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How to Decide Whether You Need a Native App

Regardless of the business, brands need to determine when an app is necessary for a given project or if the website does the job

In a perfect world, businesses would have enough time and resources to build and maintain every original mobile platform they desire. But in our world of deadlines and budgetary restrictions, we must decide where to invest our limited manpower to best serve the user experience.

It’s widely known that developers cannot afford to neglect the mobile experience or treat it as an afterthought. This is as true in travel and hospitality as it is in financial services or any other industry. But brands also need to determine whether an app is necessary for a given project or if the website does the job.

Fork in the code

Thomas Bailey, global lead of experience technology at Publicis Sapient in Boston, said when deciding to cover various platforms and channels, it’s critical to make providing value to customers the number one priority.

“When we come in part of what we do is evaluate how our partner is going to do business and the goals they’re looking to achieve. And we’ll determine from those a set of requirements to help us make that recommendation,” Bailey said. “Making sure you’re available everywhere as quickly as possible with the least amount of effort and time is really what we’re targeting.”

Software engineer Ilia Lekhter leads a technical team for Publicis Sapient in Boston. He works on every stage of software life-cycle projects and engages directly with business partners to understand the complexity of their problems.

He said project requirements and strategy ultimately drive the architecture for various solutions. Overall, native applications, software programs created for specific devices, should add value – not merely adjust websites for phone screens.

“It really just depends on the motivation of the client and what you intend to do. Is it going to be a long-living application? If so, there’s going to be some merit, even in a simple application,” Lekhter said. “At some point you may want to integrate the app with the device’s security capabilities or more complex features if they are mentioned in the roadmap.”

When native apps add value

Although the app for Marriot International’s loyalty program (Marriott Bonvoy) enables many of the same actions as the website – booking, checking in, checking out, etc. – it also distinguishes itself. Guests can download the room key to their smartphone and use that to open and close their door – thanks to Bluetooth technology.

Apps are particularly useful when they capitalize on features that distinguish personal devices from desktops. In the Marriott Bonvoy case, it’s easier to build a feature that integrates into the core security of a platform like Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android. It uses the capability of the hardware as well as the operating system’s API (application programming interface), a set of functions that enable the creation of applications.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), the Italian-American automaker formed by merging Fiat and Chrysler, has excellent content across web and apps, which often provide different experiences.

Jeep, the SUV brand owned by FCA, for instance, offers an application that lets you test different Jeeps on tracks around the United States with varying levels of difficulty. You can see how a particular model handles off-roading and tracks your progress or swap stories with other Jeep enthusiasts.

“Can it be done on the website? Yes, but the app makes it so specific and integrates with the satellite maps, tracking movement and all that,” Lekhter said.

App vs. Web

Native Apps

• Best experience for specific device

• Focuses attention

• Presence in the App Store

• Innovative integration

• Distinguishes from competition 

Web Apps

• Works across all devices

• No download necessary

• Keeps experience simple

• Saves time

• Allows for flexibility

• More affordable

A boon for personal finance

The Royal Bank of Scotland’s mobile app has a function called “Get Catch,” which lets users take out money from an ATM when they leave their debit cards at home. In the app, you can request a six-digit, time-sensitive code to take out £10 to £130 in multiples of 10. This sort of service is tailor-made for people on the go.

The U.S. Bank Mobile App empowers users to manage their personal finances faster and easier.  In addition to checking your balance, you can find nearby ATMs or banks, send money to anyone with an American bank account, pay bills and deposit checks. You can also access this suite of capabilities quickly with your fingerprint on iPhone, iPad and Android or with Apple’s Face ID on the new iPhone X.

The user-centric app uses a person’s habits to provide financially savvy recommendations. Accessible and secure, it demonstrates how a native app can elevate the user’s experience.

When websites are enough

Lekhter said there’s a good argument for forgoing the app if you’re on a limited budget and don’t plan to capitalize on features specific to a personal device. Approached correctly, you can build something that looks great on a computer and on a mobile device.

“Web apps by themselves are not trivial matters,” Lekhter said. “Essentially every single browser is an operating system of its own with its own version. It’s tough to get it right even in the web.”

According to Bailey, it’s often unnecessary for big-box retailers like Target or Bed Bath & Beyond to develop a native app because their customers are often more transient and move from one brand to the next while shopping.

“There’s nothing native can do that’s significantly better experience-wise. It may be different if you want to incorporate beacon technology or Bluetooth, but you can do everything for retail shopping with a website,” Bailey said.

“If you could find ways to deliver for all those platforms with one pass and one code, that’s your dream come true. I don’t want have to decide whether it’s mobile or web. Instead, I could write a code base that may be 5 or 10 percent more effort but then you cover three channels.”

Thomas Bailey , global lead of experience technology

Brand awareness

A project’s overall strategy is a major factor in determining which route to take. Sometimes brands will choose to develop a web app to increase market penetration and discoverability. And just being featured in the digital distribution marketplace could raise your brand’s profile.

Bailey said few brands actually require a native app – unless they want a presence in the App store. Sometimes that’s as deep as the strategy gets.

“If someone hears the name of a brand and wants to check it out, depending on what that brand offers, their first search might not be in Google but in the App Store,” Baliey said. “Let me download this app and see what it’s all about.”

Cross-platform tools and the future

If you pursue an application, you need to determine which one will help in the tactical execution of your team’s objectives.

Native apps can optimize the user experience because they were designed for a specific smartphone. Hybrid apps can be installed on smartphones but run through a web browser. Progressive web apps are not actually apps at all. They are websites that feel like apps because they install icons on your mobile device.

“Most people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a really good PWA experience and a native app experience,” Bailey said.

Bailey said cross-platform tools are getting better and better and indistinguishable for any end user. He said it’s important that developers don’t get high and mighty about being pure in any sense of the word because it’s really about getting value out faster. He said open-source app frameworks like React Native and Flutter are great for both mobile platforms.

“So if you could find ways to deliver for all those platforms with one pass and one code, that’s your dream come true. That’s your panacea,” he continued. “I don’t want have to decide whether it’s mobile or web. Instead, I could write a code base that may be five or ten percent more effort but then you cover three channels.”

There are many great reasons to deliver native apps, taking advantage of the unique capabilities and potentials of specific personal devices. There are also persuasive arguments for just concentrating on creating the best website possible – one that will work equally well on mobile and desktop. What you sacrifice in optimization you make up for in time and resources.

Although cross-platform tools are improving – and may one day render this debate moot – right now you still need to choose the right path forward: web or app?

The answer depends on your goals, resources and strategy.

Michael Walsh
Michael Walsh


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