When is it right to build your small business mobile app

Does your SMB need a mobile app?

The average smartphone user has over 80 apps on their phone. Apps to be productive, apps to find dates, apps to look at dogs, and apps to tell you when to stop looking at dogs. 

All of these mobile apps (and their endless notifications) have created a new backlash, known as ‘app fatigue’. For the first time since 2015, downloads from Apple’s App Store have decreased.

It’s not just consumers suffering from app fatigue, either. Mobile app development requires specialized talent, endless updates and bug fixes, and working within the approval process of the various gatekeepers. 

But when you consider all of the fun features mobile apps offer (who hasn’t wasted hours trying every new Snapchat filter?) it’s easy to see why everyone and their mother is developing a mobile application. 

The decision of whether or not to develop an app for a small business depends on a variety of factors, including your industry, target market, budget, and business goals. An intuitive, responsive, and mobile friendly website can be just as effective for converting leads, demonstrating expertise, and growing your business. Conversely, mobile apps provide access to a unique set of functionalities like geolocating services, push notifications, camera and microphone access, and other mobile-only features. So what should you do? 

So many apps, so little time

The reason many consumers complain of app fatigue is thanks to the hallmark of modern smartphones: the push notification. The average smartphone user receives 73 different notifications per day! That’s a lot of matches (or dog pics). 

Despite various notification management software, some consumers are choosing to switch entirely to ‘dumb phones’,  devices without modern smartphone capabilities like web browsing, cameras, and mobile applications. Freedom from endless notifications, fewer distractions, and increased productivity are all benefits of digital minimalism

More and more, people are paring back their screen time and becoming more selective about the apps they use. In 2014, the average age of the top 30 most downloaded apps in the Apple Store was just under two years. Today, the average app in the top 30 is over five years old.

For developers, this trend begs the question: is developing a mobile application even worth it anymore? 

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When mobile apps are still worth it

While smartphone technology has come under fire recently, there’s no denying the multitude of features it provides to users (and developers). Camera and video, phone and audio recording, and geolocating technology are just a few of the bells and whistles offered by modern smartphones. When compared to a mobile website, applications offer increased speed, more personalized content, offline access, virtual and/or augmented reality, social sharing, and the hallmark of mobile marketing: the push notification. 

Push notifications are a convenient way to keep customers and users instantly up to date about new product releases, sales, and much more. If you can get your users to enable push notifications, you’ve got a direct connection to an extremely personal sales channel: their smartphone. Considering that the average user checks their phone every 12 minutes, this is a valuable advantage of a mobile application. 

Increasingly, users are demanding personalized content (especially in emerging fields such as mcommerce) that websites cannot deliver. Location, history, and personal info can all be utilized by the app to provide a truly custom experience for the user.

In the era of customized everything, consumers are beginning to expect this level of service from their online experience. Brands that cannot provide personal attention will be left to suffer the consequences. 

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When mobile apps aren’t worth it

Let’s face it: when compared to web development, mobile application development is expensive. Really, really expensive. While $10,000 might get you a basic application with a few frills, the median cost charged by mobile app development companies is $171,450. For many startups and small businesses, this cost is prohibitive. For comparison, the average cost of making your existing website mobile friendly (also called mobile responsive or adaptive) is 30-50% of the cost of the website itself. Even the most complex ecommerce mobile sites cost around $20,000- $25,000. 

An added bonus: responsive design is considered the norm by many web development companies. With mobile phones and tablets now occupying more than half of all internet traffic, a continuous user experience from laptop to tablet to smartphone is essential for your brand’s identity. Responsive web principles like media queries, fluid grids, and flexible visuals ensure your branding is conveyed no matter what device your customers are using. 

Another serious drawback for apps is the time commitment they require. Users must download, open, and then navigate the app. Mobile and responsive websites are available at the touch of a button. Additionally, apps require the user to download and install the latest updates. Websites automatically provide the latest version to the user, providing a less buggy experience. 

To app or not to app, that is the question

While some companies swear by the success of their mobile apps, others have deemed that apps are dead. Essentially, whether or not your company should invest in mobile application development boils down to two factors:

  • The toothbrush test. 

Will your customers use this app as often as they use their toothbrush (i.e., once or twice a day)? If not, they probably don’t need it – and won’t download it.

However, if your business encourages daily usage or loyalty programs, an application makes sense. For example, the Starbucks app provides customers with personalized deals, coupons, rewards, and more. If you’re like most coffee drinkers (including this author), you’re reaching for the java at least once a day (and then hopefully reaching for your toothbrush). 

  • Temporary reliance

Some apps are designed with the user’s end game in mind. For example, Zillow’s app is designed to help customers search and compare properties. It is frequently and heavily used during the property search process, but once users find their home, they’re probably not going to keep browsing current listings. In this case, it makes sense to build an app that can provide consumers with a personalized and custom experience during periods of heavy use. 

Before deciding between mobile application development or just responsive web design, ask yourself the hard questions about your target market, budget, and customer tastes. Another good strategy is to straight up ask your customers what they want. A simple poll can provide developers with key insights into the mindset of the end user, ensuring a tight product-market fit. Mobile apps, like any other technology, have their pros and cons. It is wise to carefully consider your customers, target market, and user experience before deciding to invest in mobile application development. 

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