What Apps?
Written by: Weston McBride
Mobile apps are dead. Long live mobile apps. 

Good product design starts with a deep understanding of a user's needs and the context in which they'll use the product.

That is why WaterSmart has built a remarkable mobile app. But if you search the iTunes or Google Play store, you won't find it. Why not? Because for our users, and for how our users are engaging with water data, mobile web is the way to go.

Why mobile is important

Over the past decade, the mobile phone has gone from being a simple communication device for the business elite to the primary way people access information globally.

At WaterSmart we want to make sure that we're meeting our users where they are. That's why we provide such a broad platform for engagement - mobile, web, email, text message, print - to serve our broad and diverse set of users in 40 communities coast-to-coast. And our most effective communication approach by far is our outbound engagement - email/print Home Water Reports and Leak Alerts. Once we've engaged users, closing the loop by providing access to rebates and step-by-step instructions on how to save water is the job of our Customer Portal, either on mobile, tablet, or desktop.

The chosen path

What apps you decide to build ultimately comes down to choosing the right tool for a job. At WaterSmart, we considered our goals and our users:

  • Our mobile app is designed to engage users when new information is available, give them deep insight into their own data, and provide detailed instructions on personalized savings recommendations.
  • Our user base is broad and diverse, ranging from busy young professionals in the city to retired couples in the suburbs. They have a wide range of technical understanding. They use iPhones and Androids and Blackberries and Windows phones, old and new, big and small.
  • Users regularly receive outbound communications in the form of Home Water Reports via print or e-mail. We don't need to build additional re-engagement features.
  • We have remarkably high engagement rates with our Home Water Report program (measured by open rates and click through rates); these high engagement rates persist throughout the life of the program.
  • For urgent items, we know that users prefer to be alerted similarly to how they receive other urgent news - email, text message, sometimes a phone call.
  • Each of our utility partners requires their own branded experience, so that would mean developing and maintaining 40 different native apps on at least 3 platforms - over 120 individual apps. Alternately 1 flexible and dynamic platform that works on desktop, tablet or mobile can accomplish the same goals.

One of the benefits of our SaaS platform is that we are constantly improving our technology for all of our partners. Dynamically updating through the mobile web means that each of our partners gets the latest and greatest product suite with no delay for app approval (Apple's approval process, which has improved dramatically over the last 5 years, still takes 2 weeks for a typical app update).

One of the big reasons one might choose a native mobile app is to take advantage of the on-device capabilities such as the camera, GPS, NFC, accelerometer, etc. We don't require any of those capabilities - they don't make sense for our product – plus the latest browsers like Safari and Chrome on mobile allow you to access on-device capabilities like the camera and GPS anyway. While a native app might be useful if you need to download data and use the device offline (like a trail map or podcast to listen to on a plane flight), none of our use cases require offline data access.

Native apps also lend themselves to cool new technologies like push notifications. Push notifications look like text messages to the user, and are used to either engage a user when new information is available, or to try to avail the user of a new promotion. Industry-wide, users allow 52% of push notifications to be installed (skewed high, as Android automatically enables Push, whereas Apple requires a user to approve them). Furthermore, best in class targeted push notifications achieve a ~7% open rate (non-personalized messages are around 3%). So push notifications are going to engage 3.6% of the small % of your users who have downloaded your app. Our Home Water Reports, on the other hand, have a 60% open rate and our Leak Alerts have nearly an 80% open rate.

The state of the app industry

The app industry has grown incredibly over the last few years. At the beginning of 2015, there were more than 1.4 million apps on the App Store for iPhone alone and a similar number of Android apps on the Google Play store. There is a notion that being on the App Store will result in huge download rates but this turns out not to be the case when trying to get noticed among ~3 million other apps.

Interestingly, 2/3 of smart phone users have not downloaded a single app in the last 30 days. Most people have already downloaded the apps they are going to use and 55% of people use between 1 and 4 apps per day.

The app discovery process is terrible - the vast majority of apps don't see any real downloads, and 84% of apps are "zombie apps" - these are apps that don't appear on the "top" lists for any category, or in other words, are nearly impossible to discover.  80-90% of apps are used just once and then eventually deleted by the user.

The latest mobile web technology indicates that native apps are not as useful as they used to be. When the iPhone first came out, mobile web apps were slow, unresponsive, and ugly. Native apps were successful, in part, because they took advantage of an incredibly powerful processing capabilities of the hardware device.

That changed as HTML5 matured and mobile web apps became more responsive. In fact, many "native" apps that you use every day are just shells for a mobile web app.  A majority of mobile banking applications are app shells with an embedded web browser displaying HTML5 content.

which way do i go?

In the end, this is an academic, tech-geek discussion.  Good application design, whether mobile or not, is about meeting a need in an easy-to-use manner.  By considering the goals of your application and, most importantly, the needs of your users, the decision of which platform and approach to use when building an application will become apparent. Do your research, consider the data and then choose the path that makes the most sense.  Chasing trends and relying on qualitative perceptions rarely result in the best outcomes.  And in the end, what else matters?


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