American Marketer


Navigating the inherent challenges of creating a mobile app

April 9, 2012


By Peter Eckert

By 2015 it is predicted that mobile shopping will account for $163 billion in sales worldwide, according to ABI Research. As mobile devices begin to dominate the marketplace, retailers are shifting their focus to mobile applications as part of their retail ecommerce strategy.

At first glance, creating a mobile app seems straightforward.

Judging by the now-millions of apps out there, it cannot be that hard, right? Wrong.

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Keeping pace with the shift to mobile apps is becoming increasingly complex. Marketers must understand the needs of their end user, the different platforms available and the strengths and weaknesses of each—as well as their technical limitations—to create a meaningful user experience.

One of the most common problems today is that companies are trying to “port” existing software applications onto a mobile platform. They are trying to squeeze too much functionality into a mobile device form factor, which has limitations on hardware and user perception.

Complex applications will not translate well onto touch-enabled mobile devices because most were developed for PCs.

It appears that companies take two different approaches to this issue: approximately half the companies think they can port over an existing application while the other half are embracing a simpler paradigm.

The simpler paradigm leads to two common approaches to mobile app development: a single platform – native app – and mobile Web app.

Native apps are device-specific apps that run directly on the device, whereas mobile apps run via a Web browser. The pros and cons are less about the platform and more about the level of delivery and the impact on user experience.

Selecting the right app for an ecommerce strategy can be tricky. There are several key drivers that need to be considered.

The apps’ goals should be defined from the onset: does it aim to increase sales or to provide useful information that supports an overarching ecommerce goal?

Next, executives must decide on their target demographic of users to design an app in a meaningful and intuitive way for the consumer/end-user without over-delivering.

There is no simple answer as to which approach is best. It hinges on balancing business goals with performance needs, usability and costs.

Performance and usability

Native apps have a distinct advantage over mobile Web apps when it comes to user experience.

The Apple store currently offers more than 500,000 native apps for the iPhone and more than 140,000 for the iPad.

The popularity of these apps is driven partly by their commercial promotion via the mobile app stores but also by the unique user experience that they offer.

Hands-down, native apps typically offer a smoother, simpler user experience compared to Web apps.

Since native apps run directly on the device, they are typically faster, can access hardware features of the device and can handle richer graphics and content. They are great for games and other performance-dependent applications, while Web apps are better suited for news feeds and less complex data.

While native apps provide a more streamlined experience, mobile Web apps—which run on a common browser—are accessible by almost any Web-enabled device. The downside is the impact on the performance – they tend to be slower, which makes them feel clunky and less rich.

Additionally, since Web- apps are delivered through a browser they generally cannot access hardware functionality of the devices themselves, at least not today.

Considerations: Cost and flexibility

Aside from performance and usability, marketers must evaluate the overall cost and flexibility each approach offers.

Native app development can be streamlined and efficient, enabling companies to maintain full control over the user experience. But there are some trade-offs.

Since native apps are device-specific, companies will need to develop a separate app for each mobile platform – Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Window Phone 7 – which drives up development and maintenance costs.

Additionally, all native apps and future updates are subject to approval by each specific app store and user downloads, limiting a company’s ability to quickly change existing code.

The ability to instantaneously update a Web app makes it a more accessible and flexible approach, but it can also add additional cost and increase development time.

Web apps benefit from the updates occurring in real time with no need to download or install any software. As a result, they can evolve and advance through a more incremental process.

AS MOBILE COMMERCE continues to grow, mobile apps will become even more important to marketers’ strategy.

When deciding on whether to build a native or Web app, the primary consideration should start with determining the real strategic objectives and weighing them against the technical limitations of the application.

Marketers should focus on functionality before complexity. With each there are trade-offs, but they can also be used to complement each other in an overall mobile strategy.

Peter Eckert is cofounder and chief experience officer of projekt202, Austin, TX. Reach him at