Mobile Apps Are Not a Web Solution

This came out of an email I typed to my local public library after they kindly informed me that their website doesn’t support iOS Safari and suggested I download their mobile app instead. This response is unacceptable, and here’s why:

A single-purpose mobile app is about as useful as a unicycle. Sure, you might be able to ride it down the street, but it was never designed to get you much further. Apps for every website has always been a dumb idea because it breaks up the interconnected nature of the web itself. The moment the user needs to click a link to another site, they get bumped out of your app entirely – creating friction that makes the experience awful for the user and detrimental to their impression of you.

Back in 2011, every clueless CEO wanted a mobile app (that does nothing a website can’t already do) because they heard it was the latest, hottest thing and wanted to jump on the bandwagon. It was a terrible fad that had its day because it was a terrible idea. Yet here you are, in 2015, telling people, “Please use our unicycle instead of the bicycle we can’t be bothered to fix. Unicycles are still hip, right? Pleeease try out our unicycle. We lost our bicycle building budget over this!”

The thing is, if you’ve stopped making a reliable bicycle and are trying to push a unicycle on people instead, anyone with a lick of sense is going to shake their head and walk away, because they know a unicycle is not a viable bicycle replacement. And also the only people who ride them are clowns.

As for those people every unicycle manufacturer managed to push into adoption, through simply being annoying enough the force the “solution” on them, it’s destined to do nothing but collect dust in their garage. Instead, they’ll look at the bicycle you used to support and wish you’d get around to repairing that instead, because at least the bicycle is not a pain to ride. Bicycles are more functional, multipurpose, and ubiquitous. They can go up hills, and be used for more than commuting to clown college.

Eventually the person you foisted the unicycle on will get the urge to clean out their cluttered garage. Guess what’s going to get turfed: all the single-purpose devices people foisted on them over the years. Out goes the bagel slicer they only used once because it barely cut bagels, let alone anything else. Out goes the Casio synthesizer that could only do a pre-programmed rumba, as far as they could figure out. Out goes the selfie stick they’re ashamed to have ever owned. And out goes your unicycle too.

As for the bicycle, they might dust it off if only you could make it stop sticking in 3rd gear, but since you didn’t bother fixing it – desperately hoping everyone would adopt the unicycle instead, it gets kicked to the curb as well. Congrats on losing your users that way. If only things could have been different.

Oh wait, it can! Fix your website. The web is not going away, and neither is mobile browsing. If you can’t make your website responsive in this day and age, and make it work on every mobile browser (including the one most used on the planet), maybe you should have spent your budget developing that instead throwing money down the toilet on yet another single-purpose proprietary app no one wants nor needs.

Don’t just take it from me: I found a pie chart. And numerous articles on the subject (I could link more but they all say the same thing). Users don’t want mobile apps for everything. If there were an app for every website, that would add up to about a billion apps, all requiring hard-drive space on people’s smartphones, all adding clutter to their screens. Those 30% of people who stated a preference for mobile apps, guess what they’re using: Twitter and Facebook.

Dear local library, you are not Facebook. You will never be Facebook. Your adoption rate is negligible and your retention rate 1% of that. You will never have the clout or user-base to justify turning your website into an app and trying to lock them into yet another walled garden. Even big dogs like Google are not right to do this, because it’s the absolute antithesis of what the web should be. So ditch the apps, and focus your resources on your website, where everyone can access it.

As for your alternate suggestion to download a different browser, you don’t get to dictate terms to your users that way. Though I’ve not been active in web development for ten years, the core theory of cross-compatibility has not changed – in fact it’s more important than ever. Back in the day, Internet Explorer was a pig that didn’t display html properly, but that didn’t give me the excuse to say “screw EI” and shut out a huge portion of my user-base. I was the one who had to adapt, like it or not. You have a duty to make sure your website runs on every major platform, and in an age of responsive design there’s no excuse not to make it work well.

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Sarah Dimento

The only thing interesting about me is my interest in interesting things – and sometimes I make cool shit.

8 thoughts to “Mobile Apps Are Not a Web Solution”

    1. At least their stuff does work on a home computer. Unfortunately you almost have to use a smartphone to browse their catalogue while standing inside the library itself, their computers being so ancient and slow, they’re painful to use. That’s particulary bad for people so poor they rely on the library to get any internet access at all. They could have spent some of their tech budget upgrading those as well rather than developing stupid smartphone apps.

      1. I have tried, at least three times, to sign up for online access to ebooks my public library supposedly makes available to patrons.

        I have failed, miserably, after spending way too much time.

        I will take my laptop to the library one of these days, and MAKE them connect me and set up and account and download an ebook. I’m paying for it, I should have access.

        Unfortunately, the people who work in libraries (lovely ladies, most of them; a few men who seem to have the top paying jobs – last time I looked) are NOT the top of the tech heap. They don’t write the software, they just learn to use it. They are not valued enough. In person, I always manage to get what I need, but with the impaired mobility, I don’t get there nearly as often as when we were homeschooling, and I am baffled by the horribly-designed website I’ve run into.

        It’s on my list of things to do.

        1. My library already required me to download an app to access ebooks, a special reader I can use to connect to any participating library in North America and download a book with my account. I didn’t mind that so much because it allows me to access the books offline, the one advantage an app has. Asking me to download yet another app to access their website is a bit ridiculous on top of that.

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