The question as to whether a company should build an app or website is probably the top question that we get asked. Sometimes, it’s not even a question. Sometimes, companies come to us convinced that they should build an app for something, when actually a website is what they need. Conversely, sometimes companies want to build a website when in fact they need an app. Sometimes they need both. Ultimately, the decision for which way to go will come down to a number of variables, which we’ll outline below.

First, let’s define both.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a website is:

a set of ​pages of ​information on the internet about a ​particular ​subject, ​published by a ​single ​person or ​organisation.

An App, according to Google’s dictionary is:

a self-contained program or piece of software designed to fulfil a particular purpose; an application, especially as downloaded by a user to a mobile device.

These definitions serve us well to start the conversation. However, there will always be ‘grey areas’ between the two, which we’ll discuss later.

Content served through the web can be interpreted and subsequently used, in several ways. A ‘standard’ website will typically contain content to be consumed, with limited interaction. This content can be spread far and wide, across browsers, devices and audiences. It can be linked to online marketing campaigns and is a global touch point the world is familiar with accessing.

Websites can range from simple, ‘standard’, hubs of information, through to fully transactional and interactive portals, through which we manage parts of our lives. Websites can be fully functional pieces of software, running word processing, slide creation, music playback and gaming.

The web, on a desktop, is now one of the primary ways in which people use computers, to the extent that Google Chromebooks are fully web based computers. However, this article is here to investigate mobile web and mobile apps. If your strategy is to target desktop users, you should build a website.

Last year in March, according to ComScore, the number of mobile-only adult internet users exceeded the number of desktop-only internet users. Even with this shift, apps still make up the majority of time spent on mobile devices.

There are key things to consider which may lead you towards a website or an app. Then, there are things which overlap between the two. In the case of overlap, the decision of choosing one way or another might simply come down to budget, timescales, skill sets or user preference.

The most important thing to consider when making this decision is the user. You cannot build a website or app and hope they’ll come. There are billions of websites, millions of apps and a large amount of noise. For a website or app to gain and retain users, it has to fit into their lives, or be disruptive, with a high enough value proposition, that they’re willing to change their behaviour. Even if they do change behaviour, or form new behaviour, great UX is essential to make it work or succeed.

If we to look at it as a scale, we might imagine that at one end there is an app and at the other there’s a website.

At the extreme end of the app scale, functionality such as hyper-location interaction with beacons and other wireless technologies, or the ability to interact with wearables or other devices, requiring hardware integration and communication at an OS level will make apps the primary channel.

Apps are fantastic for regular, very quick interactions on a daily basis – especially when those interactions can be made richer through functionality – like responding to an email, without having to open the app. Apps are suited for longer tasks too, of course, especially if it’s for creating or manipulating content, watching video, playing games or consuming other types of media. If mobile is a key part of your proposition, apps should also be a primary consideration.

Things which fall into in the middle of the scale, such as GPS Location based functionality can work on the web, but is usually a little more seamless (depending on what you’re trying to do) on apps. For example, to use location, permission is granted when first entering an app, whereas websites may need to ask for it each time you visit them.

Crunching real-time data, again sits across the two, as it is usually done by background servers and databases. If, however, crunching needs to be done locally, on the device, an app would be the primary channel. Depending on the data source, you might lean one way over the other. The final decision might be led by the user, or business needs and requirements.

At the web decision end of the scale, you have drivers, such as longer, less frequent, tasks that users may only need to do once. It’s rare a user will download an app to do certain activities they don’t do often.

Reach might be a driving factor too. If the desire is to reach more browsers, devices and users, a website is ubiquitous and runs on more potential devices than an app (which needs to be created for each platform).

At the start of any work, during the consultancy process, we alway work with companies to look at the analytics from their existing website or operations. The choice between a website or app often will come down to who the target user is and what their journey with mobile looks like. If it’s a journey that involves the need for offline functionality, the ability to utilise hardware, deep linking between apps or functionality on a platform, then an app would be the best route to go – it would be very focused to the use case.

If, however, the target user was unlikely to use the app on a regular basis, and it was important that it could be easily discovered by SEO, then a website is often the best place to start. The Web is a great place to test the waters too, especially if it’s a new proposition. It makes for a good place to start, where you can test functionality with users, before deciding whether to go to an app.

If you’re strategically unsure what functionality to surface in the mobile space – then run user testing and analytics on the mobile web and seeing what’s proving popular, as this helps to shape the functionality around user behaviour.

Building for the web and app is very different, and not just from the perspective of development or the code base. The user experience and reasons why someone uses an app over a website differ greatly and should ultimately come back to what you are trying to achieve, who it is being targeted at and what their journey looks like.

The bottom line is that the web can cover off a wide range of things, whilst an app should be focused. As per the definitions that we started with, they are good at indicating which way a company should go. Apps should be a focused piece of software integral to the ecosystem in which they live with each other and their hardware. The Web can be wider reaching in both terms of functionality and device support.

Both will have to help users complete a task or get some information quickly and easily, depending on what the user is trying to do. The when and why will help inform the how. The how, being a website or app.

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