Ok. So you’ve got a budget to work with and you want to develop a high quality interactive experience or destination for your clients and customers. And it must work well on smart phones.

So should you develop an app? What about this “responsive” or “mobile-friendly” web design you’ve heard about? Do you need both? Is one better that the other?

These are good questions and yes, you guessed it, there is no universal answer. So let’s have a look at each:

A Mobile App

twitter-292994_1280Mobile applications (apps) are programs that can be downloaded and saved to a mobile device’s storage by the user. Apps are developed specifically for each type of mobile operating system. The two biggest platforms are iOS from Apple and Android from Google, but there are Windows and Blackberry app markets also. Depending on the purpose, you could pick one or the other, but you really should try and budget to cover at least the two market leaders.

Here are some compelling reasons to choose an app for your business:

  • Enhancing users’ experience. Apps offer a more intuitive and generally more elegant alternative to a responsive website. And because an app’s operations are occuring locally on the device the experience is nearly always “zippier”.
  • Accelerating attainability and speed. A huge benefit of apps is that they can be programmed to operate without the assistance of an active internet connection. Customers can access information at any time – even if they are offline. Obviously in some circumstances there are apps that must connect to the internet to be of any use, but the offline potential of apps shouldn’t be underestimated.
  • Heightened visibility. After installing an app on a device, users have a designated spot for your products and services. They will never have to search for your business, as it will literally be at the tip of their fingers.
  • Innovation. Endless possibilities. An app allows you to maximize your creativity. What you can do with an app is really only limited by your capacity to get it designed and coded. Think about it – what was once the domain of only the most powerful PCs is now all possible from the palm of your hand.

As with anything else, there are some drawbacks to apps. We’ll focus on the development side of things:

  • Development Complexity. Building a good app takes time and expertise above and beyond your average website. It usually will take months to build an app whereas websites can be fast-tracked much easier.
  • Waiting for approval. Updates of any size must be submitted and approved by its respective app store. This could take a few minutes or a few weeks, depending on a variety of circumstances. (Do not underestimate the time-delay to achieve iOS approval)
  • Limited accessibility. Since apps are built for a particular OS, and the OS is regularly updated, apps that are not updated in turn may lose some or all functionality.
  • Cost. Unless it is a very simple app (i.e. one or two pages), app development will be the most expensive option.
  • Acquiring data. Search engine optimization (SEO) must be handled differently with an app. Not all of the information you get with a desktop is available on apps.

Responsive Website

Responsive_Web_Design_for_Desktop,_Notebook,_Tablet_and_Mobile_PhoneUsing a responsive website will give you a single online destination (e.g. you type “www.businessname.com” into a web-browser) that automatically conforms to different screen sizes and device orientations. This means your website’s content, navigation and interactions achieve the same level of comfort and accessibility to both mobile and desktop users.

Sounds pretty cool? It is. And here are some of the other positive attributes of responsive websites:

  • Maintain only one website. A website with a responsive design enables most of the content to remain the same, which allows the owner to maintain a single website and control the content regardless of how the user is viewing it.
  • A single URL. Only one URL is required for a responsive website. The advantage to this feature is that users can easily find the website without being redirected to a separate location.
  • Cost control. With a responsive website, the need for apps or additional domains is eliminated, which significantly reduces the cost of development.
  • Simple data access. There is no need to alter tracking platforms already in use. Google Analytics works exactly the same as with the desktop site, allowing the owner to easily create dedicated segments for tracking their website’s desktop and mobile users.

Like apps, there are some cons that go along with responsive websites. They include:

  • Changes to content. Some content may need to be amended and new content may need to be created to place emphasis on certain page elements. Changes will occur as the design conforms to the constraints of the user’s browser.
  • Incompatibility with older devices. Since responsive websites are still relatively new, there are some outdated devices around that do not adapt to the new technology.
  • The burden of developing balance. Mobile and desktop platforms contrast and offer users a drastically different experience. A design will need to be made that suits both types of users, which can be difficult.
  • Compromising certain features. A responsive website may optimize the experience of the user, but it can potentially fail to offer the same features as an app. Depending on the device’s permissions and software, a responsive website may not be able to get access to certain features of the device like its camera or geo-location.

So, which option is for you?

Given that the cost of building a responsive website is often not that much more than the initial website cost (you should typically add between 20 and 30% to a website project) most often you’ll be deciding: if I’ve already got a responsive website, is an app really necessary?

The correct answer will differ greatly based on your goals, business model, target audience, budget limitations, products/services offered and more.

At the end of the day, mobile apps have the potential to provide your users with an experience that is superior to even the most advanced responsive website.

However, always remember that each platform is a powerful tool to reach users in its own right. Without a suitable presence online or as app, clients or customers may otherwise not have known about, or have had a good reason to use your products or services.

So whichever option you choose (or if you choose both), keep in mind that your overall goal should be to provide the best experience possible to your users. They are the ones who will be deciding whether they stay around and use your website or app – or jump ship to a competitor…