Do you really need an app for that?

Lewis Wake
Wednesday 29 June 2016

This blog post will be referencing statements from Rob Borley‘s talk at IWMW 2012 on the requirement for mobile apps and reflecting upon them with trends from 2016.

It’s a known fact that as of last year, handheld devices are now the most popular way to browse the web. In response to this, many organisations have optimised and re-designed their websites so that all of their content can be accessed on all handheld devices, including us.

Mobile devices are now a constant gateway to access online content and we see them as our digital companions to complete everyday tasks. If you have a smartphone, then it’s likely that you’re never more than a few feet away from it. It’s quite a bizarre relationship.

When smartphones started increasing in popularity in 2010, the word “app” was culturally redefined to describe software designed to fulfil a particular purpose downloaded by a user to a mobile device. The necessity to have an app boomed.

Apple's infamous tagline to promote the use of their app store from 2008
Apple’s infamous tagline to promote the use of their app store from 2008

As of 2015, Android users were able to choose between 1.6 million apps. Apple’s App Store remained the second-largest app store with 1.5 million available apps. These apps include a huge variation of purposes. A lot of these apps are useful and there are also millions of apps that are not as useful, but they still exist.

There genuinely is “an app for that”.

So, yes, you can make an app for “that”; but the question you should now be asking yourself is: Should I?

“We simply must have an app!”


Twenty years ago, when the internet appeared, everybody wanted a website simply because everybody had a website. Six years ago, when social media appeared, everybody wanted Facebook simply because everybody had Facebook. The same applied for apps. Businesses and institutions required apps for the sole purpose of having an app.

All of these channels, when used appropriately can provide fantastic benefits. However, so many companies set up these platforms, and that’s it. They don’t know how to use them for their benefit and they collect dust and are forgotten about. But, it continues, “we must have an app!”.

It’s 2016 now, and the app boom is over. Your phone is full of apps, and you’re done downloading new ones — unless they’re Snapchat or Uber.

Before you even consider the creation of an app, a website, a social media channel, anything, there are two areas that you must take into consideration: content consumption and task-driven.

Are your users looking to consume your content?

If a user is happily browsing content on a website and they are suddenly hit with a message requiring them to download a mobile app in order to view the rest of the content then this instantly puts up a barrier between the user and the content they are looking to consume.

The user has found the content, they know it’s there, but now they have to find the app in the app store, download it, install it, launch it, just to access the content they had just found. It’s a disruption in workflow.

It is very unlikely a user will download an app for a single purpose use just to access some content. You don’t want your app to become disposable. Encouraging a user to continually reuse an app all depends on the content you are pushing out.

Unless your content is regularly updated, like high-profile news sources, then it should be placed on the web. Assuring that your website is fully accessible on all devices is the best approach for your users to find your content. Don’t hide it from them. Keep it fully up to date in one place.

A website is much easier to maintain than a mobile app.

I noticed I said "consume content" a lot so here is lunch.
I noticed I said “consume content” a lot so here is lunch.

It’s important to note that apps are not going to overtake web and become the new “video killed the radio star“. They are both on the same side, but they serve different purposes.

Think back to when websites first became popular and people just took their print material and stuck it on a webpage. We know now that this is not the best practice. There are different design theories and principles to take into consideration and user behaviour is very different. Cramming web content onto a mobile app is the same mistake. They are both different mediums with varying degrees of user behaviour. Apps have a completely different purpose and content, documents, and PDFs belong on your website.

Apps are designed to complete tasks.

Are your users looking to complete a task?

Apps have given us one-tap access to taxis, weather updates, store cards, and all of history’s collected information. The efficiency of apps is what they are best known for.

Think for a second your top five phone apps that aren’t social media related. They are most likely used to get things done. Apps aid us in our everyday lives.

So, let’s wrap up. Repeat after me:

“The web is for content. Apps are for tasks.”

The web is for content. Apps are for tasks.

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One reply to "Do you really need an app for that?"

  • Gareth Saunders
    Saturday 23 July 2016, 7.42pm

    Have you ever read The Cluetrain Manifesto? It was published in 2000 and talks about how businesses need to understand that markets are conversations. It was groundbreaking, and has been one of the most influential documents that I've ever read to help me think about what the web is all about. In 2015 two of the authors wrote New Clues which talks about, amongst other things, the open web and apps. This is what it says about apps:

    68. We all love our shiny apps, even when they’re sealed as tight as a Moon base. But put all the closed apps in the world together and you have a pile of apps. 69. Put all the Web pages together and you have a new world. 70. Web pages are about connecting. Apps are about control. 71. As we move from the Web to an app-based world, we lose the commons we were building together. 72. In the Kingdom of Apps, we are users, not makers. 73. Every new page makes the Web bigger. Every new link makes the Web richer. 74. Every new app gives us something else to do on the bus. 75. Ouch, a cheap shot! 76. Hey, “CheapShot” would make a great new app! It’s got “in-app purchase” written all over it.
    Web pages are about connecting. Apps are about control.


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