Build a Chatbot or Develop a Mobile App? How to Make a Choice

Michael Morozov
Founder & CEO

In the world of chatbots, time flies fast.

It’s nearly two years since chatbots became “the thing”, and now there are already talks that chatbots may die out soon.

Some say that chatbots have not lived up to their owners’ expectations. While others say that messenger chatbots are far from dying and that they, in fact, are crowding out mobile apps.

See alsoWhy Brands Abandon Bot Technology and How to Make Chatbots Work

On the other hand, there are those who predict the impending end of mobile apps, too. At the same time, there are lots of statistical data proving that mobile apps are thriving right now.

So, let’s see how the things actually are in this corner of the customer products universe and try to answer the hot questions: “Should I build a chatbot or develop a mobile app? Or neither? Or both?”

Some chatbots and apps do fail

There’s no smoke without fire, and the talk about chatbots performing poorly has a specific substance.

We had seen some cases when chatbots were unable to hold a logical conversation or provide quality service. On many occasions, human interference was required to close customer interaction.

how to use messenger bot

However, the reason here is not that chatbots are underperforming – on the contrary, they are performing as designed.

It’s just that we are often expecting too much from them – the chatbot functionality is based on that of the underlying messenger platform and also is limited by it.

The introduction of bot messaging caused quite a stir, and users and businesses placed too much hope in it.

However, the messenger platforms are in the process of constant development, and new features and integrations are getting supported.

Some chatbots implementing state-of-the-art technologies like AR and machine learning are quite successful, as they do manage to provide that customized service which is the ultimate goal of all chatbots.

Mobile applications seem to face some decline, too, but for a different reason. There are too many of them.

In 2017, there were about 5,000,000 applications on Google Play and App Store, with many of them performing similar functions to chatbots.

Users are becoming too overwhelmed with the number of apps in their smartphones and get confused with dozens of colorful icons tightly filling their screens.

That’s why they were so happy to try chatbots, as in this case only one messenger app is required.


Image credit: Statista

This does not mean that users avoid downloading new apps, it’s just that now application owners have to go to longer lengths to convince the user of their app value.

Despite the seemingly decreasing interest in mobile applications, the figures above prove that the market for them still exists.

Also, the fact that the number of Facebook bots has exceeded 100,000 and that Facebook has focused quite some development power on improving and enhancing the chatbot functionality, shows that chatbots are far from dying out.

For a startup, it is essential to decide what can serve their purposes better – a chatbot or a mobile app.

Let’s look closer at the differences between them to see how your startup can benefit from using both technologies.

chatbot development

Chatbots or mobile apps – what’s the difference?

Both chatbots and mobile apps have their special features and patterns that influence their effectiveness in certain aspects. Knowing them, you can make a better-informed decision about what technology to choose and how to implement it to make the most of its functionality.

Cost of development

This is the first concern of a startup, as their project plan largely depends on the budget. You might also like our article What a Project Planning Stage Includes.

The cost of any product development is calculated as the hourly rate multiplied by the number of hours required to build the finished product.

Naturally, the more complicated the product is, the longer it takes to develop; thus, the more expensive the development is.

From this point of view, building a chatbot is definitely a more cost-effective solution, primarily, because you do not create them from scratch.

Chatbots are built on top of popular messenger platforms, such as Facebook Messenger, Slack or Kik, and use their functions to a great extent.

Even if you are not a chatbot developer and have absolutely no coding skills, you can build a simple chatbot using a bot platform, such as Chatfuel. Of course, its functionality will be somewhat primitive, but it may serve its purpose.

Indeed, a custom chatbot using advanced technologies will have to be developed either in-house or by a professional chatbot development company, and in this case, we are talking about $50,000 on the average.

With mobile apps, the situation is different. You can also find tools for creating DIY mobile apps, such as Appery.

Though, to get a reliable, scalable and unique mobile application, you, most probably, will entrust this job to professional developers. And here the price tag is mostly in the six-figure range, starting with about $100,000.

Average app cost estimate

Time to market

The time to market is another thing that concerns startups, as everybody wants their idea to transform into a marketable product as soon as possible.

Due to their more straightforward functionality and use of the existing messaging platforms, it takes less time to develop a chatbot – you can have one ready just in an hour if you use Chatfuel.

Of course, custom chatbot development takes longer. You can expect the chatbot development to take from two to six month, depending on the complexity of the chatbot and technologies used.

Mobile apps, on the average, take about eight to nine months to develop, but this includes all preparatory steps, such as market research, UI/UX design, planning, etc.

Market maturity

In a mature market, the product has reached its peak growth, and the supply is more or less equal to the demand. At the mature stage, it becomes difficult for the product to gain new customers, and businesses shift the focus at user retention strategies.

This description fits the current situation on the mobile apps market very well.

