Phoning It In

There’s a mobile phone application (colloquially known as an app) for just about everything these days. As smartphones continue to grow in popularity, it’s only natural that nonprofits would want to create an app of their own. But according to experts in the field, that’s not necessarily the best route to go.

One of the main questions organizations face when deciding to go mobile is which device to target. A new Kantar World Panel survey revealed that while Android devices remain on top in the United States in terms of sales, Apple made up a large amount of ground compared to the previous year. Specifically, Apple now makes up 43.4 percent of the smartphone market for the three months to July 2013, compared to 35.6 percent for the same period last year. Android, on the other hand is at 51.1 percent, down from 58.7 percent last year. The Windows powered phone is at 3.5 percent and Blackberry is at 1.2 percent, according to the report. It listed 0.8 percent as “other” without explanation.

Despite this drop, Android is still the clear winner in the U.S. in terms of market share. However, Marnie Webb, CEO of Caravan Studios, a division of TechSoup Global, said that popularity should not be the determining factor for nonprofits when targeting mobile users.

“It’s more than picking the phone with the biggest market share,” said Webb, who added that maintaining the app should be the biggest determining factor when choosing the device for which to develop. She said that organizations should consider how much it would cost on each platform to implement new enhancements, and general maintenance/bug fixes.

“A new release can be triggered because new features have been added or bug fixes have been added,” explained Webb. “But it can also be driven because a phone platform upgrades and the app needs to be changed to continue to work or use the new upgrade features.”

As Webb describes it, building a mobile app is not close to being the most cost effective route. She suggested using HTML5, a website development tool, to develop a website and using an Adobe program called PhoneGap which creates a wrapper around HTML5 so that it can function like a native app. This product is most useful, she said, if the design you have in mind doesn’t require the motion-sensing featured that smartphones have (i.e., you don’t need the user to have to tilt the phone to accomplish certain things).

“If your site doesn’t need motion-sensitive features, you can use HTML5 and not worry about what phone they have,” explained Webb.

Using HTML5 is also advantageous because you wouldn’t have to maintain it on multiple platforms, which you would need to do if you developed an app for the different smartphone operating systems.

Amy Sample Ward, CEO at Portland, Ore.-based Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN), agreed that organizations should look to “mobile friendly” websites, landing pages, and forms rather than building apps. Ward said this is ideal because it wouldn’t “matter what OS or even what device (phone or tablet)” people use.

“What nonprofits shouldn’t do, and a lot do, is build a mobile app unless there are unusual circumstances,” said Laura Quinn, executive director of Idealware in Portland, Maine. “You will need an audience that desperately wants one for it to be successful.”

This point was driven home in a 2012 case study by Idealware, which looked at several nonprofits considering going mobile. One of these organizations was Little Rock, Ark.-based Heifer International. When “going mobile” was just starting to become popular in 2010, the organization with a staff of 1,000 decided to jump on the bandwagon and develop an app for the iPhone. The development cost was $4,000 and around 30 hours of staff time, much of that going into preparing content and wireframes for the app, providing users information about the organization and a donate button connected to its website.

Heifer eventually realized that the mobile application development wasn’t the correct route for the organization, both in terms of mission and price. Harper Grubbs, Heifer’s director of digital engagement, explained that in the crowded world of mobile apps, it was difficult to get supporters to download the application. Thus, Heifer switched the resources to a mobile website.

“It came down to the fact that we would have to create an app for multiple platforms and their various versions. It presented a challenge in terms of what features you can put into it,” said Grubbs, who added that they “wanted one singular platform.”

The results were overwhelmingly positive for Heifer. “We immediately saw an uptick in people visiting our site from mobile devices, including a big increase in donations from mobile devices,” said Grubbs, citing a ten-fold increase in visits over the previous year.

A year after the case study, Heifer has released a re-designed version of their mobile site. Grubbs explained that the original design was merely a “scaled down” version of their website, with the new version offering much more opportunities for user engagement. It was also designed to accommodate all mobile platforms, with the site adjusting to the size of your smartphone’s screen.

Quinn said that one advantage of an app compared to a mobile-optimized website is that you don’t necessarily have to be online to access it. This can be useful if one of your supporters wants to catch up on the latest news at your organization without using their phone’s data plan.

A mobile site is important because it ultimately comes down to visuals. “When it comes to smartphones, your website won’t show up well on their phone,” explained Quinn. She said users would have to constantly zoom into areas of the site they want to explore, though this will not be as much of a problem for larger mobile devices such as tablets.

If a nonprofit is determined to build an app, NTEN’s Ward said IT staff should do ample research before starting. “If they want to build an app and have done their research to determine it is going to provide value to the community and is something that is worth the investment, there is plenty of data available about who is using which OS and that data should be compared against your community make up,” she said.

Ward also mentioned that the most successful nonprofit apps are compatible with both Android and Apple, so that should also be a consideration.

Brad Kopecky, director of operations at Headway, a mental health provider in South Richfield, Minn., said that he prefers to use apps. “I know the program is designed to run on the platform it is installed on and that its performance expectations also fit the device,” he explained.

When asked which device organizations should target when making an app, Kopecky said that if you don’t have the budget to develop for all three platforms, Android is the logical choice based on its current popularity.

“[Android’s] market share continues to climb and while iPhone users are fanatically loyal, their ranks are not increasing at anywhere near the pace of the Androids,” said Kopecky.

Ultimately, though, Headway has gone the route of the mobile website. Kopecky said the vendor was chosen in part because of the web functionality of the solution and its accessibility on smart phones and tablets. While the vendor initially considered creating a mobile app, he said they eventually turned their attention towards making sure the web portal worked across a variety of devices and bandwidths.

“The feature set is not as cool from a GUI (graphical user interface) standpoint and it does not have a lot of bells and whistles,” said Kopecky of the mobile site. “On the plus side, it runs well on my four-year-old smartphone, on our tablets, and obviously on any of our workstations.”

Ultimately, organizations need to take a close look at the percentage of visits to their website that come from mobile devices. For Heifer International, that percentage was in double-digits. If your nonprofit has numbers anywhere close to those numbers, Quinn said that it might be time to start thinking about a mobile website or app.  NPT