wherever.
  • Notifications – Apps provide multiple ways to reengage you (based on your preferences) so that you can capture a user’s attention at the right moment.

Apps can drive a deep engagement because you’re right there with them in their pocket. Optimally, you’re providing contextual, personalized experiences that are delivered at the perfect moment. You’re their ever present wing man, always ready with conversation or a helpful tip.

Take the Amazon app as a “prime” example. Let’s say you’re shopping in Target and see a new camera you want to buy so you can take pictures at your kid’s birthday party this weekend. The camera is a little out of your price range, so you whip out your Amazon app, scan the barcode on the box and check to see if you can get it cheaper on Amazon. It is! And since you’re a Prime customer, you get free shipping. Thanks, Amazon!

Reach and/or Engagement

As an organization, reach vs. engagement is a false dichotomy. You need both. It’s important to drive awareness and get lots of people into the funnel. Once they’re there, you need to highly engage them.

That said, a given app or web site often needs to focus on one or the other. Sometimes when we attempt to do both, we fail to do either. This is often because people need different things at different times and if we try to pack it all in, the app may become bloated and lose its focus.

Mobile Strategy

If you decide to go with an app, realize the bar has been raised. People expect a lot from an app that lives on their phone. They want a feature set and user experience that answers real mobile needs and having them can mean the difference between success and deletion.

But regardless of which direction you take, the key is not to begin with listing desired features. Instead, take a design thinking approach by defining the problem you’re trying to solve. You need answers and a consensus that is often hard to come by. Start by:

  • Understanding your organization – Why are you pursuing an app? What are your objectives? How will measure success?
  • Understanding your competition – Do your competitors have apps? What features have they created/ problems have they solved? How will you differentiate your app?
  • Understanding your users – Who are they? What problem are they trying to solve? What is the journey they go through? What scenarios will they be in where an app would be valuable?

It’s likely that you’ll have multiple user segments who need different features to support them but understanding what your users need in specific phases of their journey is key to creating a successful feature list. When you’re able to answer all of these questions, you can finally start talking about features.

When you have your feature wish-list laid out, the next discussion must be about what is necessary to create a minimum viable product (MVP). While it would be nice to have everything you want in the first roll-out, it’s not likely. So, what minimum feature set do you need in your first release to ensure the app will meet your user’s expectations? Everything else can be pushed to a future release.


If reach and shareability are your goals, you may be able to solve your problem via a web solution. But, if you’re trying to drive deep engagement using personalized and contextualized experiences that can’t be tied to a laptop, you may have a strong use case for an app. Releasing an MVP that engages your users can help ensure the success of your app and enable you to learn more about them so that you can continue to iterate in future releases.

At PointSource, we bring together stakeholders across your organization in our collaborative digital strategy workshops. Contact us if you need help with your digital strategy.


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