Navigating the mobile maze

Rob Borley

We all know how important the mobile web has become, but what is the right approach? Should we build an iPhone app or mobile website? This factsheet explores your options.

Everybody is talking mobile. Smart phones and tablets are changing the way that your users interact with content and online services. 45% of people interact with online content while out and about. That rises to 70% for 16-25s. (UK Sept. 2011). As an online provider you must engage with this emerging market or face losing customers. So what are the options?

Download the fact sheet

Do nothing

This might not be as crazy as it sounds.

There is a case for allowing your site to be rendered in all of it’s desktop browser glory on some mobile devices. For high end devices such as the iPhone or iPad, where users are used to panning and zooming, why give them a watered down version of your service?

This is certainly the cheapest option. However, the Tablet is more than a small PC and the Smart Phone is not just a small Tablet. These are distinct devices with unique user behavior and context. To maximize your impact on such devices they need to be considered independently.

Adaptive Design

This approach automatically applies a specific style to a site, when it is viewed in a browser of a predefine size. This can be on a desktop when the browser is resized or when it is viewed on a device with a smaller screen. This approach allows you to define a specific view, of the same content, per screen size (or device). This enables you to tailor the visual appearance of your site to each device, without needing separate mobile websites.

This is a relatively simple way of tailoring your website or application to specific mobile devices without having to redesign your existing desktop version. However, it does require you know which screen sizes and devices you are targeting in advanced.

Responsive Design

Unlike ‘adaptive’ design, ‘responsive’ design does not require you to know your target screen sizes from the beginning.

The page will rearrange content constantly as the screen changes size. While you may still define specific screen sizes at which your page changes layout, taking a ‘responsive’ design approach means that your site will be optimised for all potential screen dimension.

This offers a degree of future proofing. This is worth considering as new mobile devices are constantly being released and you do not know what size the next shiny new device will be.

There is a degree of extra complexity in this approach which will often

be reflected in development time scales and, ultimately, cost.

Web app

Typically built with HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript, web apps provides the ability to tailor user experience to their mobile device rather than simply reconfiguring the same content that a desktop user would receive.

Web apps will work on any device that uses a modern mobile web browser making them universal; cross platform applications. This maximizes your potential audience with a single implementation; you do not need a different version

for Android, iOS, or Windows Phone. This reduces development costs.

However, web apps are limited in their functionality and user experience to what can be provided within a browser. Your app will be unable to use device specific technologies (such as the camara) or harness the devices native user experience.

Web apps give you the opportunity to offer mobile users their own tailored experience. However, as this is essentially a separate implementation from the standard web site it will be more costly to implement than the adaptive and responsive design options.

Native app

The app. A bite sized piece of software that enables you to define the specific content and functionality for the user in their context.

A wholly different experience from the website, an app is useful for offering users a specific service or function. With the native app you can take advantage of the vast array technology buried in the mobile device; the compass, gyroscope, storage (offline and cloud), Near Field Communications (NFC), and the camera.

Native apps offer the user the slickest experience on a mobile device made possible by allowing you access to the native UX controls. However, development time of a native app is likely to be greatest of all of your mobile options. Also, each native environment (iOS, Android, Windows, RIM) requires its own development; native apps are not cross platform.

These two factors combine to make this the most costly option in terms of both time and budget.

What’s right for me?

When deciding upon your mobile strategy there are a few things to consider:

Do you need an app?

Typically an app (either web or native) is best suited to perform a specific function. It needs to help a user complete specific tasks. If you are simply looking to represent your cooperate site then an app is not for you. However, customer services, ecommerce and online tools are all better suited to apps on a mobile device.

You need an app, but who is it for?

If you do need an app then it’s time to do some research. What devices do your target demographics use? Does this audience use app stores?

There are clear general trends emerging. Different demographic tend towards different devices. Also, users of different devices use different app store / marketplace behavior. For example while iPhone users are serial app purchasers, Android users rarely venture into the marketplace.

If you have a spread of devices in your target audience, then you need to consider if a native app is the right approach. While it will provide the best user experience, it will also be costly to develop separate apps for each native environment. And, of course, your non iPhone users may never download it anyway.

A web based application (web app) is worth considering in this case. While the user experience may not be as good as a native app, it will be universally available on all devices through the web browser. A single development project makes this approach much more cost effective.

You don’t need an app. Are you responsive or adaptive?

If you wish your users to have the best possible experience of your website on their mobile device, then a responsive or adaptive design is the answer. But which one?

Developing a fully responsive website can be expensive. It may require a full rebuild of your website. You should consider this approach if you are looking to optimise your website for all possible devices and screen sizes. Responsive is also a great way to future proof your website for devices that emerge over the coming years.

On the other hand, if you are targeting a set of specific devices or screen sizes (i.e. iPhone 3G / 4, HTC Desire, 12” Tablet, 9” Tablet) then it is relatively simple to apply specific styles for these cases without the need for a full site rebuild.

When considering your mobile options it is important to understand your audience, their context (how, where, and when do they access your content or service), and what you want to achieve. Everybody’s initial thought is that they want an iPhone app, but this might not be the right solution for you.

Need some help?

Deciding on the best approach can be challenging. We therefore recommend that you speak to an expert before making a final decision about which approach is best for you.

For more information about innovations in the mobile space we recommend reading the blog of emerging technology expert Rob Borley

If you recognise that the mobile web is important and you need help deciding on a strategy, then book a mobile consultancy clinic.

Book a consultancy clinic or contact Rob about a more in-depth review.