Why smartphone apps are killing the mobile web browser

Rob Borley
by
on 27 May 2014

According to recent research conducted on behalf of the regulator Ofcom, the way we interact with online resources is changing significantly. Increasingly users are choosing apps over web browsers for accessing information and entertainment from their mobile devices.

In the era of the desktop PC the web browser was the primary method of access to these resources, but the explosion of smartphones and tablets has changed everything. Despite every handset being equipped with a mobile browser, users are instead choosing to use apps for many common functions such as downloading and consuming music and videos, and reading the news.

Back in 2012 a Nielsen survey highlighted the trend that found that American smartphone users spend four times as many minutes each month using mobile apps as they do their mobile web browser. This has led some commentators to suggest that mobile apps are going to fundamentally change the Internet as we know it. Some have even declared the Internet as we know it dead.

Why the shift? Ultimately because apps provide a better user experience.

Better control of data display

Even the largest tablets have smaller screens than the average laptop PC, so displaying information using the same visual interface across all devices is undesirable, the 4”-5” display on most smartphones even more so. Using an app it becomes much easier to shape and define how information is displayed on screen.

Using a mobile web browser, screen space is further limited by address bars and navigation buttons. A custom app however allows developers greater control over user interface elements to maximise the available screen real estate and to display information in a way that is easier to read and absorb.

Although it is possible, and increasingly common, to create responsive websites that scale to fit smaller screens, in many cases using a responsive or mobile version of a website feels like you are missing something. Apps remove the ambiguities of disparate device specifications.

Better control of navigation

Despite improvements in mobile browser navigation, apps provide much more granular control of the user experience. Buttons and links can be sized for “finger-friendliness”, reducing the risk of unwanted link clicks inherent with re-sized websites on mobile – fat finger syndrome.

And although pinch-and-zoom screen sizing has made mobile web browsing slightly easier, the additional effort placed on the user means that many simply do not bother. Apps allow developers to closely control the user journey for data display and collection, making the experience less frustrating and thus more likely to succeed.

Less chance of click-out

The isolationist approach of apps reduce the distractions available to a user, helping to keep them engaged with the information you are presenting. Websites have always been vulnerable to lost traffic as users click links leading off site, never to return.

Apps on the other hand are tightly focused on a single purpose, reducing the risk of users becoming distracted or being led away. As long as the user is in the app, they are relatively constrained in what they can do, helping to better keep them on track. The limited multi-tasking support offered by mobile Os’s, particularly Apple’s iOS, mean that users stay engaged with apps longer too.

Not just for shopping

On the surface, these benefits appear to most closely apply to ecommerce applications. However the demand for a mobile workforce means that businesses need to take app design considerations seriously if they are to extract the maximum return from their mobility investments.

Redesigning data capture and retrieval workflows for mobile devices makes good business sense. Not only will it help reduce user frustration, but also should result in a corresponding drop in data errors for instance. This is on top of the observation that smartphones and tablets are rapidly establishing themselves as people’s primary devices for work and play.

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