When Does a Small Business Need a Mobile App?


Mobile apps have been around for over a decade now. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the general public knows what makes an app, well, an app.

Over the years, I’ve encountered several small business owners who declared that they needed a mobile app. They were under the impression that an app should be there to live alongside their website and cater to the needs of mobile users.

Usually, after a bit of investigation, it turns out than an app wasn’t necessary at all. In reality, a well-designed responsive website will often cover all the basics.

Still, the confusion remains. It begs the questions: What are the downsides to having an app? How do we explain the situation to clients? Finally, when should an app be a realistic part of the discussion?

Apps Aren’t Always the Answer

Thanks to the likes of Apple and Google, apps are often seen as being glamorous or a status symbol. And it makes sense that business owners want to be in this exclusive club (that boasts millions of other members, notwithstanding).

But before you even decide if a client really needs to have an app, consider the following:

Phone Space is Super Competitive
While high-end products like the iPhone or Samsung Galaxy are heavily used, not everyone has that sort of buying power. Many consumers are relegated to low-and-mid-range models. One of the biggest differences between these categories is storage capacity. Users of cheaper phones are usually quite squeezed for space.

The result is that only the “essential” apps get installed. Social media, productivity and games are where users are opting to spend their limited storage. If you’re banking on wide usage of your app, it had better be worth it to the end user.

It Can Be Expensive
The other side of the coin (literally) is that having a mobile app developed and maintained will cost you. For a small business, this can really cut into a marketing budget. If your app is superfluous, this takes precious funds away from more pressing matters.

Mobile phone and desktop monitors.

Discussing Mobile Apps with Clients

When a client brings up the possibility of a mobile app, it’s our job to find out all we can about their potential needs. Whether app development is part of your services list or not, you’ll want to try and guide them in the right direction.

Too often, we see people go into sales mode. But in this case our clients need us to be an honest broker. That certainly doesn’t mean we can’t sell them on what we have to offer. It just means that we should only sell them what they need.

To find out whether an app makes sense, start out by asking the following questions:

What do you want the app to accomplish?
The client should at least have a somewhat clear goal for what their app would do. That could be anything from increasing sales to helping visitors find their way at an event.

Who is your ideal user?
In other words, we want to find out the app’s potential target market. However, the focus may be a bit narrower in terms of who might use it. For instance, a business may have at least some clientele who aren’t tech-savvy. This group may not get much use out of an app.

Why can’t (or shouldn’t) the website do this?
This is where we get the details that will help determine whether or not an app is needed. It’s about functionality, problem-solving and marketing. An app will show its true potential when we analyze what it will do as compared to the existing website.

Man using an iPhone.

So, When Does an App Make Sense?

Once we have the right information, we can then figure out whether a mobile app might be beneficial. As a primer, let’s look at some scenarios where an app could make sense:

It Takes Advantage of Smartphone Technology
One of the greatest attributes of a well-made and useful mobile app is that it makes use of device technology. For example, think about apps that utilize GPS or the built-in camera. They often help users find a specific location or document something. The need for this functionality may rule out depending on a responsive website alone to serve the mobile crowd.

It Makes a Task Easier for Users
This is the value proposition for an app. Why should someone take the time to install it on their device? If it helps them perform tasks more efficiently than a website, then it could be just what the doctor ordered.

It Has a Chance to Meet the Expected Demand
Even if this amazing app makes good use of technology and is helpful, it has to have a solid user base in order to be worth the money. This can be tricky to figure out. But it’s helpful to think about the client’s business in general. Look at customer demographics and how likely they are to use an app. Also look at potential ways the app could attract new customers.

If the app has a reasonable chance to find a solid group of core users, it could be a great investment for the business.

Woman looking at her iPhone screen.

Clearing Up Mobile Confusion

In the last decade, smartphones and tablets have become go-to devices for so many. But it’s important to remember that not everyone recognizes the difference between a dedicated mobile app and a mobile-friendly website. To a lot of end users, the lines are still blurred.

As web professionals, we can help by making our clients aware of that distinction. From there, we can dig a little deeper to find out what they really need. That may well turn out to be an app. But it could be that their website already has what they were looking for all along.

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