[This post originally appeared on the Taoti Creative blog]

Mobile. Apps. Responsive design.

Everyone working in digital knows this is an area that they need to focus on. But for many, it’s tough to know where to start.

"We need a mobile app"

This is a statement we at Taoti hear in various forms from many clients and potential clients. It can raise a red flag, as we try to make sure that everyone is using the same terminology. In our experience, while the idea of a shiny new app can be appealing, it can easily miss the mark if the client’s goal is expanding audience engagement with their content.

In lieu of "app" we often try to shift the conversation to thinking about your organization’s "mobile digital presence." We do this for many reasons:

Apps are Expensive

Developing an app is a major investment. Also, for an app strategy to be effective, it can’t be thought of in the singular or as a one-off deliverable.

Many organizations launch an iOS app to start with, because it’s (relatively speaking) a much more straightforward process, with fewer devices to consider. This, of course, assumes the app will even make it into the Apple App Store.

When it comes to developing for Android devices, the level of effort can often be exponentially greater, because of the abundance of devices that run on Android.

And even after the apps are launched, ensuring they are secure and properly maintained becomes an ongoing development (and financial) commitment. All of these factors need to be considered, and are often difficult to accurately estimate at the outset.

Few Apps Succeed

Very few apps end up meeting their clients’ expectations.

This can have little to do with the quality of the app or the content it contains. It can simply be a matter of frequency. If the app you’re considering building isn’t expected to be used frequently (say, at least once a week), the chances of audiences choosing to download and install it is significantly reduced.

Concurrently, if the content you’re looking to include in the app is only available in the app, you have effectively cut off that information from being discovered by the majority of web visitors.

The cumulative net result can be the digital equivalent of a tree falling in the woods that no one saw. Except in this case, your best proof that it existed comes from steep development costs and lost man hours spent populating and maintaining apps that no one ends up using.

Focusing on Responsive

For the reasons above, and others, we often try to steer clients into focusing on rebuilding their website and making it responsive.

When done properly, the result is a single website that works on desktops, tablets and mobile browsers. That’s not to say there aren’t technical challenges involved with planning, designing and delivering a truly responsive presence, but we’ve found that the overall time to launch, budget, ability to maintain and the reach of such a presence is far superior to going the app route.

Cutting With the Grain

One of the biggest challenges with any redesign project is establishing organization-wide metrics for success.

The client’s board of directors, who are often the ones who approve the funding, could have an agenda that ultimately runs counter to the most pressing needs of your audience.

The navigation that internal stakeholders want to maintain could be the underpinnings of a disastrous user experience. For example, if you have two or three departments that all — in the eyes of the public — work on the same thing, trying to extend that structure on your site can leave audiences fending for themselves.

Alternatively, if everyone internally can agree that a clean, streamlined mobile experience should drive the IA and navigation decisions, the entire project will have a much greater chance of success.

Embracing Flexibility

Just as publishing on the web (for desktops) is a vastly different experience from publishing for print, so too is the process of digital publishing that works on all devices.

For that reason, it’s imperative that questions are asked that address all devices early in the process.

For example, how items are arranged on the desktop version of a home page might easily translate to a mobile browser. However, it’s a bad idea to just assume they will.

Whenever possible, it’s a good practice to develop desktop, tablet and mobile wireframes and designs for a website at the same time. There’s many technical reasons for this, however the political reason is often most crucial. If you were to get buy-in for a desktop design that is either impossible or unacceptably labor-intensive to implement for other devices, the painful process of revising approved home page designs can damage your credibility, and add unwanted time and cost to the project.

Keeping Sharing Top-of-Mind

How long is the typical piece of content on your site? Could it be broken into multiple pages? We strive to develop web sites that are as relevant as possible to a wide range of audiences’ needs.

Often, the section that is most relevant is more than halfway down the page, and is never referenced through the headline, description or meta data. Every time this happens, we look at it as a missed opportunity to be discovered.

By keeping content as bite-sized as possible, audiences can share out the content that is most relevant to them. This is where responsive websites have the best ability to shine. By creating a single site that works on all devices, when your content is shared through Twitter, Facebook or other services, you are giving that content the best chance to be actively engaged with by social media audiences. Even if you notice that your site’s mobile traffic is below average, it’s important to remember that [http://therealtimereport.com/2014/04/09/social-networks-see-majority-of-traffic-coming-from-mobile/ the majority of traffic on social media sites is via mobile].

Live mobile to build mobile

Lastly, I wanted to share some thoughts that aren’t part of any formal strategy we propose to clients, but that have helped me think through numerous projects.

For the past few years, I have made a conscious effort to live mobile first. Even when my laptop or desktop computer is within reach, I’ve consistently chosen to try to do whatever it is I need to do on my phone. Whether it’s reading a ridiculously long Bill Simmons column on Grantland.com, to ordering a pizza, to placing a classified (with photo!) on Craigslist.

This, admittedly, can be annoying. I often end up giving up and ultimately using a “real” computer. But I always take something away from the experience, even if that experience is another example of a bad mobile experience for the user.

My revenge for this self-inflicted pain comes in helping others avoid the same mistakes. Feel free to reach out if you’d like to help me with this revenge business.