Why You Shouldn't Build a Mobile App

Louis Antonopoulos

I’m a mobile app developer. But I’m also a consultant. Here at thoughtbot, we don’t just build beautiful things; we do our best to build the right things, at the right time, for the right reasons.

So let’s take a moment and imagine something together, or remember this experience if you’ve already had it:

There you are, proud of your online presence, spending whatever you spend on design and development, when an insidious idea creeps into your mind and takes over. Maybe it came from talking to your team. Maybe it came from reading tech news. Or maybe you were inspired by the latest update of your favorite app.

Whatever the source, now you’ve got it in your head: “You know what? We need a mobile app, too!”

Well, I’m here to tell you that unless you’ve really thought this through, you’re probably wrong. Believe me, I love mobile apps! I create them, and I spend a lot of time on my phone. And I want to share my observations so you don’t spend a ton of time and money building an app that doesn’t advance your business goals (and may even hurt them).

Let’s start with some challenges and the lessons they teach.

A cheap app damages your brand

Whenever I have to come up with an example of a cheap app that performs poorly, feels clunky, and frustrates the user every time they use it, one particular app comes to mind. I won’t name the company, but I think it’s important to note that they’re not just in the Fortune 500, but in the top 50. So it’s not like they didn’t have the money to do it right. But for whatever reason, they did not do it right. They did it horribly. And using their app is awful.

While it did not factor into my decision to leave their company and switch to a competitor, not having to use their terrible, terrible app ever again was a giant relief. I deleted it with joy from my phone. And now I open their competitor’s app with delight, because it is a delight to use.

If asked for recommendations, would that terrible app make me tell someone not to be their customer? No. But I would tell them in same breath about how bad that app was. That’s anti-marketing you don’t want and can’t afford.

Lesson: If you can’t or won’t spend the money to do it right, don’t build a mobile app.

Here’s the thing: I don’t know if the company decided to skimp on their mobile budget or if they actually spent millions of dollars but prioritized some internal group’s business needs or unvalidated requirements over usability.

Sublesson: Spending money is a necessary component of success, but it is not a guarantee of success.

P.S. If you work for a Fortune 50 company and have a sneaking suspicion that I’m talking about you, you should totally reach out to us. We can help.

A useless app doesn’t grow your brand

This one’s a little trickier. Let’s say you create an app, and while it is beautiful and easy to use, it’s also useless. That sounds harsh. What I mean is, the functions it provides are not ones that users need or will want to take on their phone.

What would an example of this be? I dunno, maybe you sell go-karts. And you create an amazing racing-themed app to buy your go-karts. And the animations are fluid, the design is on point, and when you use it, you kinda feel like you’re a race car driver. It makes you feel like buying a go-kart would be an awesome thing to do!

That’s success, right?

No. Because no one ever says, “I want to buy a go-kart!” and in the next breath says, “I sure hope there’s a mobile app for this so I can complete this transaction while I’m sitting on the train.”

Lesson: If you can’t come up with a compelling use case that screams, “You gotta do this on a phone!”, don’t build a mobile app.

The competition is fierce

The final question to answer before creating a mobile app is, “Who am I competing against?” The answer is not the companies that are in your product market. The answer is every other mobile app. Why? Because mobile app usage is a zero-sum game. If someone is in another app, they’re not in yours. So your competitors are Instagram. Facebook. YouTube. Whatever the hottest game is. Random Googling. Mail. Texts. Maps. Even the calendar app.

How many hours does the average user spend on their phone every day? Here’s a quick answer based on very light research a website I found: somewhere between 3 and 4 hours.

(This matches my own average use, so it must be true.)

Right. Competition. From the user’s perspective, when they pull out their personal dopamine assistant, they are likely looking to:

  • Engage in social media
  • Communicate with someone else
  • Do something entertaining like watch a movie or play a game
  • Kill time while waiting for something more important to happen, like their number being called at the DMV
  • Access something they need to get into a place, like a movie or concert ticket (if we ever get to do that again)
  • Complete a very specific known task, like checking a bank balance
  • Complete an unspecific, unknown task which will come to them when they see all the red bubbles on their home screen
  • Hold off the boredom monster for fifteen more minutes

That’s what you have to fight. If you’re not the reason the user is pulling out their phone, or if their subconscious doesn’t tell them, “You know what would be great to do while I’m in here? Open the [Your Great Company] app!”, then your app is never going to be opened, and eventually, it will get removed.

Lesson: If you can’t come with a rock-solid reason why a user would choose to open your app instead of something else, don’t build a mobile app.

The window to win hearts is tiny

I don’t have any numbers I can share here, so I can only speak from my experience and the usage reports I remember for projects I’ve worked on: people make unbelievably quick decisions about whether to keep an app on their phone or throw it onto the trash heap. The reasons range from the trivial (“I didn’t like the colors”) to the technical (“It crashed when I launched it”) to the temperamental (“I don’t get what it does ok thx bye” ).

Once a user has jettisoned your app, that’s most likely the end of the road. No amount of new feature announcements or fixes will bring them back: they’re GONE.

Lesson: If your plans don’t include an approach for winning over users quickly, don’t build a mobile app.

Fine. We won’t build a mobile app.

Whoa, there! That’s not the final lesson. Let’s summarize what we’ve got:

  1. A quality app will cost more than you might expect. Be prepared to spend some money, and commit to doing it right.
  2. An app will only get used if it does something truly useful. Validate your ideas before you start building. A Product Design Sprint can be a great way to achieve this!
  3. An app will only get used if users want to use it above all other apps. When doing research and asking for feedback from others, the most important question to ask is, “Would you open this app instead of doing literally anything else? Why? Why not?”

Final Lesson: Understand the challenges, question your assumptions vigilantly, and only build a mobile app if you can answer why you’re building it, how your customers will use it, and why they’ll want to launch it and love it.