2 Nov 2014

Rethinking Mobile Web Apps

Many of us dismiss mobile web apps as being irrelevant — mobile users use use native apps. But mobile web apps have a number of advantages.

To begin with, native apps make sense for regular users. If you don’t use a service or site regularly, native apps may be more trouble than they’re worth — you have to find the app, decide whether it seems useful them, figure out what permissions it uses and what for and whether you’re okay with that. For example, I refuse to install Twitter’s Android app, because it helps itself to too much sensitive information for no apparent reason. For me, Twitter’s mobile web experience is important. If It sucks, I might use Twitter less.

Once you install an app, you have to keep track of where it is on your home screen or launcher, and deal with the notifications from the app and from the system updating the app. For infrequently used apps, all this is more trouble than it’s worth.

Besides, people come to a site via search, links from other sites and social media. It’s important for the site to put its best foot forward. If the site / web app is crappy, such as being cluttered, or hard to use, or slow to load, I’ll assume that the site is crappy, in which case I’m not likely to install the app, even if it were awesome.

In other words, if you say, “We’ll have an excellent PC site, and excellent native apps for mobile”, you may be communicating to your audience — to people who have a bad mobile web experience — that you’re a second-rate service. 

People may also be in a hurry when they arrive at a web site or app. They may already be doing too many things at once, or in a hurry, in which case now is not the time to make them jump through hoops, such as installing apps and setting things up.

Then, there are the other advantages of the web, such as being able able to bookmark or share a link to a particular page in a site, or email the whole text of a page to someone (or to yourself, to keep a copy, if it’s especially important). Or to save it to a “read later” service like Pocket. Or use Safari’s Reader mode to eliminate the clutter and read the content without distraction.

You can also open a link in a new tab to do things in parallel, within the same site or app. This is hard with native apps.

A lot of these advantages are intrinsic to the web, and hard for native apps to implement, unless they turn themselves into site-specific browsers.

Under what circumstances do users value the advantages of the mobile web over native apps? Clearly, only in a few, since most traffic from mobile devices is driven by native apps, not web apps. What type of web sites or services would benefit the most from an awesome mobile web experience? Conversely, are there some categories of sites that can get away with a second-rate mobile web experience? Or, within a given site, are there particular use cases that call for a great mobile web experience, while other uses cases within the same service or site don’t require a great mobile web UX?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. But the main point is that saying that the mobile web is irrelevant is an oversimplification. It’s important in some cases, and we need to figure out what they are, so that we can build great mobile web apps for those cases.

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