Why you shouldn’t build an app

Apps are not the answer.

With all the choices you can make for engaging people through their mobile phones, apps should be considered a last resort. Why?

Asking people to install an app means friction.

  1. They want to do something;
  2. They see the download app page;
  3. Tap and go to the App Store page;
  4. Wait for the app to install;
  5. Have to login again.

At every step along the way you can lose people. Scratch that. At every step along the way you will lose people. Why?

The reason I hear most often is: so that you have your app on their phone and people can return easily. But do they?

Most people are not like you. Many of the people who read this will be tech early adopters, so it’s likely you use many apps and install them easily. But the typical US smartphone owner downloads ZERO apps per month (other estimates put it at 1.5 per month).


Most app use is concentrated on 5 apps. Can you be one of those apps and compete with the likes of Google and Facebook, who together controlled the 10 most popular apps in 2016?

Apps are expensive to develop and maintain, difficult to make quick adjustments due to submission review processes, and not as engaging as other options.

So what other options do you have?

If you think you can get people to install your app, it means you believe you already have their attention. Great.

So you have two things to worry about:

  1. Can the core functionality be achieved through mobile web?
  2. If yes, then the next question is: how do I keep people coming back?

And if your core functionality is “I want to be able to send push notifications” then there may still be better ways. In music, examples of core functionality that may be hard to work around are:

  • Music listening in background, eg. when the phone is in the pocket and you’re doing other stuff.
  • Functionality that’s available when the user is offline.

But I digress, because often those functions may be ‘nice to haves’ and may not be essential. Imagine if a venue has a site where you can check upcoming gigs and also listen to some music… Now a marketing manager there may say: “we absolutely need people to be able to listen to music in the background.” But you can achieve this more easily by offering a Spotify playlist.

Back to push notifications. Keep your eye on messaging apps, because they’re steadily becoming the new social networks and they’re notification-based.

In order to hold onto people’s attention, you may not need push notifications. You need habit. This requires consistency from your side and design thinking on how to construct a habit forming product that people don’t forget about.

You may also use reminders. You could collect email addresses or even phone numbers.

Artists’ newsletters have a 20–25% open rate. 90% of SMS messages are read within the first 3 minutes of receiving. Since starting MUSIC x TECH x FUTURE, I’ve had a handful of unsubscriptions, but that’s nothing compared to the number of uninstalls I would have had.

Still think building an app is a good idea?

  • Write down who your audience is. How do they use the web. Be realistic and don’t project your own tendencies. Call a bunch of your users if you have to.
  • Write down exactly what you want people to be able to do. Frame it as a user story: “I can find information about my favourite band’s upcoming gigs in my town”.
  • Rank your user stories. Then mark the ones that are essential.
  • Small secret: the ones that you didn’t mark as essential, you’ll probably never build.
  • Think of ways in which you can achieve the same end results, without building an app that users need to install. (I can help you with that)
  • Now look at whether introducing the friction of an app is actually the best way to do it. Carefully count the number of steps required for the user to complete their user story.

Choose whatever has the least friction and still accomplishes your goal.