Designing for a Mobile App vs. a Mobile Microsite

Todd FlemingThe need for companies to expand their communications base with a mobile vehicle has never been greater. A Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project survey conducted in 2009 revealed that 85 percent of adult Americans own a handheld device – with over a third of those using it for wireless Internet access.
Mobile is growing and it’s getting big. In fact, a study on mobile Web growth conducted by Perficient, Inc. – an IT consulting group – estimated smartphones will actually outsell desktop computers this year. Therefore, odds are that anyone with a pulse works for a company or client that has or is preparing to invest a sizable amount of capital in either optimizing existing Web content for mobile devices or is considering designing or developing a mobile app.

That leaves just one question. Which is best: App or microsite?

The answer is an obvious one – at least when looking at the options from a design or production perspective. The hands-down winner is microsite.

Consider the following:

Platform development: Mobile apps need to be designed and developed for multiple platforms – iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, etc. A mobile microsite runs on a common platform. That means you develop and design once.

Distribution/Accessibility: Anyone who has access to the Web on a mobile device has access to a microsite. It can take weeks to go through the App Store application process (for iPhone apps), cost thousands in advertising dollars to get the app featured on a distribution network and extra time and money to convince users to spend their time and money to actually download and use the app can create a similar level of accessibility.

Upgradeability: A microsite is a very flexible option when changes – even quick ones – need to be made as the developer/designer has complete control over it. In addition, users can instantly access new content as it’s made available. An app upgrade requires additional development resources, additional submissions to the App Store for approval and an additional download by a user.

Resources: It depends on the complexity, but a microsite is generally a one-designer job. An in-depth app generally requires a frontend developer/designer (or two) to create the display and content and a software developer (or three) to build and ensure backend functionality. Also, having at least $30,000 to spend on the overall project and between three to six months on build time is ideal.

User experience: A microsite’s performance will depend on how it’s designed and what type of device it’s being viewed on, though there are best practices guidelines developers and designers can rely on to ensure compatibility across various mobile Web browsers. A drawback is that a microsite can’t be accessed without an Internet connection. By contrast, high-performance app functionality can be ensured offline (one benefit of apps) since the code can be run locally, but this usually requires the initial app download to be substantially larger. In addition, apps run locally and offline won’t be able to access content upgrades if the content is housed externally online.

More often than not, businesses and individuals will see more benefit by developing and designing a competent microsite. Development costs are substantially lower and the potential market size is substantially higher since it will be much easier for customers to find a microsite on the Web.

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