I was recently asked to take a look at an app, and something kept bothering me trying to think of the pros and cons of it. The function was fine, the layout could use work but nothing really frustrating. Yes there were other apps like it, but that itself wasn’t what was causing me problems. I kept finding little things to nitpick, and things to enhance. Yet something about the whole thing was annoying me as a whole, not anything specifically about the app itself. It took a while but it finally hit me what I disliked about it. There was a base concept about the app, and many apps I’ve used like it that gnawed at something deeper wrong with so many apps online.
The web was being “Appification”, sectioned off, websites being turned into apps for apps sake… Unfortunately it’s happening without us gaining anything from the experience.
The internet has been around for a while, and has gone through many versions. It started with static simple pages, in the 80s, then the bulletin boards of the late 80s, then walled garden (i.e. AOL) of the early 90s, the web page circles of the late 90s. Web search engines came into wide use in the early 2000s, and the social networks ruled in the end of the decade. Each of these built onto of the previous versions increasing it’s view-ability and functionality of the sites. Bulletin boards organized and brought interaction of the static pages. The wall gardens brought the general public to the internet and an easier way to find things. Web page circles took it a step further and brought that find-ability and familiarity of content to the general web outside of the walled gardens. Web search engines took searching for content a step further and organized and optimized everything. Social networks took all that content and refined it further and allowed users a way to share their own content with their friends and family members.
Appification of the Web
But the most recent integration of the web started a few years back. The web had been mobile for some time before the iPhone came out but it was mostly unused. The Mobile web wasn’t a large enough share for companies to make sure their pages were useable on it. Once the iPhone came on the scene, closely followed by the Android platform, users started expecting to be able to use the web on the go.
At first it was companies just making mobile versions of the sites: Uncluttered, bigger buttons and fonts for easier clicking and reading, cleaner layouts, and better web site design to allow to find things easier. However, companies soon started to decided it was better to have apps on decides to serve up the content on the mobile devices instead of making them come to their pages instead. Web pages have notoriously low retention rates compared to apps. You have more control over the layout and settings. Content is even available when the user is offline. These all seem like a good thing no?
In truth they are. There is numerous apps that are out there that are much more useable and functional than their internet counterpoint. This is not about those applications. This compliant is not really about those. It’s what those companies are doing for the 99% of other webpages out there.
There’s a few problems with this idea of “Appifying” the web.
You’d think it should be easy to create an app if you already have a website that has content or does something. But it’s not. Most sites just take everything and dump it into an app. Add a few tabs for some classification, and that’s it. However a “good” app doesn’t do this. They take their time and decided what content should be in app form and what should remain in the web. These faux apps make the experience actually more difficult than navigating to the full website because it’s so difficult to use.
This is a huge pet peeve of mine: if you are going to have an iPad app, it needs to not just be a scaled up version of the iPhone version. Make use of the extra space and redesign the layout. You can show more information an a more useable format on tablets vs phones. But do companies do this? No. They still are thinking in “web” vs “mobile” concepts. When they design a webpage they only need to worry about those two functions, “Are they on a mobile device or not?” And yet there is such huge difference between tablets and phones that makes the experience almost painful. They see anything not on the website as something simple and bare bones. Half the time if I’m using one of these “Appified Websites” on my iPad, I end up trashing the app and just bookmarking the full website instead. Which brings me to the biggest point:
Not all content should be an app.
All these items basically lead up to the fact that not all websites translate into apps. Many “Appified Websites” just don’t gain anything from being an app. Have a website that’s already working for you? Good. Want to turn it into an app just cause it’s cool? Bad. You’ll end up turning more people away from your site and services than turning them into fans. You’ll gain much more fans from a well designed website that works well serving up your content on mobile devices, than with an app the user has to install that just serves up the same content and format of your website.
You can easily make your website work well for mobile devices as a web site/app instead of a standalone app. Use HTLM5, stay away from Flash. Make it mobile friendly, and make sure the mobile version of the site will run on different platforms. Place functions to allow users to add the site as a web app/bookmark, but don’t force someone to download something that they either will at best ignore and use the website, and at worse, hate the experience and go somewhere else. And for the love of all things, don’t force the mobile experience… if someone wants your full web page let them. Nothing worse than site telling you what you can and can’t do.
If the site does end up an app, make use of the space and features the devices gives you (gps, wifi locations, camera, etc) that separates it from a website. Bring something additional to the experience that sets it apart from the website. Make use of the APIs for the platforms, and integrate functions that would be unreasonable or plain impossible to accomplish on the website itself. Use the camera for uploading content, or GPS to let users skip typing in their zip code to find stores. Have different features or layouts for horizontal or vertical views. A web page is static and meant to exist on computer, Mobile devices are used in so many orientations. Lastly, the app should be an extension of the website, not a replacement. Let users bring a part of the experience from the site with you, without forcing the entire site on them.
“Appified Websites” seems to be where the web is going at this point, but hopefully we can make sure that we gain something from this change, instead of it being a step backwards as so many apps are these days. This might be a useful step to launch us to full on app centric internet, with full organized content at our fingertips. At the moment it’s still in a painful starting stage, where too often we are pushed back to the website to find something useful.