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The apps versus mobile websites debate isn't going away any time soon.
It's not an either-or proposition, and companies that get too focused on picking a winner may lose sight of more interesting and important subjects that apps and the mobile web have created.
For instance, instead of worrying about whether mobile websites will one day overtake mobile apps in popularity, consider the question: is your mobile app better than your main website?
That question is raised by an insightful blog post by Stackoverflow founder Jeff Atwood. Using a high-profile example, he points out that eBay's tablet and mobile apps "are just plain simpler, easier, and faster to use than the eBay website itself." His screenshots which pit the eBay website against its tablet and mobile apps show the stark contrast: the apps are simple and uncluttered, while the eBay website is quite the opposite.
According to Atwood, the lesson is to "embrace constraints":
Having a limited, fixed palette of UI controls and screen space is a strength. A strength we used to have in early Mac and Windows apps, but seem to have lost somewhere along the way as applications got more powerful and complicated. And it's endemic on the web as well, where the eBay website has been slowly accreting more and more functionality since 1999. The nearly unlimited freedom that you get in a modern web browser to build whatever UI you can dream up, and assume as large or as small a page as you like, often ends up being harmful to users. It certainly is in the case of eBay.
The solution: "design simple things that scale up; not complicated things you need to scale down." It's an interesting suggestion, and one that Atwood notes is part of the increasingly popular mobile-first design approach.
There's an obvious problem here, however, for many organizations: many don't know that their mobile app experience is better than their web experience. Which highlights the importance of analytics in mobile apps.
When a company understands how its mobile app users are interacting with its app, and collects the right data, it can compare apples (its mobile app) to oranges (its website) in a meaningful way.
If your mobile app has a better conversion rate for certain actions, for instance, it may hint that the more complicated website experience is getting in the way somehow. On the flip side, knowledge of what works well on the website and is popular with users can influence what functionality is a worthwhile candidate for inclusion in a mobile app.
The point here is that collecting, analyzing and comparing analytics data in every individual channel is the first step in building better experiences across all channels. Building fantastic user experiences is difficult, but the web and app worlds are giving companies a greater opportunity to pull it off if they're watching and carefully evaluating the right things.