Why are companies so eager for you to use their app?
February 14, 2019 5:26 PM   Subscribe

Why do companies try so hard to get you to use their app instead of their mobile website? E.g. Reddit, Yelp. Detailed responses and industry experience welcome...

My latest / most prominent experience is with Reddit and Yelp, but this seems to be true of a lot of companies. They will plaster their mobile website with entreaties for you to use the app, or even (in the case of Yelp) block you from using the full website in favor of demanding that you download the app.

Why, exactly? What does their app get them that the mobile website (with all its personal tracking, etc.) does not? If anything it seems to me that users should be MORE able to manage their privacy with the mobile app - at least in theory you get to shut down permissions on location tracking, contact list access, etc., and again in theory each app is sandboxed so like you couldn't cross-track between, e.g., Yelp and Facebook like you could with a website cookie.

What am I missing? I was at one time a web developer, though obviously I'm ready to believe I'm naive in this context, so technical or otherwise complex explanations are welcome. Assume that I'm already very cynical - there is not a lot of value to answers like "you know they're just going to find a way to exploit you." I want to know HOW. Thanks!
posted by Joey Buttafoucault to Computers & Internet (34 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's virtually impossible to adblock in apps.

They can get better, more granular metrics through apps, e.g. they can use time spent in app vs session times on browsers.

Using an app lets them ask for permission to access all kinds of areas on your phone (which 99% of people just blithely accept), this in turn lets them profile you much better by getting more information (including tracking browser use).

It can be easier to develop for an app, and allows more flexibility with layout and design. Apps can also access phone functions directly and in a more integrated way. Apps can also preload content, ping servers etc in a way that websites generally can't. There is this user experience aspect to it as well.
posted by smoke at 5:34 PM on February 14 [33 favorites]


“Yelp wants to access your Contacts. Accept?”
“Yelp wants to access your microphone. Accept?”
“Yelp wants to access your location. Accept?”
posted by spacewrench at 5:41 PM on February 14 [13 favorites]


Analytics, you’re not restricted to what the browser APIs there are. Ad Blocking is less of a concern, a very small minority of users use it.

Also as stated above there’s better UX natively, but really it comes to more thorough
tracking and gathering user data.
posted by geoff. at 5:41 PM on February 14 [3 favorites]


Native mobile apps often offer a way better user experience than a mobile website or web app.
posted by Hermione Granger at 5:45 PM on February 14 [1 favorite]


You never have to develop for IE10 in an app.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 5:48 PM on February 14 [13 favorites]


Thanks for the answers so far. To make sure I'm understanding:

Using an app lets them ask for permission to access all kinds of areas on your phone (which 99% of people just blithely accept)

Does this mean that there is a meaningful possibility to use the app in a more privacy-secure way if you do in fact deny all the permissions and keep it locked down? Or does that end up being illusory somehow, e.g. by constant links that call out to the mobile browser?

Also as stated above there’s better UX natively

Potentially yes, but then why are so many apps essentially just a skin on the mobile website? Seems like they're leaving a lot on the table there in terms of UX.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 5:56 PM on February 14


Better user experience.
posted by JamesBay at 6:06 PM on February 14 [2 favorites]


An app is a lot "stickier" in terms of getting the user to use it regularly.

In a browser, leaving the company's site is a click or search away, never to return.

In an app, you have to leave the app to do your searching, and then the app stays on your phone so you're reminded of it to use again.
posted by meowzilla at 6:12 PM on February 14 [5 favorites]


Once you've installed an app you're vastly more likely to keep using it regularly. If it's just another website you may eventually forget about it, but if you're seeing their logo every time you glance at your phone, that's about seventeen thousand daily opportunities for you to think to tap on it.
posted by ook at 6:13 PM on February 14 [6 favorites]


"Does this mean that there is a meaningful possibility to use the app in a more privacy-secure way if you do in fact deny all the permissions and keep it locked down? Or does that end up being illusory somehow, e.g. by constant links that call out to the mobile browser?"

I think you've nailed it, in your own answer to your question. You get to choose whether to trust the app when it says it's not peeking at your stuff.

