Creating responsive websites and native mobile applications for your church is a massive endeavor. If you decide to create a native application, I applaud you for your desire to jump into this market. It is not easy to determine the scope of your app, nor is it cheap to publish a native application to several markets. However, this article is targeted to those of you that have not yet jumped on this trend.
I wrote several articles that deal with the mobile web. Yet none directly tackled the pros and cons of making a native mobile app. I still believe that a good responsive mobile website can solve the bulk of your concerns. Yet I know that the majority of time spent on a mobile device is in an app and not a website. If you decide that a native app is what your church should create, get excited about the benefits. Also, plan for the drawbacks I will mention in this article.
Few forms of digital communication get higher view rates than text messages and push notifications. Push notifications are native messages built into your mobile device’s operating system. They alert users to an important message from your application. Your users will greatly appreciate push notifications if they are meaningful, purposeful, and timely.
One of the biggest drawbacks of most mobile apps is data input. One kind of data input that is especially annoying for websites is logins and passwords. Your app does not rely on website cookies and browser cache to remember identities. Some areas of your app may pose a security risk (i.e. donations). Use a personal identification number (PIN) instead of a long password. Signing up for events, sending donations, and communicating will be easier because of identity persistence.
Access to functionality such as the camera and GPS coordinates is easier with a native application. The ease of installation and access via a marketplace (iTunes, Google Play, etc.) makes getting your app on a phone easier than getting someone on your website. Plus there are many user interface designs that will feel more natural in a native app.
There are thousands of mobile devices on the market today. Android devices represent a massive percentage of these. Yet, even the iOS market is showing fragmentation with the release of multiple capabilities and sizes within iPhone generations. Granted your web app may not require the latest 3D graphics. But understanding your market’s screen resolutions will help determine layout and size restrictions.
As hardware changes, operating systems move along as well. The version of the device coupled with the version of the OS can have massive impacts on the usability of your app. Your app may target a global mission effort. Most likely that market will not have the latest versions of mobile devices.
Hopefully, your website has frequent updates. You can often pull that content into an app. But as hardware and software versions change, so will your app need to. This puts another set of constraints around your team. You already need to curate content updates and maintain a social media presence. Now the release dates of iOS and Android updates impact your workload.
The economics of supply and demand dictate that (for now) mobile apps will be more expensive to create than mobile-friendly websites. There are fewer people that know how to create and maintain them. Plus, there are fewer established patterns for how they should work. So even if you have funding, you may not know exactly what to create. Every design change you discover requires additional money to fix.
One consideration for applications is the time it takes to create it. Most app marketplaces also have approval processes. This extra time to get your app out to your audience may have unforeseen impacts. Be sure to account for this in your release
The audience you want to reach and the way you desire reach them will drive if you develop a native application. As you can see, there are both advantages and disadvantages. Weigh them to see if your church will fully enjoy the benefits and can handle the drawbacks. Some of you will decide to pass on an app and focus on a responsive website. Many large businesses are going this route, so do not feel like you are skimping. Carefully and prayerfully consider all your options and move your church forward for the glory of God.
Note: This podcast was partly inspired by Nate Schutta’s talk “Choosing Which Mobile Experience to Build“
Note: Updated and revised on Sep 21, 2018