In the height of the digital age, many business owners are faced with the dilemma of choosing between adopting a responsive design for their website or focusing exclusively on building a native mobile application. There is no uniform or easy answer to the dilemma, as each business has different demographics, requirements and platforms. Both options present clear and ambiguous advantages and disadvantages that must be explored fully before progressing with sincerity.

Research carried out by analytics provider, Flurry shows that native applications are continuing to cement their usage lead in 2014 – commanding 86% of mobile consumer’s time. Time spent engaging with content via a mobile device continued to decline – averaging just 14% of consumer’s time. The data suggests that apps, which were considered to be something of a novelty by many respected figures within the industry a few years ago, are maintaining a firm grip on the mobile market, with the mobile browser becoming a mere afterthought amongst users.

However, it would be naïve and irresponsible to assume that the case for mobile browsing ends there. Now, thanks to responsive design, alongside the development and increased usage of HTML5 across a number of high-profile sites, mobile sites can offer many of the same features that were once unique to apps. Previously, a dedicated app could boast geo-location tagging, barcode scanning and in-store benefits unique to that platform, but now, many businesses and organisations are ensuring their designs allow for these features to be factored into their mobile platforms, so every user receives the same experience and reaps the same rewards.

Making the decision between a native app and adopting a responsive design requires time, preparation and thought. Acting on impulse without the hard data to back-up your reasoning is a recipe for disaster, and could result in significant loss. For those looking for a more pragmatic and logical approach to choosing between native applications and mobile websites, here are some of the pressing advantages and disadvantages of both platforms:

A native mobile application

Mobile applications are dedicated programs that are downloaded by the user and saved to a mobile device’s storage. Mobile applications must be designed and developed for the mobile operating systems you wish for it to run on. This generally includes supporting Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android platforms – some businesses plump for one or the other, others choose to develop their apps for both platforms. This choice should be heavily influenced by data, as this will highlight exactly where and what device your existing consumers are using to reach you.  As a result of this, preparing, testing and distributing a mobile application for your business can be very time-consuming and expensive in the long term, but for many businesses, the development process and initial cost is immaterial once the app has delivered on it’s potential.

  1. Strengthening the user experience: Native applications can offer a cleaner, faster and more succinct UX compared to many other existing mobile platforms – providing your designer and developer, or those you have outsourced have the time and dedication to deliver a high quality product.
  2. Boosting accessibility and speed: One of the major benefits of mobile applications is the ability to operate without an active internet connection, allowing customers to access their information and history at any time. Once more, if the developers behind the build are experienced and can code, test and remove bugs effectively, there’s a strong chance your application will load cleanly and quickly for your customers.
  3. The possibilities are endless: An application will allow you to be as creative as possible. With the development of technology, mobile platforms boast features that are far better suited to on-the-go usage and are just waiting to be implemented and tested by users.
  4. Improving your visibility: Upon installing your application on a device, users will have a one-tap, one-stop portal to your products and services. This puts your business at your customer’s fingertips and ensures you’re never out of reach.

In the interest of fairness, and to make you aware of the intricacies and practicalities of the native application, we must also assess the potential disadvantages of choosing to solely focus on the platform.

  1. Accessibility has its limitations: As your application will be built for a particular OS, you will have to ensure the application meets the current guidelines laid out by Apple and Google. If you don’t keep your platform up-to-date, you may find your application loses elements of, or all, functionality when the latest OS update is pushed out to the public.
  2. Playing the waiting game: All incremental and major application updates have to be submitted and approved by each respective app store, which can take anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks. Preparation is key with this, so if you have a major campaign or promotion in the pipeline and you would like your application to reflect this event, you will need to make sure your updates are submitted promptly in order to combat any issues.
  3. Estimating the cost: Native application development will, more often than not be the most expensive option available to you.
  4. Accessing data: You will need to approach SEO in a very different manner with a mobile app. Google Analytics isn’t quite ready to offer all of the data you may require or expect having used the service on desktop, but a major update from Google will almost certainly be in the pipeline.

A responsive mobile design

Adopting a responsive design for your existing website will allow you maintain a single site that automatically fits the screen size and orientation of the device on which it is being viewed by the user. This is achieved by adapting the content, navigation and user interaction to deliver the same comfort and usability to the mobile user as you would to the desktop user.

  1. Maintaining a single website: A responsive design ensures the majority of your content remains the same, allowing you to maintain just one site and control the content that is pushed out across each design.
  2. Keeping one single URL: By keeping one URL for your site, you will ensure your users find your site just as easily on mobile devices, without the need for redirects or a separate website, which ultimately, will have a negative effect on any undertaken search engine optimisation.
  3. Controlling the cost: By adopting a responsive design for your mobile site, you remove the immediate need for a native application and additional domain and keep the development costs down in the process.
  4. Easily access your data: With a responsive design, there is no need to amend your current tracking platforms. Google Analytics will work in the same way it does for your desktop site, allowing you to create dedicated segments to track your website’s desktop and mobile users with ease.

Once more, and in the interest of fairness, we must also assess the potential disadvantages of solely investing in a responsive mobile design for your website.

  1. Content changes: You may need to amend some of your existing content or create new material in order to place emphasis on certain elements of the page, as the form factor will change as the design responds to the constraints of the user’s browser.
  2. Backwards compatibility: As responsive web design is a relatively new technology, there are still some outdated devices in circulation with built-in browsers that cannot adapt to the latest technology and design changes, leaving some users with no option but to use the full desktop site, which can often be a frustrating and off-putting experience.
  3. Creating a balance: Mobile, by nature and design, offers a vastly different user experience compared to desktop. Therefore, you will need to ensure you create balanced design that suits both the avid mobile and desktop user.
  4. Compromising on unique features: Although a responsive website optimises the experience for the user, it can fall short in offering the same technical features as a dedicated mobile application. Depending on the device’s software and permissions, a responsive website may not be able to obtain access the device’s camera or exact geo-location, for example.

Which platform is right for my business?

In order to answer this question appropriately and with confidence, you must refer back to the goals and aspirations you have for your business, the current scale of the business and the project you require and then finally, the budget you have available. If your business has a content-heavy site that hosts a significant amount of product/service information, then a responsive design website may be better suited in the long term. If your businesses’ site operates an e-commerce store that requires instinctive cross-device performance and a strong UX, a dedicated native application should serve you and your existing and prospective customers well. Ultimately, as technology and the online interface thrives and develops, adopting a responsive design should be an instinctive and fundamental decision. Developing a native application will require further assured consideration in order to assess whether or not it would be a worthy and sound investment for your businesses online future.

Whichever platform you choose to move forward with, keep one intention at the fore: to provide the best overall product and solution for your users.

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