(My opinion is distinctly non-technical and spoken from ignorance of how to actually code an app, and thus, largely cynical.)
posted by qurlyjoe at 6:20 PM on February 14


Potentially yes, but then why are so many apps essentially just a skin on the mobile website? Seems like they're leaving a lot on the table there in terms of UX.

Those aren't native apps. Those are container apps, meaning you're viewing the mobile website inside a native container that usually controls a small amount of navigation and such. Those are extremely cheap to make and UX suffers because of it.
posted by Hermione Granger at 6:21 PM on February 14 [6 favorites]


I love native apps when they are good. They can provide a much better experience than the website.

The downside is privacy, and ability to suck on your battery when they are in the background spying on you.

Just exposing the data in your contact list is incredibly invasive. Your contact list has who you buy illegal drugs from, who you fuck, what doctors you see (which is a whole rabbit hole of its own), whether your social circle is rich or poor or subversive or transgressive in some way. It's a huge privacy leak.

Apps can track your location. From that they can work out where you work, where you sleep, who you sleep with, whether you are interviewing at other companies, if you hang out in bars getting drunk a lot, if you like going to gay bath houses or bondage clubs or on prison visits or to protests.

Even a lazy one person app developer can be leaking all your info to companies with the time to analyse it, just because they include mutiple dodgy ad/spyware libraries in their app to earn money.
posted by w0mbat at 6:29 PM on February 14 [11 favorites]


Once you've installed an app you're vastly more likely to keep using it regularly. If it's just another website you may eventually forget about it, but if you're seeing their logo every time you glance at your phone, that's about seventeen thousand daily opportunities for you to think to tap on it.

To this point, having your app be on the first screen of someone's phone is gold in terms of usage.

Getting you to install the app also opens the possibility of push notifications.

This isn't so relevant to your examples of Yelp and Reddit, but, broadly speaking, getting people to buy things on mobile is hard. Getting someone to install your app and if your app has halfway decent UX gets you a long way vs a mobile website where it's generally even harder to buy stuff and where it's easy to comparison shop on someone else's rubbish mobile site.
posted by hoyland at 6:32 PM on February 14 [4 favorites]


> Does this mean that there is a meaningful possibility to use the app in a more privacy-secure way


Sometimes. iOS and Android are differently granular when it comes to locking down permissions, and so sometimes you have to enable more permissions than you want in order to get function. Android, for example, has an all-or-nothing permission for an app to read/write/store files on your phone. Apps don't have root access natively, but they can look at your files once you give them permission to store a settings file. And the app might decide not to function usefully without your permission.

> Potentially yes, but then why are so many apps essentially just a skin on the mobile website?

Nobody said that everyone's putting in the effort. A lot of them are exactly that, but they don't have to worry about which of the five dozen web browsers you're using
posted by Sunburnt at 6:33 PM on February 14 [1 favorite]


I do analytics for a company that does this. Retention is so much higher on the app. We've shown over and over that if we can get someone into the app, they come back more and longer. We've done enough A/B testing and stuff to know we have the causality right on that. For us at least it's not really tracking - I actually prefer our web data to our app data - but the retention difference is really what matters.
posted by brainmouse at 6:59 PM on February 14 [13 favorites]


In the case of Yelp and other things like it, knowing where you are is huge, both in practical terms (restaurants near me open now), and creepy panopticon terms (knowing when a well-timed push notification could result in revenue). The former scenario is to your benefit so you leave location services on; the latter is the apex of late capitalism. Neither will work unless you agree to both.

Otherwise there’s just the general “stickiness” of apps, which get you to come back more often than bookmarks do.
posted by fedward at 7:01 PM on February 14 [1 favorite]


Cynically, a lot of this is that product managers and decision-makers at tech companies were sold that "apps are the best user experience/create the highest conversion rate for our product." So they invested in hiring engineers to build mobile apps instead of investing in reasonable mobile web experiences. There's a ton of conflation of causation/correlation happening here. I mean, yeah, retention is better on an app, but you've already got highly engaged people if you've got them willing to download the app, so...?
There are legitimately some things that are easier to do in an app vs a website, certainly. But not nearly enough to account for the number of pointless apps out there.
posted by ch1x0r at 7:08 PM on February 14 [7 favorites]


