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teeter tottering on responsive design over mobile app
April 24, 2014

Why Responsive Design Is Better Than A Mobile App and Why It's Not

People love apps.

They will download anything to their phone, use it once and forget about it before moving on to the next one.

They will pay $1.99 fifteen ways to get that perfectly nuanced selfie.

There are a gajillion apps available in the App Store and on Google Play and at least a billion of them do the same damn thing – provide a crappy user experience.

But many companies feel they need one for their business, as if the cool kids will shun them if they can't be downloaded and lost among the many useless tools on phones today.

Then there's the debate, mobile app or responsive design. Which is better? It's gone on for several years now. Even though responsive design is the newer experience, many think being mobile means having an app. That's part of it, certainly. So, which is the better for your business?

When it comes to one or the other, I say choose both.


It depends on what your motivation is. If it's just to have an app out there to represent your brand, you probably want to skip it and go straight for a responsive website design (RWD). Why clutter the digital world with more useless distraction?

Focus on getting your presence out there to the widest audience first, then distract them with something worthwhile. Something that offers a solution that your website can't provide.

What's the Difference Between the Two?

While an app can perform in many ways a website can't, believe it or not, there is a blurry line when it comes to making a distinction between them.

If you ask a developer, he might say it's the difference between static content and server-side programming. But for an average person the distinction is something you visit on the Internet to something you download on your phone or tablet.

Where the technical line blurs is you can do many things on a website that would be considered an application by someone in the web development industry. Logging in, for one. Setting up an account. Editing a blog post. Buying something online. Those all involve programming applications.

Facebook is an application inside a website. But you can also download the Facebook app for your mobile device, which seems a little redundant to me, because when you visit the site on the phone, it's the same experience as it is on the app.

The only difference is you have faster access with the app because you're only a tap away.

Semantics aside, let's go with the user perspective. You visit a website and download an app.

Why Responsive Design Is the Better Route

With an RWD, anyone can access your site. It doesn't matter what browser they use, which version they're on, what operating system they prefer or what device, you are widely accessible to everyone.

Responsive design renders your website perfectly on every device it's viewed through. It resizes things to fit any sized screen so nothing is hard to read or see, whether you are on a phone, tablet or desktop.

If it's not yet apparent why a responsive website is vastly more important initially, do yourself a favor, go and read my article, "Why You're Screwed If You're Not Using Responsive Design."

It's not really a choice anymore. You need a responsive design first. Yet, even with all the stats pointing toward a growing mobile use and its soon-to-be dominance over the desktop, many businesses don't get that point.

Even with mobile overtaking desktop usage (by the end of this year it's predicted) there are other advantages to building a responsive website.

  1. You only have to worry about performing on one platform, so updates are easy and efficient.

  2. It's one URL, instead of having one for your desktop website and one for you mobile audience. Many sites use m.yoursite.com and www.yoursite.com to account for both desktop and mobile experiences. Responsive design eliminates that redundancy.

  3. SEO requires a single campaign strategy.

  4. Marketing requires no extra effort.

It's a damn near perfect system.

But not quite.

There Are Cons to Responsive Design

While there are a host of reasons for using responsive design, there are some downsides to it.

1. It can slow performance. While a mobile-only site, the m.yoursite.com, is a stripped down version of your main site, a responsive website is a mini version. All the stuff that has to load in your main site, has to load in your responsive site and phones are generally slow to load web pages bogged down by several scripts and images that are not optimized. The result is slower response that will cause people to bounce if your landing page takes too long to load.

2. The web is not as consistent a delivery platform as an app. Not every browser supports current markup iterations, say CSS3, so some devices that rely on older versions will not render your site correctly, showing instead the desktop view on the phone.

3. UX has to be properly worked to give visitors the best experience possible. And you need to have clear calls-to-action that you want your visitors to follow. Well-placed calls-to-action will put the user within a few finger swipes of what you want them to do.

Look at the Starbucks site on the phone, for example. The first thing you are presented with is what appears to be a video. Well, actually you are presented with an app download, but the video is prominent on the screen. Yet, it doesn't work. At least not on my Nexus.

Also, one of their calls-to-action is a newsletter sign-up. You have to swipe way down the site, past articles, past social media, past things that would otherwise not be important to a company gathering leads, before you even get to it.

