04 Dec 2015

Mobile web or app: the role of research

When designing a new digital product or service to be used on mobile devices, a common question we are asked is whether it’s better to deploy it as a native app, such as those found in the Apple App Store or Google Play, or a mobile-optimised website.

There are factors to consider when assessing how appropriate each solution is. Business development and maintenance costs are undoubtedly going to influence the decision. But there are several other factors, dictated by the activities and preferences of the end user, which should also be considered. A Diary Study is one method you can use to find out what these are.

So what is a diary study?

A diary study is a research methodology that can help understand users’ behaviours over a period of time. Each diary study involves participants logging information around certain activities that they take part in, often over a period of one or two weeks. As an example, customers of a particular bank may be asked to log an entry in their diary whenever they engage in a money-related activity.

The format of a diary study is well-suited to capturing the context-dependent nature of mobile app or website usage. It allows us to observe two key things:

  • The change in activities for one participant over the specified time frame.
  • Trends or differences in activities between several participants in the specified time frame.

It is these changes, trends and differences that can point to user habits or attitudes that are directly relevant to deciding whether to build an app or a website.

Observing the change in activities for one participant

As with a personal diary or journal, entries in a diary study are largely based around two things; location and time. These attributes can be identified more reliably in a diary study than in lab-based research because the reflection and logging usually occurs closer to the event taking place. Both the location and time at which an app or website is used can highlight a diverse and subjective range of requirements for it.

Location can affect app or website usage and user performance because:

  • The need for features may vary from place to place. There may be a need for specific product features in certain circumstances. For example, the Amazon iPhone app allows users to scan the barcodes of real world items when out shopping, giving them the opportunity to add them to their Amazon basket or wish list. This is a feature that a mobile website is currently unable to offer.
  • Real world distractions may affect the type of tasks performed. People may not require app-specific features for use on the move if they are unable to concentrate on certain tasks.
  • Internet connectivity may be an issue at certain locations. Reliability of functions may be critical for certain applications. An app is more likely to dispel these kind of concerns for users as it can be launched without a connection but it may be unnecessary if usage only occurs in areas with a strong connection.
  • Different devices are taken to different locations. As an example, it may be necessary for a product to work on an iPad at the user’s home and on an Android phone at the user’s place of work. In this case, a single web based product may be a more viable option than developing multiple mobile apps.

Time can affect app or site usage and user performance because:

  • Users may require quick access. Mobile device users may be patient enough for a mobile website to load or they may need instant access to an app. Offline storage is available to mobile websites so content can be loaded more quickly, but this may be problematic or even impossible for large websites.
  • Background usage may be necessary. People may need to use the product in multiple short sessions, but may need to lock the device between each one.
  • Apps take time to discover and install. It may be that spontaneous or one-off tasks are more suited to a site than an app.
  • Users’ familiarity and confidence are likely to change. Apps installed on the phone may be more persistent or prominent to users and encourage them to use the app, even if they were unsuccessful to start with. A website could be discarded or forgotten more easily.

Where possible, it is important to gather additional information within each diary entry to offer explanation for each event. Looking at prompts for the activities and common follow-up steps, for example, allows us to establish detailed context around people’s usage of the app or site and their requirements for performing a particular task.

Observing trends or differences in activities between several participants

In addition to the factors above, which are related to the physical situation, there are likely to be findings that vary between participants in different cultures or different geographical regions. Diary studies can take into account the fact that the app or website is likely to have a different place or priority in each user’s life, depending on their personal goals and beliefs.

Cultural factors that may affect the app or website’s usage include:

  • Whether the benefit of the app makes it worth using out and about or whether users will put off tasks until they are alone or able to use another device (e.g. laptop)
  • The social acceptance of using a mobile device in certain situations whilst in the company of others
  • The social acceptance of enabling notifications and other app-specific features in situations where they may distract others
  • The likelihood of an app recording and sharing information about the user and what their views are on this
  • Different regions’ or societies’ uptake of a particular product and their expectations of similar products

Findings such as these will be raised in different ways by different people. Another benefit of diary studies is that they normally allow each participant to record their thoughts in an unstructured way, giving them the flexibility to elaborate on what they feel is important to them at the time.

Moving forward

It is often a good idea to follow up a diary study with one-to-one depth interviews with the same participants. This allows each person to reflect on the comments that they made in their diary and offer a more detailed explanation. Reactions and attitudes will have been formed from previous experiences and one-to-one depth interviews provide an opportunity to better understand how and why these preconceptions were formed.

In order to get the full benefit of diary study findings, it is useful to incorporate diary study research early on in the design process. As shown in Foolproof's Going Mobile study, the output from these projects can be used to create design principles, personas and other tools that can not only help to answer the app vs. mobile website question, but also to inform the product’s design and future developments.