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“Should I Build An App Or A Responsive Website?” Is A Bad Question

September 14, 2015

ProdPad Labs

Marie Clarke was a speaker at ProductCamp London 2015 and gave a fantastic talk about Mobile Product Strategy. Today she’s guest posting on our blog and talking about Mobile Strategy 101. 



One of the common questions I’m asked is ‘Should I build an app or a responsive website?’ Having consulted for both startups and FTSE 100 multinationals, the question reflects a tech-first approach that almost never works. 

That’s because before you make that decision, you have consider what your users want. Looking at your website’s analytics reports will enable you to see how your users have been accessing your content. 

If your existing users don’t have access to an iPhone or an Android phone, then you can’t build them an app. No one would use it – because they can’t access it. The best you can do for these users is to build a responsive site or a mobile site that is compatible for the devices/OSs that they do use.

This was exactly what Facebook found out about its users in India. They were predominantly using feature phones to access Facebook, which meant they were experiencing the interface completely differently – and in a way that made it difficult to browse and get the information they were looking for. When Facebook optimized its site for feature phones, they ended up incorporating features that it had long stopped considering for its American users.

For example, they found that Indian users tend to give each other “missed calls” (that is, they call and hang up so the receiver calls back and takes on the cost of the call). The practice is so popular that businesses had started to encourage consumers to give them “missed calls” so they could call back and potentially win new customers over the phone.  When Facebook redesigned their app for feature phones, they added a ‘call back’ button for advertisers that mimicked this practice.

Before making any decisions about product type, consider what your users want. -@MarieKClarke1 Click To Tweet

Root your product decisions in research 

You can gauge what works for them already by downloading successful apps in your vertical and conducting a competitor benchmark. You can understand your competitors’ products by reading user reviews on the App/Play Stores and you can track the history of their success by reviewing rankings on App Annie. If you’ve already built an app or website and would like to improve it, you can look at your analytics reports to see if there are any hotspots (areas that are popular or unpopular). and death-zones (areas in the app that crash or have high number of users exiting the app.) You can quickly cull or promote those features, making the mobile experience more user friendly.

However, this research only allows you to understand existing user behavior. If you are creating a product that’s new and truly innovative and disruptive, it’s important step into the shoes of potential users and get their feedback on your MVP/prototype. This is important as it’s often extremely difficult to be objective when assessing your own product.

This user research is often skipped as it’s seen as time consuming and costly. However, building a product and marketing fit, only to find it’s irrelevant or not desired, is devastating, especially to startups with limited funds. With Android developers charging on average £500/day, a product manager has to be as certain as possible that the product they’re going to build will add value to their users.

How can you do this? By creating cheap prototypes – fast – and testing them with users. If the prototype or proposition needs to change dramatically, you can do so at minimal cost. You can pivot, i.e. change direction altogether, based on user insights and it won’t be too late. The book Lean UX is a great framework to use when seeking to learn from prototyping and user feedback. 

Your job is to understand and interpret user behavior

The ABC123 demographic data used by marketers of yesteryear is no longer relevant. It’s not detailed enough, and user behavior now varies so widely between one service and another. You need to understand users – their interests, behaviours, motivations, needs and problems – as it relates to YOUR product.

It’s also good practice to test your product vision and roadmap by shadowing and interviewing users and co-creating solutions for the problem you’d like to address. This will enable you to build something that is needed and more likely to be downloaded and used frequently.

You can ensure you are ‘successful’ by choosing quantifiable metrics you’d like to measure, both as a business and in your mobile analytics reports. In doing so, you can measure the outcomes of future A/B and multivariate testing and decide which new features or tweaks you’d like to keep.

There are many ways to research, ideate, prototype, iterate, and test. Various frameworks have been developed: IDEO, Google Ventures and Scrum Alliance each have their own advantages.  It takes this kind of experimentation to generate real user value and build a product with a strong customer base.

Even these frameworks are just useful tools, not strict guidelines that must be followed.

Your mobile is all about solving problems, something you’re doing anyway as a product manager. Study your users to find the answer you’re looking for. 

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