Building a Native App? Ask Yourself These 5 Questions First



With over 184 million people in the U.S. owning smartphones, mobile strategy is something that every company must address. Should companies focus on building a native mobile app or an optimized mobile site? During the FD Mobile conference, I took the opportunity to ask the attendees and panelists about this polarizing debate. At the end of the day, the answer became clear: it depends!

In order to find the option that best fits your company, look to answer the following questions:

  1. What features do I want my mobile experience to have?

This starts with your consumer. What will they use mobile for and how will your mobile platform make their experience more enjoyable and effective? Native apps offer features not available on mobile sites such as push notifications, geo-located prompts, swiping left, bottom navigation bars and one step payment (e.g. Apple Pay); however, not all the bells and whistles are needed. Andrew Fernandez from Rent the Runway noted, “Put together a check-list and say, ‘are these all things we need to create a good user experience?’”. Be sure not to overdevelop. The customer typically can only learn and adopt several new features at a time, so only pinpoint the key features. Again, Fernandez points out, “We cut features more than we build them.” Focus only on what you need to have in order to build a great user experience and ditch the nonessential features.

  1. Will my consumers make payments on my mobile platform?

If payment is central to your consumer experience on mobile devices, make it as seamless as possible. Interestingly, many panelists at the FD Mobile conference alluded to native apps making payment on the mobile phone easier and currently the major player, Apple Pay, works in favor of the native app advocates. However, consumers are indifferent about the platform. Research completed by Fluent and distributed at the FD Mobile Conference supports that “consumers are equally comfortable shopping through mobile apps and mobile websites.” If payment is your one key feature, keep in mind that your consumer feels comfortable on both platforms.

  1. Do I want to offer my customers an in-store mobile experience?

If you would like to engage your consumer in-store with their mobile phone, you should build a native app. With native apps you can offer a unique experience in-stores through the use of ibeacons, geo-fenced offers and product detail checking. However, don’t just ping them with discounts and notifications. Think of ways to solve for key pain points they experience in stores and create solutions for them. “By using digital in-stores, there is a seamless transition into omni-channel,” mentioned Ryan Bonifacino, SVP of Digital Strategy for Alex and Ani. Put the customer first when engaging them in stores. Think to yourself: would the experience convince a customer that they should download my app onto their phone?

  1. What is the experience like for my customers?

Look at what type of experience you provide for your customers. “Be mindful that the user behaves in a very different way on mobile than they do desktop.  You will notice as you build these two platforms that the design will begin to bifurcate to accommodate for this different behavior,” mentioned Matt Wellschlager, VP of Marketing at Ceros. Make note of how these different behaviors may look and whether the features associated with those behaviors lend themselves to a mobile site or native app. Attendees of FD Mobile Conference also noted that native app users tend to be more loyal than desktop users. Andrew Fernandez from Rent the Runway observes, “While our app users don’t convert at as high of a rate as our desktop users, they tend to be much more loyal.” Make sure to build your platform to engage the consumer and not just convert them. As Stacy Huggins from Tamara Mellon pointed out, “It’s no longer a push economy, it’s a pull economy.” Draw your customers into your experience and they will stay. Try to push them to buy and they will abandon you. Be mindful of how you would use mobile site vs. a native app to determine which platform would allow you to build the most optimal experience for your consumer.

  1. What is my budget?

Here in lies the key differentiator in this debate. Building out a custom native app is typically the most expensive option. If you want to offer your experience to all of your consumers, you have to develop your app for each platform (Apple, Android, etc.). This can get expensive quickly. If you don’t have the budget to build a custom app you can work with an affiliate partner such as Predict Spring who can get you up and running with a mobile app in several days. Be mindful when using partners like this to make sure that they offer all of the features that you have listed out as important for your consumers. You will have a template platform so there will be little opportunity to customize features. Building out a mobile optimized site first can often times be much less expensive and provide you with a testing ground through which you can apply your findings down the road with a native app.  If you have a limited budget and in-store experience is not a top feature then I would suggest that you focus on building a mobile optimized site first.

Ultimately, make sure to find a way to effectively engage your consumer. If a consumer will only go to your app to buy an item, why will they take the time to download it when they would prefer to just visit your mobile site? Alternatively, what will lure your customers back to your mobile site if you have no way of sending them push notifications?  No matter what you decide, be sure that your consumer plays a central role in that decision.



Reprinted by permission.

Image credit: CC by Blake Patterson.

About the author: Julia Macalaster

Cofounder and COO of PreeLine. Julia is a fashion and technology professional who has worked in strategy consulting, e-commerce and mobile solutions. A graduate of Princeton University, she has worked for several startups after gaining experience working as a management consultant at Booz & Co.

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