When my company, Content Pilot, last conducted the AmLaw 100 Websites: Ten Foundational Best Practices research in Q2-3 2010, there were only four of the country's largest law firms that had mobile apps. A few more had mobile websites, which were typically poorly designed, bare-bones renditions of their big site. (Learn more about the Ten Foundational Best Practices by keyword searching on this blog.)
We will conduct the research again this summer, and I expect we'll see more of both. (More on our upcoming research study and the findings about mobility and the other Foundational Best Practices later.)
"Mobile apps currently have better usability than mobile sites, but forthcoming changes will eventually make a mobile site the superior strategy."
On its face, this is great news for law firms, which don't have the multi-million dollar Internet marketing budgets like major corporations. The skeletal apps that we first saw from law firms had budgets estimated at $30,000 - 75,000. I wonder if those firms think they got their money's worth - other than being among the first to bring "cool" to market. As app development and expectations for user experience have matured, that cost is going higher and higher. Remember, one app doesn't fit all devices - if you want your app to reach everyone, you need to design it for iPhones, Androids, BlackBerrys, and all forms of tablets (iPad, Kindle Fire, Samsung, etc.).
If your law firm has an actual application that it wants to push to buyers of legal services, design an app. If you simply want visitors to have a great experience with your website on a mobile device, then design a highly usable mobile website.
Nielsen says that today, apps perform better in usability testing:
"As of this writing, there's no contest: ship mobile apps if you can afford it. Our usability studies with mobile devices clearly show that users perform better with apps than with mobile sites. (Mobile sites have higher measured usability than desktop sites when used on a phone, but mobile apps score even higher.)
The empirical data is really all you need to know. It's a fact that apps beat mobile sites in testing."
Nielsen continues though, and says:
"In the future, the cost-benefit tradeoff for apps vs. mobile sites will change.
Although I just said that computers will become 100 times more powerful, this doesn't necessarily mean that the iPhone 14 will be 100 times faster than the iPhone 4S. It's more likely that hardware advances will be split between speed and other mobile priorities, especially battery lifetime. So, a future phone might be only 10 times faster (but will be thinner, lighter, and able to run much longer between charges), whereas download times will be cut by a factor 57.
The expense of mobile apps will increase because there will be more platforms to develop for. At a minimum, you'll have to support Android, iOS, and Windows Phone. Furthermore, many of these platforms will likely fork into multiple subplatforms that require different apps for a decent user experience."
Jakob Nielsen advocates up to three mobile websites for optimal usability - one each for Smart Phones, mid-sized tablets and for larger tablets.
"It's only realistic to expect even further UI diversity in the future. This will make it extremely expensive to ship mobile apps.
In contrast, mobile sites will retain some cross-platform capabilities, so you won't need as many different designs. High-end sites will need 3 mobile designs to target phones, mid-sized tablets (like Kindle Fire), and big tablets. Using ideas like responsive design will let you adapt each of these site versions to a range of screen sizes and capabilities. The same basic UI design will work for both a 6.8-inch tablet and a 7.5-inch tablet if you simply shrink or stretch things a bit. (A 5-inch phone would require a different design, with fewer features and abbreviated content.)"
So - today, my advice to law firms that want to optimize access of their websites and can afford to invest in mobility is to design the best mobile website for the highest used devices. According to the website analytics that we follow, iPhones and iPads are still a low percentage of visitors to law firm websites. But those visitors have steadily increased, and we believe this traffic will grow exponentially. So - design mobile sites for Smart Phones and large tablets.
For law firms that don't have Internet mobility locked into your budget, then ensure that your current website is "mobile friendly." Every website launched today should, at a minimum, be designed for easy access on a mobile device.
A final piece of advice about mobile website design: Don't let a developer take your current desktop site and simply scale it back. Those sites are typically ugly, don't perform well or deliver what visitors want, and developers are not invested in what buyers of legal services are looking for from your firm. Hire a designer who understands buyer behavior and the plusses and minuses of website mobility and user experience.