How to Decide Between a Responsive Website and a Native Mobile App

The way people use the Internet keeps evolving, and the most current development is the rapid rise of mobile technology. The mobile realm means big differences in the way people find, experience, and share websites, as well as the creation of two parallel online worlds: browser and mobile.

The majority of Internet use is still via desktop and laptop computers, but a growing share of the market is in mobile. There are many pros and cons to building a website that can function in both spaces, just as there are many to building a native mobile site or application. There is no one-size-fits-all, so here are the things to consider before choosing how mobile-centric to make a new site.

image via Flickr by axbom

Cost

When it comes to the bottom line, responsive websites (those that change between browser and mobile versions depending on what kind of device is being used) are the more cost-effective option. Existing sites can be altered for mobile optimization and responsiveness, while most Web designers will assume mobile flexibility when building a completely new site. This is far more frugal than building and maintaining both a browser-focused website and a separate mobile app. This cost-saving measure may cut into the company’s overall exposure, though.

Ease of Use

Even the best responsive website is going to be harder to use on a mobile device than a native mobile app. It’s simply not possible to make a responsive website resize and reformat its content to perfectly fit any and all mobile devices. Apps are designed with mobile software architecture in mind, so they’ll always look, feel, and respond better with touchscreens and stylus UI than refitted websites with standard hyperlinks.

Knowing the Audience

A website’s target demographic is a great indicator of whether or not a native mobile app will be the best option. Users who prefer mobile skew younger and more tech-savvy than those who would rather visit a browser-focused website, though older users are still adopting mobile at a decent rate. Before deciding between a responsive website and a mobile app, a company should know what their ideal user looks like. Are they browsing on a desktop PC or a Mac laptop at home or work? Or possibly more likely, they’re swiping through multiple screens via their¬†mobile data plan¬†and then making purchasing decisions on the go.

Differences in Content

People visit websites for different reasons than they use mobile apps. Websites are all about information, so a responsive site needs to have strong, info-rich content that loads quickly and answers questions. Mobile apps, on the other hand, are about entertainment and/or usefulness. Users need a reason to download the app and use it regularly. It needs to provide a fun or convenient service to the user – as a game, a camera-focused program, a way to get discounts, or something else that’s as fun as it is functional. From a maintenance perspective, this makes apps harder to develop but less work-intensive in the long run, while websites need a constant stream of content to be consistently useful.

Building for Different Devices

One of the biggest challenges in mobile development is the need to make multiple versions of the same application if it’s going to be accessible for all users. Mobile devices from different architectures, i.e. Android, iOS, Windows, etc., can’t use the exact same apps. So, multiple versions customized to the architecture of each class of device are necessary. This is costly and time-consuming, while responsive websites are accessible regardless of what kind of device the user has.

Bringing an app to market and offering software updates also requires approval from the various app catalogs, such as Google Play and the iPhone App Store. For this expenditure of time and effort to be worth it, the app needs to be popular and frequently offer new content or an improved user experience so people will keep using it.

Choosing between a responsive website and a native mobile app is all about the intended audience and the technical capabilities of the company. A good mobile app can make a company synonymous with usefulness and modernity, but a responsive website remains the best option for companies that need to convey a lot of information or don’t want to manage two different digital identities.