“Why do we need an app? We’ve got a responsive website.”
After fifteen years of designing mobile software, I’m honestly surprised when this question still comes up. This is not because mobile-friendly websites are unimportant. Quite the contrary: with over half of all web traffic now coming from mobile phones, it’s absolutely essential that all websites are mobile-friendly. But this doesn’t make them good enough to replace native apps; it means that they’re just table stakes. Native apps can go further to deliver a significantly deeper, more engaging experience than even the best responsive websites. This is because, unlike responsive websites:
Native apps are where users are.
For over 6 years, the world has spent the majority of its online time on mobile devices. More and more users spend all of their online time on mobile: 22% of young adults in the U.S. are mobile-only, a number that has already hit a staggering 80% in some countries.
And in those ever-increasing mobile minutes, users overwhelmingly choose native apps over websites. In 2019, 90% of time spent on mobile devices was spent in apps, and only 10% in mobile web browsers. The data are crystal-clear: users are on mobile, and mobile users are in native apps.
Native apps can reach out to engage users.
Both websites and apps can passively serve up information and services. This is the pull mode of interaction, in which users intentionally come into a system to retrieve content from it. Unlike websites, native apps can also proactively push information, through notifications that reach users regardless of whether they’re using the app at the moment. For example:
- A unified app is an essential part of many campuses’ emergency alert systems and their response to crises, including COVID-19.
- Location-based notifications – triggered by geolocation or Bluetooth beacons – can deliver vital here-and-now information, such as alerting students walking by the bookstore of a sale on course materials, or informing employees about new health or security protocols right as they’re entering a building or region.
- Personal notifications can target specific groups and individuals with personally relevant messaging such as class announcements, registrar notices, important deadlines, and more.
- Opt-in notifications can provide timely updates on topics in which the individual user has expressed interest.
Native-app notifications are especially important given their immediate effectiveness. On average, people read push notifications within 15 minutes, compared with 6.5 hours for email – a speed further improved by the growing use of smartwatches that mirror native notifications. Push notifications also have CTRs ranging from 12-40% compared with 2-12% for email, which means that native-app notifications are both much faster and much more proactively engaging than other forms of communication.
Native apps drive positive actions.
Because of proactive engagement, native apps can drive user behaviors in ways that no website ever could. Through push notifications, in-app messages, and personalized experiences, native apps can nudge users to actions that foster success. For example, some schools use their native apps to push automated, personalized end-of-term reminders to users with account holds; this can measurably increase term-to-term retention. Other schools feature in-app reminders of each individual’s unique motivation for graduating. Examples like these are especially powerful because studies have shown that users are much more likely to act quickly on content delivered via mobile.
Most organizations have many ways to drive positive actions and behaviors. Both formal and informal, these can include everything from notices and posters pinned to kiosks and cork boards, to dorm-room and water-cooler conversations. In the COVID era, in which remote users lack all these signs and signifiers that used to surround them in a physical campus or workplace, it’s more important than ever that organizations have a central online resource that informs and reminds, nudges and motivates. A native app can do so in ways impossible with a responsive website.
Native apps can be more efficient.
A unified mobile app can provide a significantly faster, more efficient experience for the user. Native apps are designed expressly for smaller screens, touch-driven interfaces, and the well-polished native navigation mechanisms of mobile platforms. What’s more, a truly unified app can present content and services from a broad range of back-end systems in a consistent, seamless UI in which the user doesn’t need to know or care where information is coming from – they just get what they need, at the point of need, in a glanceable and actionable way. By contrast, finding a piece of information on the web often requires searching for information scattered across disconnected, inconsistent websites. Each website may be responsively formatted to be usable on mobile, but the overall experience is often still disjointed and inefficient. A unified app can provide an optimized experience that gets the user to vital information and services more quickly and productively.
Native apps are how people actually use mobile.
Efficiency always matters, but especially on phones. Mobile phone use is much more likely to be short, split-attention, and on “found time”. This leads to people using their phones in quick, short bursts: every 10 minutes of the waking day, but with roughly half the screen views and interactions per session. These frequent, quick, bursty interactions that typify mobile use are much better suited to unified, streamlined app experiences than to a grab bag of disparate websites.
Native apps are much more than just websites.
While responsive websites are a necessary baseline for reaching your users, native apps can be so much more. If your organization wants to truly inform, engage, empower, and elevate its members, a unified native app can help you do so more effectively than you might imagine.