I don’t doubt that app users are more likely to use it often, but I think about all the times something has wanted me to install an app and I’ve decided against it. There’s a friction there and I’m more likely to wander away than download some app unless they give me a compelling reason to use the app.
posted by advicepig at 7:19 PM on February 14 [2 favorites]


Even iOS apps can have hidden privacy invasions: Apple tells app developers to disclose or remove screen recording code. I tossed the Facebook app a while ago and access FB with a browser even though it's a really (deliberately?) shitty user experience because who knows what the app is up to.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 8:52 PM on February 14


if we can get someone into the app, they come back more

Yeah, but that's a significant 'if'. You have no way of measuring the number of people who would try a web site, but are put off by being required to install an app.

Apps are also kind of a privacy/security nightmare. You _can't_ generally just say yes to one permission request and no to another permission request; it's all or nothing. Most people don't even question it, and if you do question it, what are you going to do? It feels like you have no power. So, most apps just have all the permissions: read your contacts, send whatever info back, access storage, everything. Why would you, as an app developer, exercise any restraint?

I think people are going to realize the scope of this problem soon.
posted by amtho at 9:46 PM on February 14 [1 favorite]


You have no way of measuring the number of people who would try a web site, but are put off by being required to install an app.

What? Of course I do. Our site is not app only, so I suppose this might be different for app-only products, but this is what A/B testing is: we cohort our web audience, we give some of them "download the app!" prompts and some of them no prompts, and we measure web activity, app downloads, and app activity from those cohorts. Do we lose some people because of the prompt? Maybe! Do we gain a lot more than we lose? Absolutely no question.
posted by brainmouse at 11:07 PM on February 14 [7 favorites]


All these answers are good but from my experience it’s also common for a company to build an app because they feel like they “need an app” with no real idea why. Then once they spent a lot of money building an app (either through a third party or they hire an app team of... two) they feel they need to cajole their customers to “download our new app!!!” because they spent all this money and no one is using it?! This is usually when they call my agency to ask if we can improve their app design and then during the briefing call I whisper to my co-workers “wait, why the hell do they have an app?” But we tell the potential client Of Course we can make your app more beautiful because yeah sure that’s what the problem is.
posted by like_neon at 11:52 PM on February 14 [3 favorites]


Many apps have been little more than really (really) expensive bookmarks but I think the tide is turning in favor of progressive web apps - if you'd like a really good overview of the good and bad of apps and pwas, Jason Grigsby's book is excellent.
posted by humph at 1:27 AM on February 15


Once you've installed an app you're vastly more likely to keep using it regularly.

This is the answer (more specifically: this is definitely the theory, but in general is also the practice). I think the privacy thing is a red herring. (Honestly, outside of ad platforms, 99% of companies aren't doing a great deal beyond geolocation).

The Reddit mobile site works great, and the way it pleads for me to install the app annoys me every time, and I always wonder what their mobile developers must think about it. Having said that, I bet they have strong metrics that say that people who install their app show stronger engagement than those who don't.

Anecdotally, as a developer for a site that works well on mobile, we get a constant drip of requests (internal and external) for us to have an app. Saying "you can save us to your phone's homepage! If we did have an app, we'd pretty much just use throw WKWebView in front of the site!" doesn't really work for those people.
posted by Hartster at 1:55 AM on February 15 [1 favorite]


I suspect there is also advertising value in having your corporate logo persistently visible on millions of users’ home screens.

Of course it also reminds me how much I hate whatever company it is. Hi Yelp.
posted by spitbull at 3:52 AM on February 15 [1 favorite]


I tossed the Facebook app a while ago and access FB with a browser even though it's a really (deliberately?) shitty user experience because who knows what the app is up to.

The Facebook mobile site is a very deliberately horrible experience. I suspect it's purposely that way to push you into using the app. FB now also blocks mobile users from accessing the desktop site via a browser. You used to be able to force the desktop site to load, but that doesn't work anymore. If they sniff you're using a mobile browser, you're going to get the POC mobile site no matter what your preference is. So, now I simply never go to FB when I'm mobile.

