More and more people across the world are using their mobile devices to access digital content. According to eMarketer, mobile phone use will grow from 61.1% to 69.4% worldwide. The same article also claims that nearly one-fourth of the global population use a smartphone monthly, but by 2017, this number will increase to 50%.
American cell phone use has already surpassed the global numbers. The Pew Internet Research discovered that as of 2014, 90% of American adults own a cell phone, and 58% of those cell phone owners have a smartphone. Interestingly enough, though, America only ranked number 13 in the 2013 list of countries with highest smartphone penetration. The top 5 in the list were United Arab Emirates, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and Norway, respectively:
With the way of the future clearly leading to increased mobile phone and especially smartphone use, more and more companies are needing help in deciding which mobile option is best for them. Often, most assume that a native app is the only way to go for smartphones. As a designer/ developer, though, it is up to you to decide what mobile option is right for them and their users.
While different experts divide the mobile access options differently, most agree that the following are the four main choices:
- Native Apps – downloadable applications built for a specific mobile operating system (iOS, Android, or Windows) and run physically on a device.
- Mobile Site – differs from the desktop version of the website – can be done with a mobile.sitename.com type of URL or the same URL through dynamic serving with a vary HTTP header.
- Responsive Site – a website whose layout changes and adapts to the size of the browser but has the same URL no matter on which device users view it.
In general, a responsive site is best for those clients whose users only visit to gather information, while a mobile site may be more necessary for websites with a ton of content, such as a retailer with complex navigation and lots of different products. Apps, on the other hand, are good for users who need to complete a highly complex task often enough to be worth downloading (native) or accessing (web) an app.
However, it is never quite as simple as this brief explanation, since every client and their audience will be quite unique. The following are some more detailed points for you to help your client consider. Don’t forget to use this as a guideline, rather than a rulebook. You as a developer will best know your client and the needs specific to them and may have to use more of a combination of the different mobile options, rather just a single one.
One of the first considerations to make is if users will need to access native data and capabilities to complete the tasks provided by your client. For instance, apps may need to use a device’s GPS and camera, and a native app does this easily and efficiently. However, keep in mind that hybrid apps can also access device functionalities but may run a bit slower.
A good example of using this consideration in helping your client decide on a native app is an Entrepreneur article in which Eric Dynowski tells about an outpatient hospital for young mental patients that approached him about needing an app. They wanted to give parents a way to keep the hospital updated on changes that occurred while the young patients were at home. Dynowski, however, told his clients that a native app was not necessary nor the best option. Parents needed access no matter the type of phone they had and also had no need to access phone capabilities. The client agreed with Dynowski that a web app was much more suited to their needs than a native app since they still needed an app-like feel but easy access from any device.
The cost of a native app is something else that Dynowski pointed out to his client. A native app has to be created for each mobile operating system (Android, iOS, Windows, Blackberry), which drives the initial cost way up, not to mention the cost of upkeep for multiple apps.
Because a web app works on any smart phone, there is only one app version to build. Plus, because it is built with code, your client can essentially hire the same developer to keep both their desktop website and their mobile web app or mobile site updated. The budget is even less if the client only needs a responsive website, especially since they can do many updates themselves through a responsive CMS.
An important question you will also need to ask your client is if they have any time constraints. It takes much longer to build multiple native apps than it does to build a single web app or mobile site – and a responsive site takes even less time. For iOS apps, your client also needs to consider the time it takes to get approval from Apple before placing on the app store. If your client is in a big hurry, then a responsive site is the quickest route to take with a mobile site or web app being the next in line.
The audience consideration is probably one of the most important pieces in deciding which route to take for mobile access. Your client needs to look at what mobile devices the majority of their audience uses. Just recently, Google Analytics updated their data so that you can now see from what operating device users access a site. If the majority of your client’s users seem to be using an iOS device, then a native app for only the iPhone and iPad along with a web app for everyone else may be a consideration.
Another point to keep in mind applies to your e-commerce clients. Take into account how comfortable users are purchasing through an app. If your client has their own statistics, great! If not, though, they may be interested to know some of the statistics on mobile purchasing habits. According to Cisco, approximately 8 in 10 consumers shop digitally, both on mobile and PC. Of all US shoppers, 29% research on their smartphone while in the store. But most mobile searchers end purchases in the store, while 56% tablet users purchase online.
Worth a Download and Continued Use
According to the Metro, average smartphones in Britain include 23 apps with less than one-third used regularly. There are a few aspects that make a native app worth the download. For instance, will users need to access the client’s information when offline? Then either a hybrid app or a native app is definitely needed. Another consideration is with speed. Complicated tasks, such as a game, that requires a ton of processing will do better with a native app while a hybrid app or web app can handle slightly less complicated tasks.
Another consideration is whether or not users will want a consistent, personalized experience. An app can store user information, such as billing, and can track user preferences. However, keep in mind that any website with a login can offer a similar personalized experience, which then brings us to the question of whether or not users will actually continue accessing the app on a consistent basis. Most smartphone users will download an app and forget to use it after awhile unless it becomes part of a daily, weekly, or monthly task. For companies on a tight budget, a responsive or mobile website may be the better option, especially since 77% of smartphone retail purchase activity ends in an in-store purchase.
Google can crawl and index Android apps using their Mobile App Analytics but not iOS apps. If a client is very concerned about their SEO numbers, a native app certainly won’t help with this. A responsive website is Google’s preferred mobile option, although it also recognizes separate mobile sites as well as dynamic serving.
What a client can also keep in mind is that, while an iOS or Blackberry app won’t be seen by Google, they can still track its use with Flurry or Kissmetrics. Clients just need to know that if SEO is their purpose in building an app, then a non-Android native app will not be their answer. A responsive site will improve Google standing more than any other mobile option.
Ultimately, your clients have to look at what best works for their users. If a website is mostly used for information, then a responsive or mobile website is best. If users need to conduct complicated activities, then an app is their best choice. There are a number of ways that your clients can choose to meet their users’ needs. The following companies are great examples of how different organizations can decide to meet their users needs appropriately:
The desktop website version of Walmart.com
Walmart.com serves users worldwide for a variety of purposes. Some smartphone users are simply looking for reviews of products or to check prices. For these users, Walmart offers a mobile.walmart.com version of the site. Then there are those users looking to make shopping quicker and more efficient. For these users, Walmart offers native apps for iPhone, iPad, or Android phones on which users can create lists, scan items while shopping, and checkout using the scanned items at a self-checkout center. The interesting part? Their app looks almost identical to their mobile site, except for the buttons located on the bottom of the screen.
The mobile site (left) offers a similar yet limited experience to the native app (right).
Mulberry, the world renown British company that specializes in leather bags and expanded into other fashion arenas, is similar to Walmart.com in that it offers more than one option to its users. Their main website is a responsive site so that users have the same experience whether visiting from their desktop or their smartphone.
For users who own an iPhone or iPad, a native app is also available. Users of the app can browse the lines, watch videos, find the nearest Mulberry store from their location, and take part in the Mulberry world with the journal feature. It would be interesting to see, however, how many users actually download the app and of those who download the app, how many actually use it consistently.
As mobile use continues to grow, more clients will approach web developers for either creating or improving their mobile presence. One of your tasks is to help guide your mobile clients to the best option for them and their audience. Taking them through the logic as well as showing them some case studies will help them better understand your reasoning behind your recommendations. This makes it much more likely that they will not only use your services but also happily refer their connections to you, bringing you in more business in the long run.