There's an interesting discussion going on this morning on Fred Wilson's A VC blog in a post called Rethinking Mobile First. I'd encourage you to read the entire post AND the comments, but here's a short recap, along with my thoughts.
Fred's post is in response to a post by Origami Labs and Everyme co-founder Vibhu Norby questioning whether mobile is the right platform for many new app developers to focus on and why Origami is pivoting from mobile first to web first.
Only a handful of apps have succeeded mobile-first: Instagram, Tango, Shazam, maybe 2 or 3 others
The challenge, as he notes, is that the conversion process from download through true engagement eliminates most users. In the case of Everyme:
At best, we retain 5% of users through the entire onboarding process. Attempts to fix it have raised it only nominally. We are not alone on that count even amongst apps with much better onboarding and many more app versions than our own.
In his response, Fred notes that despite the fact that it's hard, it's necessary:
But just because something is hard doesn't mean you shouldn't try to do it. I am convinced the next set of large and valuable consumer facing services will be built with mobile as the primary user interface. You can see it in the success of Uber and Etsy this holiday season. That's where your users are most of the time. And if you don't design your products and services for what is rapidly becoming the dominant UI, you will not maximize the success of your business in the long run.
I tend to agree with Fred on this one. Mobile IS difficult. It's hard to get your app noticed in the first place, hard to get users to download it and even harder to get them to return to it a second, third and fourth time. But that's not altogether different than the web experience. In the early days of the web, people bookmarked sites all the time. I had hundreds of bookmarks in my Netscape bookmark manager. Of those hundreds of bookmarks there were even a dozen or more than I returned to frequently, but most just sat in the list, never to be clicked again.
Your platform is not the biggest factor in user engagement. Your application is. Are you providing a compelling experience that users rely upon in their daily life? If so, I'm convinced you can deliver that experience on any platform. That's not to say that the experience won't differ on the mobile platform than on the desktop, but if you deliver value, users will return.
That said, the platform is key in how users interact with your app. Does your onboarding process require users to type a lot? That's fine on the web, less so on tablets and a real challenge on smartphones. Does your business model depend on running tons of ads on every page? Again, that may be fine on the desktop (though I could argue otherwise), less so on mobile devices.
The key, of course, is understanding what you are enabling users to do, then optimizing your offering (whether a native app, a mobile web app or a web page) to deliver that capability as simply as possible. Understanding your audience is critical. Are you aiming for smartphones or tablets? Do you expect a lean forward or a lean back experience?
And mobile first doesn't have to mean app-first. For publishers, mobile first can simply be rethinking your content so that it thrives in a mobile and/or tablet experience. That may mean creating shorter articles with more images and video content. If you build web pages that look great on tablets, they'll probably serve you well on the desktop. The reverse is rarely the case.
So, is mobile development easy? Not at all. Is there a simple path to success? No. But does that suggest that mobile-first is not the right strategy? No. Your customers are shifting more of their time to tablets and mobile devices. Mary Meeker's latest study shows that 29% of American adults currently own a tablet or eReader. And it's safe to say that after this holiday season, that number will probably be more like 33%. Is that a trend that you're willing to bet against?
Success will come to those publishers and developers who understand their audience and delight them with engaging products on the platforms where they are increasingly spending their time.