23 Jan 2014

Apps vs responsive websites

“Should we develop an app or a mobile friendly website?” I’m increasingly coming across this question. It’s important to understand the pros and cons of each approach.

Against a background of rapid growth in the use of smartphones and tablets, many organisations are unsure about the best way to target users on these devices.

Apps are one obvious way to engage with this audience. However, HTML5, the latest version of the mark-up language that powers websites, has been pushing the growth in responsive website design, making more websites accessible to smartphone and tablets.

Responsive design allows websites to auto adjust their layout, so that the content fits any screen size without the need to zoom in or scroll horizontally. Amongst the advantages of responsive design is that the website will work on any device.

As well as all desktops and laptops, a responsive website design will work across the different operating systems for smaller devices. Apple iOS and Google Android phones and tablets are currently dominant, but a responsive website will also work on Blackberrys, the increasingly popular Windows mobile platform as well as the less well known devices.

As only one website needs to be develop for devices, rather than multiple versions of an App for each different operating system, development costs are lower as well. A website is also much better suited to hosting large amount of content and features, and can be included in search engines, providing a larger audience for content. So what advantages do apps offer? They can work offline, something websites can’t do.

This opens up a range of opportunities, from always available content to games that can be played on a train. Also, while HTML5 promises a much more versatile future for websites, we are not there yet, and so an app is usually the best approach for creating utilities and complex functionality for phones and tablets.

"I’ve seen organisations develop an app, just so that they can say they have one, even though the money would have been better spent elsewhere."

There is another factor driving the demand for apps. They are seen as ‘sexy’, and I’ve seen organisations develop an app, just so that they can say they have one, even though the money would have been better spent elsewhere.

If you're considering developing an app, remember, the best apps do just one thing but do it very well. Don't try and replicate the wide ranging nature of a website with an app, but instead provide a focused and useful resource if you want to see it being used regularly.

The money spent on an app might be better used redeveloping your website to a responsive design if you haven’t converted yet. A well-targeted app can be a great tool though. For example, the Apprenticeship app I worked on for Prospect.

By focusing on one area, this app has enjoyed continuous growth, and with thousands of downloads so far and showing no signs of slowing down.

Jeff Lennan     March 02

This is a great question for organizations to consider. In many cases, resources spent making sure that your critical website content and functionality is optimized for mobile devices is far more valuable that pursuing a dedicated mobile app.

We agree that there are certainly instances an app makes sense, but it is important, as you said, that the app “provide a focused and useful resource if you want to see it being used regularly”.

We believe that an app we put together for Oregon AFSCME last year provides a good example of a focused app that is useful in the everyday life of the union’s members. Our app provides three simple features: RSS feed from the union’s existing website (CMS), simple sharing for this content (FB, Twitter, Email) and push notifications that can be targeted by various segments, including the individual user’s preferences (send me updates about x,y,z). Not sure if links will work in comment here, but if this link doesn’t work, simply Google “AFSME Mobile App”.

Another important feature of a mobile app that differentiates it from a mobile friendly website is the ability to push notifications to those who have your app installed on the phone. This works similar to SMS and popup notifications can be far more engaging than email, if used strategically and with considerable restraint.

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