As mobile device users are no longer as eager to download new apps as they used to be, market app owners choose other strategies – some lower prices or offer freemium models; some create a niche product to remain in demand.

On the other hand, the chatbot market is far from mature. On the contrary, today’s stagnation is more about its “immaturity” – the concept is still too young and not very sophisticated to fulfill the demand.

Nevertheless, the future of chatbots seems rather promising, as chatbot platforms are constantly improved and enhanced.


Image credit: Gartner’s Hype Cycle

As each new technology, chatbots follow the Gartner Hype Cycle, and at the moment they are slipping down to the Trough of Disillusionment resulting from too high expectations which existed at the beginning.

However, the Gartner’s graph predicts a rise in their popularity, as, on the one hand, chatbots are enhanced with new features, and on the other hand, the users get their true value.

User engagement

User engagement determines how often the customer uses the product and what they are doing there – the links they click, the pages they open, etc.

Chatbots and mobile apps use more or less similar strategies to keep users returning to them:

  • Easy onboarding. Here, chatbots still have the advantage, as they require no registration at all. Since the user is accessing them through a messaging platform, they are already registered, so for chatbots, onboarding is smoother;
  • Push notifications. Both mobile apps and chatbots can send reminders and notifications according to a defined schedule. For example, an application or news chatbot can send daily news updates; a calorie-counting product will remind you to log a meal you have eaten. The CNN bot offers to send daily news and the editor’s peak:
CNN chatbot screenshot
  • Special offers. By offering time-limited discounts, you can bring users back to your app or chatbot. For example, Daily FitBot, a fitness and workout chatbot, sends messages offering discounts on sports gear in the parent store:
Daily Fitbot screenshot

On average, chatbots show better user engagement than apps, on the one hand, due to their personalized approach to customers and, on the other hand, due to their streamlined user experience. In a chatbot, the customer does not have to search for information, as it is all in the same place.


Discoverability defines how easily new users can find your product.

In this respect, mobile apps have a distinct advantage, as they are distributed through app stores, and with smart optimization techniques (unique name, keyword selection, powerful visual content), a mobile app can easily reach the top in the search results.

Still, with chatbots, this method does not work, as there are no chatbot stores.

Of course, there are bot directories (you can find some links here), but they are not close to what app stores can offer.

Truly engaging and popular chatbots can be promoted by the platforms they are created on. This way, the platform showcases its features using a smartly made bot as an example.

The Kik chatbot platform lists the most interesting chatbots in each category on its main page, at the same time inviting you to build a bot of your own:

KIK Bot Shop screenshot

Both mobile apps and chatbots increase discoverability by encouraging users to share their content.

With chatbots, this technique is easier, as they are sitting on top of messaging platforms with the user’s contact list immediately available.

However, mobile apps supporting registration via social network accounts can also leverage this possibility.

weather chatbot screenshot

So, who is the winner, after all?

Despite the fact that chatbots seem to beat mobile apps in many ways – they are quicker and less expensive to develop. They can create a better user experience and produce stronger user engagement.

We cannot say that chatbots can entirely replace mobile apps as channels to reach customers.

Chatbots can be a great complement to mobile apps, however, they still lack some of the important features and, therefore, cannot offer the complete service cycle.

The most critical point is that most chatbots still redirect customers to the website for browsing the products and for checkout.

Chatbots can be the most effective in the following use cases:

  • Ecommerce, where a chatbot can provide personalized shopping service;
  • Notifications, for example, in nutrition, health or fitness products where a scheduled routine should be followed. A chatbot can be set to remind the user of the scheduled activity;
  • FAQ and customer service, where a chatbot can provide standard answers to the most frequent questions and help with finding information. Although, this kind of bot should be able to forward the conversation to a human operator in case the request does not match the predefined scripts.
chatbot facebook

Also check out: How Chatbots Can Drastically Improve the Customer Service

Chatbots in native apps

However, there is still potential in mobile apps, too.

What is especially interesting is that now there is a trend to join apps and chatbots to make the most of their advantages. It is achieved by integrating chatbots in native apps. This way, you will not be restricted by the messaging platform limitations and will be in full control of the bot functionality.

In addition, such solutions support seamless navigation between the chatbot and the app which is one of the most significant problems of the messenger-based bots.

A great example of such an integrated solution is Duolingo, a language-learning application.

Recently, its functionality has been enhanced with the implementation of chatbots available directly within the app (at the moment, for iOS only).

The chatbots hold real conversations with you allowing to practice your new language skills. At the moment, the Duolingo bots speak only French, Spanish and German,  still, other languages are going to be added, too.

Duolingo chatbot screenshot

Image credit: Duolingo Bot

On the final note, we can conclude that the potential of chatbots and mobile apps is still far from exhausted.

With the implementation of advanced technologies, both apps and chatbots can create better user experiences and will remain reliable channels to reach the public.

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