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Responsive Website vs. Native App: What To Choose & When

The mobile website vs. mobile app dilemma never gets old.

And it’s not even you who are dictating the choices here. It’s the consumer. Mobile traffic has already surpassed desktop traffic in 2015 in ten main markets including the US and Japan.

According to Frac.tl survey, most generations (Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Millenials) are now choosing mobile as their primary channel for content consumption:

The mobile commerce market will generate $284 billion in global revenues by 2020. According to the latest Nielsen Mobile Money Report, the following markets are the most attractive ones for mobile commerce:

Should I also remind that Google now penalized websites, which are not optimized for mobile users? Here’s another kicker you may have missed – the search giant has announced its shift towards mobile-first indexing late in 2016.

In plain talk, it means that Google will now index your mobile website first, before assessing the desktop version, and decide how to rank your pages based on the retrieved information from a mobile website.

So, if you don’t have a mobile-friendly website just yet, add this project to your to-do list…for yesterday.

Now, the back to the original question is what’s better – responsive website vs. native app if you are building a new solution from scratch?

For startups, the app vs. website dilemma gets even more real as the mobile-first business model remains hot with the success on Snapchat, Uber, and Instagram. Yet building a responsive web app is equally alluring as recent success stories from Lemonade, Boxed and Thrive Market prove.

This post will outline the pros and cons of a native app vs. responsive website based on the different use cases and the possible benefits for your business.

Mobile app vs. Mobile Website: What To Choose

There’s no correct answer to whether it is better to use an app or a website. It all boils down to the way of how users will “consume” your service or product.

You should invest in market research first to understand the preferable interaction channels of your target audience. For instance, it now makes more sense to build an app for your newspaper or mobile magazine as users the engagement & retention rates are much higher compared to a responsive website:

Next, you need to a solid definition of your app goal. Planning to launch a brand new product and need to validate your assumptions? Pursue one platform at first, which is more popular with your target audience.

Do you need to create a new communication channel and increase brand visibility for your business? A dedicated mobile may serve this purpose better.

Understand how users will interact with your product. Will those interactions primarily happen at home, at work, outdoors, on the go etc? Back up your assumptions with research and direct customer surveys to understand whether your users want to have a better mobile site vs. mobile app.

Now, let’s look at the key differences between mobile apps and mobile websites and the use cases for each option.

Responsive Websites

This great illustration by Stephanie Walter shows the main idea behind responsive web design.

Developers use CSS media queries to adjust content on each page to all sorts of screen sizes. Whether the user accesses the website from a desktop, phablet or phone, the entire website view will adapt accordingly. Neat, right?

Advantages of Responsive Web Design

Comparability: Your website looks great on a huge variety of devices using different mobile OSs. URLs can be easily adapted for other communicational channels including QR-codes, text messages and NFC (near-field communications). Obviously, there’s no need to build separate website versions for different devices (iOS, Android, Windows Phone or Blackberry).

Affordable development costs. As long as you already have a custom web app developed and only need to make the webview responsive, the price for the job would be lower compared to developing a native mobile app. Yet, the price can be comparable to building a native app for iPhone, which has a limited number of screens.

Instant Upgrades. Need to add another service page, new functionality or design updates? No problems, pre-load the changes, click “update” and here you go – everything is up and running. Rolling out new functionality within an app will require downloading a newer release. While it happens automatically most of the times, a user needs to be connected to the Internet or may choose to update certain apps manually.

Longer Lifecycle – a user can’t delete your website, but they can easily choose to get rid of your app and never use it again. Plus, it’s always easier to return to a once abandoned website then re-installing a deleted app. Websites, unlike apps, offer immediacy and do not require any pre-installment to get access to it.

Shareability – all the content on your website is immediately indexed and ranked by search engines and constantly displayed in search results. Everything can be easily shared between users on social media and through other channels such as emails or messages. Most mobile apps have different discoverability mechanisms in place and do not always allow you to benefit from external sharing.

Though Instagram has a started a good industry trend here by having links to original submissions displayed on another channel (e.g. Facebook), which initially helped them grow their user base.

Nike+ fitness app later used the same approach for popularizing their product:

Hence, if you are building a native app, do consider having social media integrations in place to expose your product to larger audiences.

Disadvantages of Responsive Websites

Starbucks Website

No offline mode. Users need to be constantly connected to use the product, whereas a lot of native apps function in offline mode.

Here’s an example: you are running a travel company offering city guides for a variety of destinations. In most cases, people want to access the information in real-time, on spot and get directions to the suggested attractions. Unless they are connected to the Internet, they cannot use your mobile website.

Yet, if you choose to build a city guide native app, you can provide the following information even offline:

  • Maps and routing using built-in GPS module.
  • Offline access to all the information within your app.
  • Convert push messages to be delivered as plain texts whenever the user is not connected to the Internet for important updates/marketing.

Lack of access to mobile-native functionality. A responsive website won’t be able to function just like a mobile app does. Basically, it’s a simplified/truncated version of your web app with no extra value delivered to the user. They are plainly trying to navigate the same way as they do on desktop, but from a smaller screen.

And that’s not always a great user experience.

Here some of the key advantages of a mobile app over a website:

  • Better navigation, which is more native to a certain device type (iOS/Android) and prompts familiar navigational paths for users.
  • Added features & integrations such as Touch ID payments (opposed to manually inputting credit card data on a tiny screen) and usage of mobile payments.
  • Native apps work faster than most responsive websites and feel less cluttered to the user.

In the website vs. app competition, a native app will win if you want to create a more comprehensive experience for the user.

More Advantages of a Native Mobile App

Mobile apps as opposed to mobile web offer businesses a brand new channel for engaging and retaining customers.

You might be surprised to know that mobile shopping apps convert 1.5. times better than desktop websites and 3.5 times better than mobile websites:

Mobile app users are twice more likely to re-visit the app within 30 days after installing it compared to mobile web shoppers. Deloitte report on the mobile influence also suggests that mobile shoppers are 14% more likely to convert in-store, compared to non-smartphone shoppers.

Most businesses today have already witnessed a positive impact of mobile apps on the store sales:

But let’s leave e-commerce aside and take a look at other perks of native apps:

  • Those companies, who are relying on advertising, will also benefit from a mobile app more as those are impervious to ad-blockers.
  • Native apps offer better security technologies for storing and transmitting private user data. There are fewer chances for an intervention when the data exchange occurs between a business and an app.
  • Native apps load faster and offer a more seamless experience as compared to responsive websites, which may require more mobile data to render all the animations and graphical elements.
  • Brand awareness – once you entice the user to install your app, you’ve set the foot in the door and can sustain a more efficient conversation with them. They are more mechanisms in place to encourage further interactions with you and daily actions.

Native Apps and Mobile Websites Will Remain Complement

Smartphones will remain multifunctional devices and we should not expect that consumer preferences will ultimately switch towards either apps or mobile websites.

It will always remain a blended type of usage depending on the current goal the user wants to achieve. Apps certainly simplify accomplishing certain tasks faster, while mobile websites offer immediate access to information sans any barriers such as installation.

You can learn more about converting your website to a mobile app from our previous guide. Or if you are still struggling with the right choice, get in touch with Alty team for a brief consultation and professional advice!

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