Let's face it: it's a mobile app world, and we're just living in it. 

According to eMarketer, smartphone users spend 90 percent of their time online in apps. One study showed that the total sessions in travel/navigation apps increased 50 percent worldwide between 2016 and 2018, while another one indicated that more than half of consumers (57 percent) have used a retailer's mobile app while in-store. Yet another one demonstrated that consumers are expected to download 258.2 billion mobile apps in 2022, up from 178.1 billion in 2017.

These numbers provide powerful evidence that mobile apps play a fundamental, indispensable role in people's lives. And they should remain top of mind when apartment communities consider whether to offer residents a mobile app or a mobile-optimized portal.

What's the Design Difference?

We all know that the main difference is that apps must be downloaded by the user through an app store like Apple or Google Play. Unlike mobile-optimized sites, apps allow businesses to send out push and in-app notifications to the user. Generally speaking, apps can provide users with a more nimble and responsive experience than mobile websites can. 

Mobile-optimized websites are designed to easily accommodate different screen sizes. Users can access them through their phone browsers without downloading anything to their mobile devices. 

When contemplating whether to implement a mobile-optimized resident portal to allow residents to do things like make rent payments or file service requests, multifamily operators should bear in mind that users have different communication and user experience preferences. Online portals have been around for a while, and some residents like tradition and their longtime habits. 

What's the Difference for IT?

From a practical perspective, mobile-optimized sites and mobile apps are a world apart.

Businesses utilizing mobile-optimized sites don’t have to manage with app store applications and compliance when implementing and maintaining property sites and resident portals. However, because third-party providers are often used to build the responsively designed websites, the process may not be completely hands-off for IT. 

With limits to how each optimized site can be updated, onsite property teams are typically not able to edit more than photos, rental rates and availability. More specific items like updating payment services and integrations, adding features and functionalities and even addressing bugs to the site may have to be handed over to IT. These teams are also taxed with the management and maintenance for all systems critical to business operation, including PMS, revenue management, payment processing and cybersecurity. The list goes on and on. Updating property websites and portals are not top priority – ensuring business operations is. 

Mobile apps are developed with ease of use and a hands-off implementation in mind. The app developer manages any universal technology updates and enhancements, requiring little intervention from an operator's IT department. Essentially, when one app gets a new feature or functionality, all apps do. Furthermore, mobile apps are often designed to fully integrate with a property management system via an open API; such an integration may not be as seamless for mobile-optimized sites.

Even the property staff is empowered with more ability to change various aspects of their specific resident app. This can be everything from updating photos, the FAQs and integrations with other systems like payment processing, package management and revenue management. 

The User Experience (UX) Benefits of Apps for the Resident

There is certainly no harm in offering an online portal fit for use through an internet browser on a mobile device. However, as the stats above indicate, people today are living and conducting their business in mobile apps. Apartment communities need to meet their consumers where they are.

Mobile apps designed specifically for the multifamily industry can permit residents to quickly pay their rent, submit service requests, communicate with onsite associates and fellow residents, reserve common-area amenities and receive package notifications. 

The growth of smartwatches provides additional evidence of renters' desire for the connectivity provided by mobile apps and their push notifications. According to an NPD Smartwatch Total Market Report, the total sale of smartwatches in the U.S. was nearly $5 billion in the 12-month period ending in November 2018. And the total number of watches sold grew by 61 percent when compared with the same timeframe one year prior. 

Ultimately the UX for a resident comes down to this. They want comprehensive access that doesn’t require a log in – and that's exactly what a mobile app provides.

Apps & Operational Improvements

Data from Mobile Doorman indicates that communities offering mobile apps for resident services like rent payment, maintenance requests and package management are realizing significant improvements in all facets of operations. 

More specifically: 

  • Resident apps increased online payments by 50 percent and reduced in-person maintenance requests by 70 percent for Pinnacle Properties in Las Vegas. 
  • The Franklin Johnston Group’s resident portal for Southern Pines had a 3 percent usage rate among residents. By contrast, the usage rate for the community's resident app was 64 percent.
  • Trilogy is easily seeing an 80 percent improvement in package turns. The open API between its resident app and Trilogy’s PMS enables onsite team members to quickly scan a package, which then prompts an automatic push notification to residents that they have a package. 

In short, the right apps enable residents to fully manage their apartment community needs in the medium that so many of today's renters prefer. While mobile-optimized sites are good for covering your bases, mobile apps are best for capturing your residents' hearts.