What content belongs in a mobile application and when is a mobile (or responsive) website more appropriate? Five years after the App Store’s debut, this debate doesn’t seem any closer to a resolution.
Many people love the idea of their institution having an app because of the cultural cache it carries. But apps are expensive to build and maintain, and they’re not always the best solution for our users. When should educational institutions invest in an app?
The apps I use on my iPhone and iPad fall into these general categories:
- Social media apps
- Games (just a few!)
- Apps that fulfill a very specific need, such as finding a good restaurant, depositing a check or downloading a boarding pass
I don’t use apps to find general information or browse content without a specific goal in mind. If you’re considering an app that simply re-purposes content from your website or social media channels, then you’re better off building a responsive website.
When your app does solve a specific problem for users, then it’s a solid investment. For example, I use HoosBus almost everyday to get around the University of Virginia. This handy app uses GPS to detect my location and provides real-time bus arrival info for nearby bus stops. It also combines data from two different bus systems (University and city transit).
HoosBus makes the frustrating and repetitive task of catching the bus less painful—and users have responded. About 10,000 people have downloaded HoosBus and 2,000 people actively use the service. It’s worth noting that HoosBus wasn’t built by the University—it was created by a UVA alum at HappenApps who realized he could solve a problem for Charlottesville commuters with an app.
Your institution could also take a more light-hearted approach to mobile applications. Before UVA, I worked for William & Mary, where the College’s first mobile app was a game.
In 2010 the College’s new mascot, the Griffin, was announced to the campus community. Students (and Jon Stewart, a W&M alum) immediately pointed out that the Griffin was not wearing any pants—so our team developed an iOS and Android game called “Dress the Griffin.” This tongue-in-cheek app allowed users to dress the mascot in a variety of outfits and share their creations through social media. The app was downloaded more than 13,000 times and helped endear the new mascot to the W&M community.
The mobile app/mobile website debate will likely continue, but the last five years have taught us a few things. HoosBus and Dress the Griffin exemplify a larger truth: apps that solve specific problems or provide entertainment usually earn a spot on the home screen.
About the Author
Joel Pattison is the Director of Web Communications for the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce and a member of the edUi Executive Planning Team.