To Build or Not Build an App: Should It Be a Question for Your Nonprofit?

Native AppsFor this month’s Connect theme, a number of speakers are previewing the great breakout sessions they are preparing for the 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference in Austin, TX March 4-6. Following is a preview of one of over 100 breakout sessions.

If you work for a nonprofit and are thinking about building an app, you’re already on the right track in many ways: There are many “mobile first” evangelists who believe that the mobile user should be the first and main target when creating any digital experience, in spite of potential drawbacks and missed testing opportunities.

Even though 58 percent of American adults own a smartphone, it is important to consider the purpose of a proposed app before building it. Here are my three considerations before deciding to build an app.

Think about the (mobile) user

Candy Crush I wrote in a mobile marketing post how important it is to have the right mindset and use case before creating any digital experience (mobile apps included). Just because there is an app for everything doesn’t mean there should be. Mobile user scenarios fit into any of the categories below:

  • Repetitive now: these users seek recurring, real-time information. Think: weather apps, checking your email, following stock quotes, catching up on the news.
  • Bored now: users look for a distraction or entertainment to pass the time. Think: podcasts and mobile games, like Candy Crush.
  • Urgent now: these users need reliable, time- or location-sensitive information, and they need to make a snap decision. Think: looking up movie times at a theater or calling a tow truck.

These scenarios are not mutually exclusive — addictive games like Candy Crush satisfy both “repetitive now” and “bored now” scenarios, while a weather app can fulfill “repetitive now” and “urgent now” needs. If the app you’d like to build doesn’t fit these mobile use-case scenarios, it might not need to be an app.

Does it have to be an “app?” (And what kind of app are we talking about?)

Aside from making sure your app fits into any of the mobile user scenarios above, you need to consider what kind of app you should create (if you should create one at all).

Different “app” types

When considering an app build, most people immediately think of native apps (something that you download from an app store, that lives on your phone, and works offline). Native apps can access a mobile phone’s features. Think of Instagram’s app: you can take photos with your smartphone, edit, and post them. If you load your feed while you have service, you can also scroll through photos without Internet access. Unicef Tap Project Web App

However, if the app you’d like to create won’t use a phone’s native features, it may not have to be a native app. Other options for mobile “apps” include mobile web apps and hybrid apps.

Mobile web apps are websites that look and feel like native apps, but aren’t downloaded to your phone and use a smartphone’s features. Unicef’s Tap Project is a good example of a web app: it would not be a useful native app because it doesn’t fulfill a user’s need now. However, it provides an excellent interactive experience that can be promoted online to generate awareness around their goal.

Hybrid apps, on the other hand, are basically where native apps and web apps meet: They are downloadable in the app store, but are essentially a browser embedded into the app. These tend to be better suited for organizations that want a presence in the app store and don’t need to change the structure of what’s provided on their app from their site.

Running lean? Don’t forget your budget

While apps seem like a cool way to build a modern tool for your organization, it may not be a wise move, especially if you’re on a lean model. Once you consider the costs to build and then market, apps become fairly costly (this Mashable article estimates that building an app costs a bare minimum of $10,000 for one platform). Additional considerations then are:

  1. Does the app need to be built for more than one platform (e.g. iOS and Android)?
  2. Are you prepared to release necessary updates when new updates are made to your users’ devices (e.g. the next iOS)?
  3. Once it’s built, do you have the budget to promote and market the app so that users actually find and download it?

My general rule of thumb is, if you don’t need to build a native or hybrid app, don’t: there are other ways you can make effective, influential mobile experiences that will probably be better for your organization’s goal and budget. You can always decide to build a responsive site or fake an app with a (really cool) mobile web app like Unicef did (video link).

Zee Hoffmann Jones
Content Producer/Web Developer
Ad Council
Zee Hoffmann Jones is a Content Producer and Web Developer on the Ad Council’s Digital team. Before joining the Ad Council, Zee worked in digital communications at Power Poetry, VolunteerMatch, DonorsChoose and Planned Parenthood. She earned her B.A. in French Studies and Psychology from Smith College, and currently resides in Brooklyn.