By Ciaran Ryan

They Need an App

By Ciaran Ryan

What’s this responsive design thing? I don’t want responsive design. I want an app. I need an app!!

Let’s back up a little.

I work in Wave Digital, a sister company of SitePoint. We build all things mobile, usually for large business and government.


These days, every company wants an app. Strike that, every company NEEDS an app.

I have no idea how these decisions are made. Perhaps the head honchos compare their company’s apps with each other after 18 holes of golf. Maybe your Johnny / Joanie Client feels left out. They need an app.

Maybe a nice marketing agency has done some customer profiling for Johnny / Joanie Client’s company. Some of their customers have iPhones. They need an app.

Maybe they jumped on their competitor’s website and saw they had just released an app. They need an app.

These mandates trickle down from the board and find their way into your inbox on a Monday morning. These emails are not dissimilar to the Lagos Lottery Winner emails. “Congratulations. Your company has been selected to bid to take part in building our app. Please complete sections 1 to 1000 and submit by lunchtime”.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many use and business cases when building an app is the correct way to go. But an app for the sake of an app is not in itself a reason.

Not when the features of the app they’re looking at include:

  1. Universally accessible from any device
  2. Future-proofed solution
  3. Easy to manage and update
  4. Doesn’t make use of any native device features

You point out that building a Responsive Design solution will take care of all these requirements. They need an app.

You demonstrate that building an app will cost more. They need an app.

Your many years of industry expertise, your commitment to best practice, all the reasons they came to you … no, they need an app.

So, there we are. Your client wants an app – sorry, needs an app – and you know they need a responsive website.

What do you do?

  • Tadek Chávez

    Recently, I’ve been offering Responsive Web Design solutions that can be easily migrated to a mobile platform native app with tools and/or frameworks like Sencha or Phonegap.

  • If the only real requirement they have beyond what the site does is get an app in the iStore, then just give them an app that is basically a web page, which is….you guessed it, your website!

  • Jonathan Porter

    Put a fancy flipboard effect on it and charge double.

    No seriously, this happened to us recently and we are building an app, well two in fact for iOS and Android. We tried to talk them out of it and save them a lot of money, but they insisted. We are also redesigning the client’s website. We’re recommending responsive design even though we weren’t specifically asked for that. We’ll be coming up with some fresh ideas for them on how we can make use of location services or other mobile device features, and other features to make the native mobile app as good as it can be. This is so we can provide value for the client, so it doesn’t just end up being an icon on their ipad for vanity’s sake.

    It can be a tricky situation as I didn’t want to lose the client to another provider who would just do it anyway. Its a bit like when people would ask for full Flash websites long after we’d realised they were a bad idea, though we always manged to talk them out of it.

    Another approach is to do it as a web app and put a shortcut icon on their ipad. We’ve done that too, but that won’t get them featured in the app store, which is what they all really want!

  • None Given

    You’ve missed one important reason to have an app: simply to have a presence in the app store. It’s not acceptable when searches for “Foo Company” and get no results or, worse, retrieves “Competitor Company”. This is a strong motivation for wrapper apps – basically, an app that just opens a walled garden microsite. It’s not a good thing, but today it’s a fact of life.

  • trent reimer

    app that loads a mobile site?

  • Sub it out to some guy in India or Pakistan and multiply what he charges x 10.

  • Personally I’ll build an app which is backed by a web application in brief an app that only have a browser window to show the website.

  • Tv

    I would make a responsive site, add a shortcut to their home screen and shout: there’s your (web)app! :) And i can see their disappointed faces already because then they will shout back at me and say: But i can’t download it from an app store! Then what do you do? I’m a big fan of responsive webdesign, especially for the specs described above. Hell, i even see all native apps becoming web apps in the far future as browsers evolve and mobile networks gain speed. In my opinion it doesn’t make sense to develop the same application for so many different platforms and devices out there. It just doesn’t feel right. For me, the future is in my browser. But for now, alas, we’re stuck in the present. And in the end, you’ll end up with a native app to, so your client can dowload it from his app store, along with many others. In their opinion an app is only an app once you can dowload it from a store. What a pity. I long for the future. Tim.

    • Tv, you got it in one. As you’ve alluded to, half the reason a client will want an app is so that it’s in an appstore. There is also the branding value of an app – where a customer sees it on a daily basis each time they scroll through their app collections on their phone. But yes, I’ve been in that situation of: HERE’S YOUR (quietly) web APP!

  • Steve

    Ask them what they want on an app, then shoot them all down because of Apple’s restrictions: “This app is mostly Promotion, so Apple won’t accept it in their App Store.” This app has the same content as the web site, so Apple won’t accept it.” You get the drift.

  • Just call the responsive website “an app”. It’s semantics at the end of the day. Maybe even do the horrible thing of indicating to the user that they can save a shortcut to their home screen, so it even looks like an app!

  • Really good points. A lot of the time, companies think that they want native mobile apps, when in fact they would be better served with a mobile-optimized web presence. And explaining the difference can be a definite pain point.

    There are definitely times when a native mobile app is the answer, though. Your company might want an App Store/Google Play presence. Or you might want to make use of device functionality like the camera or GPS. Or perhaps they just want something to *feel* like a native app in terms of performance and UI chrome.

    This doesn’t have to be a long, or difficult, or expensive process though. I work for a company – One Month Apps ( – that specializes in getting these native apps built and published quickly.

    It’s a misconception that everything mobile needs to be a native app. But it’s also a misconception that creating these mobile apps needs to be a trying process.

  • EastCoast

    Part of the issue here is unfortunately how uneducated many developers are with regards to app store terms and conditions. Look how many people in the thread above have said something along the lines of ‘just build their web page into an app’ which as any experienced mobile dev knows, is plain wrong and also against apple’s t&c. While their are amateurs that give companies this kind of rubbish advice the problem will persist.

  • Scotty

    Not sure what companies you work for with this mentality, but in my experience, they are demanding responsive sites (because it’s a trend and the other guy already has it!). A big driver? They see metrics claiming more people go to the website on a mobile device and don’t download their free app from the store.

  • Mats Svensson

    Perhaps we could just start calling webpages “Install-free apps”?

  • Tim

    The problem with 95% of responsive sites is that they don’t let the user choose which version of the site to see. The developer says, if it’s a mobile device, give ’em this version. Well, I normally don’t want to see “that” version and I want the full site, but I am almost never given that choice.

    • Hi Tim,
      This is true, and is usually true of dedicated mobile sites as well. However it’s not usually just the developers who decide what you see. Most responsive projects we’ve worked on involve the client collaborating with us to define the best use cases for the mobile layout based on their audience. But that said, I’ve been on many sites where my needs as a mobile customer seem to have been completely overlooked.

  • I agree with Westley Knight :) Just build them a responsive site, show them to download an icon and call it an app! Most won’t know any different and once they can see the end result they might change their mind about needing an app anyhow. Often when just explaining things like this to a client they just don’t get it – they need to see it to understand what you mean. They will likely thank you for it later when they save money on updates!

  • There’s an app for that

  • florin

    why not building a hybrid app using Phonegap? you can still play around with responsive web design while the customers can find the app on Google Play, App Store etc… You can even make use of native like features from within the webpage. For me it sounds like the best option.

Get the latest in Mobile, once a week, for free.