Should I build a web app or a mobile app?


We are in the process of building a highly interactive product. With our tiny team of one developer and one designer, we don’t have the ability to roll out a web app, an iOS app, Android app, etc all at once. Deciding which platform to lead with was challenging. If you’re reading this, you may be going through a similar dilemma right now. I’m going to take you through the maze of questions we asked ourselves when making this decision. Spoiler alert: we’re building an iOS app.

First thing’s first: Defining terms

Website – This is basically an online PDF. People visit the site to get information. That is all. This article doesn’t deal with websites, as the tasks we are trying to complete are more complex than what a basic website can handle. Example of a basic websites:

Web app – Information plus interaction. The user navigates to this site via a web browser on their phone or computer, but they are then able to sign in and add information to the site. Any social media site is a web app. Your online banking site is a web app. If you can interact, and it’s on a browser, it’s an app. Web apps perform best on a computer, not a mobile device. However, a lot of web apps do feature a mobile version as well.

Desktop app – Anything on your computer that doesn’t require a browser to run. Paint. Photoshop. Microsoft office. And many many more.

Mobile app – Those little icons on your smartphone or tablet’s home screen that don’t require a browser to run. Think Candy Crush, Facebook (the app version, not the one you get on Safari…that’s a mobile app), Pandora, etc.

Spotify- similar experiences on web phones and tablets created through native apps.
Spotify- similar experiences on web phones and tablets created through native apps.

A lot of products come in two, three or all four of these. Spotify, for example, makes a desktop app, mobile app, web app, AND a website. They didn’t start with all four, and most likely, neither should you. See which platform will gain the most traction and move from there. This article is all about highly-interactive cases, so websites are out of the question. Next up, the questions you need to ask yourself to determine what kind of app you need to build.

How mobile is your audience?

Only 37% of adults 55 and up have ever owned a smart phone, and 25% of that group never downloaded a single app (Deloitte 2014). On the flip side, nearly 75% of adults over 55 use the internet on a regular basis (Pew 2014). The older your target audience is, the less likely they are to download a mobile app. There are tons of other factors determining wether or not your audience is likely to own and use a smartphone. This study, conducted by the Pew Research Center breaks down U.S. cell phone and smart phone usage by age, income, demographic, gender, education level and community type. It’s a great resource to consult when you’re determining wether to make a web app or a mobile app.

Our app is designed for students who are learning languages. We have to make the assumption that most language students are in high school and college, which means they’re pretty likely to have a smartphone.

How complex is your product?

Good apps are design to perform one very specific tasks and do it better than a website would. Think of the Facebook app, the most popular and active app in the US. There was a lot of controversy when Facebook moved its messaging service to a second app, but it was a genius move. Facebook's main focus is the timeline. That/s where they make money and thats where its users want to be. Messaging was an addition to Facebook services but it didn't add much to your "Timeline" experience. In fact, it was distracting. Facebook cut its app in two, making the main app less cluttered and the Messenger app more robust.

Now, can you imaging two separate Facebook sites where one would let you see the timeline and the second one would let you send messages? That would be limiting and annoying. You would have to jump between browser tabs and at some point you would drift away and browse some other page. Here is the paradox: websites are less complex in terms of engineering needs but allow for more complexity in terms of the usability. You can fit more interaction in a web app than you could possibly fit inside of a single mobile app window. The most you will see on a mobile app interface will be 4-7 buttons. All submenus will be hidden. Thats not the case with websites where most buttons are visible and always one click away.

In addition, good manners require that you avoid sucking your customers’ data. Whether on the go or at home. But mobile data costs a lot more, both in time and in money.

How much do your users really care?

In order for any user to create a login or interact with your product, be it a web or mobile app, they need to be invested in the outcome. They need to be even more invested to go through the trouble of downloading an app from their mobile app store. Think about what your users want from the experience, not just what you want out of your users.

Shift in time and usage- Digital Report by Nielsen.
Shift in time and usage- Digital Report by Nielsen.

Sadly, nobody will install a mobile app just to send you a feedback form or to look up your address. Thats what websites are for. The average user spends less than 15 seconds on a website (Chartbeat 2014). Thats enough to skim a blog post, look up an address or check our the members of your team. If you're considering any kind of app, you have to have a goal for its use. That specific goal has to have a better user experience than it would have on a simple website.

We thought of our users as students commuting to campus by car or public transit every day.  They won't be balancing a laptop on their laps, and we won’t have their undivided attention. They won’t take the time to type URLs, find a menu or fill out payment forms. The message/action we're sending has to be the most prominent thing on the screen. One click... maybe two is all we have.

On the other hand, what if your product is a complex web music mixer or a photo editing web app. There is only so much that can be done on a small 4' phone, but all those constraints disappear if you're dealing with a website on a 15' laptop.  The interface can be clean and powerful. You will be able to fit as many controls as you want, and it can use as much server power as you're able to provide. Your users will choose power over simplicity. Assuming that your users will be working from their desks, a web app will be all they need. Typing passwords, credit card information or other credentials won't be an issue. You’ve got the attention, so you deliver a robust experience.

What hardware do you need?

There is a reason why so many companies start with mobile apps first. The capabilities of a native platform versus an experience handled through a browser are astronomically different. The most basic example is the use of a camera. Can you imagine Instagram starting as a website service where you take a photo through a browser?

While thinking about the needs of your business you should consider technical limitations of a browser and a phone. Using GPS to get user's location, camera to take photos or to scan a receipts, fingerprint and Apple Pay as a way for secure payments - all of that wouldn't be possible through a browser. On the other hand, jobs needing a long lasting battery, faster processor and bigger screen will be handled better on a bigger device (at least for now).

With modern technology, you can do most of the same stuff via mobile and on your browser. The only difference is the quality of your service. Imagine that you want people to pay you for your service. The most common scenario on your website would be to either ask for their credit card so they type all the info over and over again or to open another window with a paypal option. You can do the same on a native app, but all the user data is already stored within the app. Rather than a lengthy payment form, you confirm with a fingerprint.

How much do you want to pay?

The cost of making any sort of app is huge and sometimes difficult to justify. Traditionally speaking, native mobile apps are more expensive than websites. Writing in Objective-C or Swift (iPhone), Java (Android and Blackberry), or C# (Windows Phone) requires a high level of expertise.

But HTML and CSS, the traditional building blocks of websites, won’t get you anywhere near the level of interactivity of an app. A true web app requires Javascript, PHP, Python or Ruby. In addition, a custom CMS is almost always required so that a non-developer can make changes to the content. These are features that will bring the cost and time required by your web app close to the same as a mobile app.

So while a mobile app may cost 5 times as much as a traditional HTML and CSS website, it’s really only 10%-15% more expensive than a web app with the same interactive capabilities.


The decision to build a web app or a mobile app is a huge investment in time and money. In many cases the future of your company might depend on getting it right. There are lots of pros and cons for each solution and it really depends on your business needs, your audience, cost, timing, features you provide and problems you're trying to solve. It also depends on the image of your company. If you're going after a younger crowd then well... its all about apps. Older folks will be fine with a website and all the features it provides.

We promise to keep you updated on the specifics of our app as we continue to build. Let us know on Facebook or Twitter what aspects of app building interest you so we can be sure to include it in our next post.