FB desperately wants you to use their app, and they don't seem to care how much they inconvenience you to get you to do so. It's really apparent that their goal isn't so much getting you to actually use Facebook as it is to get you to have a piece of dedicated FB software on your mobile device, and (hopefully) you allowing it to access whatever data FB actually desires.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:31 AM on February 15 [1 favorite]


I'm also to access the browser version of fb here: https://www.facebook.com/home.php?m2w which I do when someone sends me a message on FB, because there's no way in hell I'm downloading their messenger app.

Of all the sites, it's almost hard for me to believe Yelp is even measuring engagement. Whenever I look for reviews, Yelp comes up in search results, I click once but want that only lets you see a few lines of text on the mobile site, any further clicks lead to a 'open in Yelp app!' block. Which I don't, and never will. As a result I almost never use Yelp anymore. I can't believe they haven't lost a ton of users the same way.
posted by Dashy at 6:21 AM on February 15 [2 favorites]


Whenever I hear things like "the user experience can be optimized to leverage the maximization of synergystic potential upside etc." I get the feeling someone is pissing on me and telling me it's raining.

There are a nearly infinite number of tracking libraries you can include in an app that will yield fractional cents per user interaction. There was an interesting episode on Reply All about this recently called "Robocall: Bang Bang" looking at "how the hell do robocallers know what city I'm visiting?" Their proposal: because people are suckers for free apps.

Do the bigger companies do this too? Unknown, but not unbelievable. If you're not the customer, you're the product. In the twenty-first century, you are frequently both.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 8:45 AM on February 15


Does this mean that there is a meaningful possibility to use the app in a more privacy-secure way if you do in fact deny all the permissions and keep it locked down? Or does that end up being illusory somehow, e.g. by constant links that call out to the mobile browser?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Most of the time the app "needs" the expanded permissions to actually work, and therefore you either accept or you can't use the app. For this reason as you'd probably expect, most people just accept the permissions.
posted by ryanbryan at 9:10 AM on February 15


Of all the sites, it's almost hard for me to believe Yelp is even measuring engagement. Whenever I look for reviews, Yelp comes up in search results, I click once but want that only lets you see a few lines of text on the mobile site, any further clicks lead to a 'open in Yelp app!' block. Which I don't, and never will. As a result I almost never use Yelp anymore. I can't believe they haven't lost a ton of users the same way.

Those of you who are Tech Savvy Misanthropes about stuff like this really overestimate what % of users act like you do. You are the vast minority. This came up in the marketing thread recently too where people were like "I actively avoid products that advertise and therefore advertising doesn't work!" This stuff DOES work. They have really smart professionals whose literal job it is to check if this stuff works. Many of whom have advanced degrees! And understand the difference between correlation and causation! Do they lose a few people who probably had a really high bounce rate anyway? Yes! But do the vast majority of people actually download the app and then use their product a lot more? Yes! The people doing this are not dumb idiots that you are smarter than - they are people with more information than you who understand that most people are not like you. I mean this is really simple stuff to test - when we A/B tested changing our "register now!" button on our site to go to the app download page instead of a registration page on the site, conversion rate went UP significantly even with the extra step of having to download (and yes! we can track this and know where these people came from - there are literal industries built around this stuff!). We're not guessing and we're not wrong, even if we lose some crankypants who think they've outsmarted us.
posted by brainmouse at 10:16 AM on February 15 [5 favorites]


As an aside, you can interact with the full yelp site on mobile, at least in Chrome, by going into the menu and checking Desktop Site.
posted by ApathyGirl at 11:49 AM on February 15


As a programmer, you'd way prefer to create an app. Developing a browser-based application has many more complications, like having to allow for different browsers. though modern tools often convert them into limitations. So I think many companies think the user will get a better experience on the app and therefore use it more.
posted by SemiSalt at 1:51 PM on February 15


What about third party apps, like Narwhal for Reddit? Are they doing the same thing?
posted by lhauser at 9:26 PM on February 15


i would argue strongly that the user experience of an app is just as likely to be much worse than the user experience of a site, and you also lose significant privacy protections in exchange for it. to tie this back to your question of why do companies try so hard to herd you into their app? why do companies do anything?

it's not for your benefit, you can rest assured.
posted by lescour at 10:30 PM on February 15 [2 favorites]


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