Stop wasting mobile with old-school thinking

Mobile is not the web on a small screen folks. If you build an app with the exact same features as your website, you are completely missing the point of mobile.

Developer X — “How does this screen behave?”
Developer Y — “Just look at the website.”

If you want your website to work on phones, upgrade it with mobile specific styles and layouts. Don’t build a native app for it. You’re watering down the promise of mobile and the potential of native software.


The handicaps of native mobile apps

Native apps have a major disadvantage to the web: you have to download them. That’s a big one. A recent survey showed that users have less than 40 apps that they use every month. Compare that to the 89 web domains they’ll visit that same month (and that was back in 2010).

On mobile you are at least 5–20 seconds from discovering a new brand or experience. That’s for us with a great cellular network and blazing fast WiFi. It only gets worse after that. Oh and if you don’t like what you’ve downloaded, you’ll also need to actually uninstall it. In the age of instant gratification, trying a new app has become an investment on the part of the user.

When you’re surfing the web every site in the world is a click away. A search leads you to a new blogger, who links to an article, that ends with a YouTube video, that links to other videos… Everything is connected. That doesn’t happen with native software, you might as well be building a desert island.

Progressive websites and “instant” apps try to bridge this gap, but that’s solving the wrong problem. Native mobile is not the web, and it shouldn’t try to be.


Where native apps shine

Native apps wouldn’t be as popular as they are if there were only downsides, and the ace up their sleeve is simple; context. An app has access to where the user is, what they were doing, and all the tracking you can’t do on the web without an account. Native apps can notify the user at any time, and provide services that integrate with the rest of their device.

If you can provide a service that uses contextual information, while being simple and intuitive, people will use it. With the information at your fingertips you can create an effortless experience that far transcends the capabilities of a website. But to do that you have to rethink your strategy of how you interact with your users.

Leveraging context is what makes mobile apps so powerful. The brands that capitalise on this fall into a whole other league to the thousands of sites-on-a-phone.


How to make the most of mobile

Stop thinking about platforms like web and mobile. Think about what you want to do for your user, and how each of these forms can help you complete that goal. This obviously applies to all technology, but it’s even more important on mobile.

Mobile is just that, mobile. It’s on the go, it’s contextually relevant information, when it’s needed. It’s augmenting the human mind with the vast knowledge of the internet, laser focused to a simple goal. It’s not static documents and massive amounts of unsorted data. Take that effort away from the user, even at the cost of some choice. Create a tailored experience that is built to make the actions you know the user does 90% of the time effortless.

Unless you’re building a social platform, the less time a user spends in your app, while still accomplishing something, the better your app will do out in the world. Why do you think products like Amazon’s dash button are so popular? They give their users exactly what they want with the minimum effort. Simplicity is key.

Here’s two examples:

  • A truly mobile banking app: Don’t give me a spreadsheet of my expenses and a map of ATMs. Send me daily tips on how to save money, based on my spending. Let me send my money wherever I like, regardless of technology or bank. Allow me to pay for things wirelessly, with just a tap on my phone.
  • A truly mobile shopping app: Just move the entire catalogue to a phone right? Job done. Wrong. Learn from my habits to give me the best recommendations, and connect me with my friends to see what they’ve bought, when they’ve bought it. Let me save the stuff I buy regularly (or better yet save it for me), and keep it at easy reach for when I need it again. In the case of really regular purchases like groceries, set up a schedule and prompt me with my list of usual products, that I can approve and order form in one easy go.

The target to aim for: Natural User Interfaces

A user interface is the point of contact between a user and a piece of technology. The best user interfaces aren’t there. They feel so natural you don’t even realise you’re actually operating a machine.

A perfect example of this is Apple’s AirPods. I am no fan of Apple’s, but the user experience of their Bluetooth headphones is without equal. If I put them next to my phone, they connect. If I put them in my ears, they play. If I take them out again, they stop. It doesn’t get better than that, that is the pinnacle of ease of use, the definition of natural user interface. It’s not a 1000 page catalogue with three levels of product categories and no stock information.

The internet and mobile software has brought the information of the world to our fingertips, but we’ve reached our cognitive limit. It’s time for the software we build to reflect that. The average app has barely caught up with the mobile form factor, and is far from ready to provide the best experiences with technologies like Machine Learning, Augmented /Virtual Reality, Sensor Fusion or the Internet of Things.

We need to take advantage of these new technologies, coupled with the knowledge of our users and the context they are in, to build better experiences that truly improve people’s lives.

Prioritise information. Predict your users. Leverage what you already know. Stop comparing it to your site. Make your app’s experience unique and effortless.