You don’t need an app

Posted on 4 October, 2019

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Or rather, you don’t necessarily need a mobile app.

When modernising your digital practices, it’s quite common to say ‘we need an app’. This sparks a lot of discussion within a company about what the app will do, what agency will you use to build it, which team will have ownership of it, and should you go native or hybrid.

What there doesn’t seem to be is a discussion about why you need an app. Apps are great for engaging with your customers, building brand loyalty, and enabling you to build direct marketing channels. But they’re also quite permanent. You first need to build awareness that you have an app. Then you need to make sure your app has good presence in the varying app stores (and you then need to maintain the app listings). Not to mention, you need to convince your users that they need to use your app.

So why don’t you need an app?

Let’s say you’re a small courier business. You want a way for your customers to be able to:

  1. book a courier
  2. track their parcels.

This sounds perfect for an app yes? Well, not quite.

It sounds perfect for a Progressive Web App (PWA). PWAs are amazing. They are supercharged websites which function offline, have splash screens, are installable to most devices, can use Bluetooth and other phone hardware, and are completely responsive.

Your courier business likely already has a web presence which lets customers book couriers and track parcels, so why start from scratch and engage an agency to build you two apps? You could easily get an agency in to update your website with PWA features for much less money and engage with your customers faster.

The joy of PWA

More and more companies are embracing PWAs. They are ideal when you want the functionality of a ‘real app’ but know that you don’t really need one. Air Berlin is a perfect example of this.

What Air Berlin wanted was a way for their customers to access journey details. And realistically, how many people install an airline’s app if they’re not frequent travellers? So, they took their website, and made it a PWA.

When a user visits the air berlin mobile website, they are presented with a 'install to home' button which adds the app icon to the home screen of their phone.
The install process for Air Berlin’s PWA

This massively lowered the barrier for users to access their flight information. Mobile devices account for around 50% of web traffic and if your users are likely to be trying to use your product on the move (like travelling…) they’re even more likely to use a mobile device.

What do you think is more likely, that they’ll click the link in the email you’ve already sent them, and use the web browser already on their phone to check flight information.

OR

Download your app, login, close app. Wait for email on the day, click the link in the email, hope it opens the app (which is should because deep linking exists), and then use the app.

They’re not going to install the app at the airport. The WiFi is terrible and they’re busy getting through security and trying to work out what counts as a liquid.

A PWA is perfect. It has a single purpose, works offline, and if the user wants (and has a compatible device), they can install the PWA to their phone, and you can send them push notifications.

PWA as MVP

Ahh everyone loves an acronym.

I’ve written before about how you should always start a product or service with an MVP and half of the time, that MVP should be a PWA. Think about it, PWAs are faster to make than a native app, have a lower barrier for entry for your users, and can showcase your key feature beautifully. You can also hit both desktop and mobile users with the same app! Yeah its less likely that a desktop user will accept push notifications but oh well!

What about the courier PWA?

Ah yes, back to that scenario. Why should your small courier business use a PWA? Let’s break it down into two customer groups. Infrequent / new customers and frequent customers.

Infrequent / new customers

These are the people who are either using your company for the first time ever or use you very infrequently. These are the least likely group to install your app from the store.

Your new customers have probably already found you via the web. That’s where they searched for a local courier, checked your prices, and checked out your reviews. Let’s say they book a courier pick-up. That’s going to involve a form for them to complete and payment information. You might (should) also ask them to make an account to make the next time they use you a bit easier. At the end of this process, you’ll be sending a confirmation email. This email will include ways for the customer to manage their pickup, track the courier, and do some other actions. Every link in that email should be to your PWA. The customer is waiting on a courier, your PWA can let them know via push notifications that the courier is delayed, the name of the courier, and when the parcel has been delivered. None of this is rocket science, your website already does it. And once the parcel is delivered, the customer can just close the webpage (or uninstall you if they installed).

Frequent customers

This lot are the holy grail. They’ve used you quite a bit and come back to you often. You’ll be wanting to send them marketing information, discounts, coupons, maybe let them know about disruptions to your service due to holidays or bad weather. You’re probably doing this via email anyway so why not also send them push notifications to the PWA they probably are already using? You’ve got a ready-made marketing channel right there!

So no one needs an app?

No, that’s not what I’m saying.

What I am saying is that a true mobile app is a significant investment in both time and money and might not always be the best option for your business, or your customers. Ultimately, your digital partner (whether that’s an agency, in house, or your wife’s cousin’s son) should help you decide what you really need. Once you’re established in your business, you can always make a native app then! But your PWA will still be there for the users who want (or need) it.