Then there is the desktop version. To be honest, I can't even tell what is going on with their desktop site. (You do learn that the video presented on the phone is not a video, but a slide show.) But what am I supposed to do first? What is Starbucks asking of me as a visitor? Here's a bunch of crap to sift through. Enjoy.

That is poor UX. Just messy. Sorry, Starbucks.

UX is important and if poorly executed can lead to UD (user disaster) and a big fat "buh-bye" if not considered wisely while in development.

4. To add to the above, the stacked layout of RWD can make for lots and lots of scrolling if there is an excessive amount of content. Unless your visitor is really engaged with your site, this could lead to bounce rate increases if they can't find what they are looking for quickly.

The upside to these downsides is that all of these can be worked out before your site is released into the wild so that the user experience is what it is meant to be.

Regardless, I believe the first step to maximizing your reach is to go with a multiple device approach using responsive design.

When to Build a Mobile App

When is it time to build an app? Well, you need an audience first. If you have one, and your site performs the way it should across phones, tablets and desktops, then sure, go for the app. But also have a strategy for it other than to just "be out there."

1. What are your intentions with launching an app? You need to account for the big-picture goal, whatever that goal is. Then you have to find the business data that supports your goal. What are you trying to accomplish with a web application that your website can't and do you have the audience interest to support it?

2. What device will you target? Smartphone? Tablet? Both? Apps are user specific, so you will have to decide on what kind of device it will work on and if you will benefit from developing on several mobile platforms.

3. What operating system will you target? IOS? Android? Both? Developing for both of these systems and others will increase production time, which means added costs. Can you support that right now? What do your traffic analytics show? Which mobile users do you see more frequently visiting your site? Will it benefit you to build for one over the other?

4. How will you address personal information that user may have to provide? Is that info going to be secure if you have to store it and how will you guarantee it is secure?

5. Who is going to build it? Does your business have an IT department capable of building an app or will you have to outsource the project?

Let's look at some pros and cons to help you decide if your app is a worthwhile venture?

The Pros of Web Apps

A mobile app brings a unique experience to the user. It's built for a particular operating system, for a particular device, usually with an isolated objective in mind, making it a truly personal experience.

It showcases the best part of your business. Generally, your app is a product that goes beyond the ability of your website.

It puts your customer just a finger tap away from your business. Your icon is always visible on the device's home screen (well, unless that person has pages and pages of apps installed).

It can be further personalized to a user by requesting specific data. This can make for a better user experience and provide for tailored notifications the user receives from you.

Often, an app doesn't require an Internet connection to function. Native apps, in particular, store everything needed on the mobile device in order to run.

It can load faster and operate with more precision than a website. Because it can load scripts from within the device, design performance and rendering is not an issue.

You can get as creative as you want, within a device's functionality, often incorporating functions of the device into usability.

It doesn't require any SEO for audience reach. You're already advertised in the App Store, Google Play or Windows Store.

The Cons of Web Apps

It's way more expensive. Nuff said there.

It's built for a particular operating system, for a particular device, so it's expensive to branch out.

Apps are oppressively controlled by the stores in which they reside. For one, Apple and Google can decline your app, after you've spent all that money on building it. They control how you present information and they apply a fee (they call it tax) to every sale you make.

Every time you update your app, you will have to resubmit to and get reapproved. Time is not on your side here.

These disadvantages are few, but they can cripple profits in the already expensive cost for development.

Weighing the Need for Both Over One or the Other

It's definitely cheaper to go with a responsive build over a mobile app. Updates are infinitely more cost effective and less time consuming and technological advances are making the line between the two blur more and more, as with single page web applications.

Not to mention your business has more visibility as a website than an app because it's not limited to specific devices or operating systems, plus your app can't be indexed by search engines.

On the other hand, an app provides an experience unique to the person using it, often as a product, whereas a website caters to your audience as a whole, as in providing information on your product.

An app lets you hone in on the personality on your user through collected data so you can market directly to her tastes. And from a performance perspective, an app provides a speedy and flawless user experience with no downtime.

It boils down to your end goals. Having both is a great idea if your data supports it. What matters is in the context of the user and what his or her interest is in your product or service and how you can present it to either in a way that is both engaging and solves a problem.

Phil Foxwell is the senior content developer at Merry Fools. Follow to continue the conversation on responsive design versus mobile apps.

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