Remember when “surfing the web” was a thing? The very phrase seems as antiquated as the dial-up modems we used for that purpose. Once the novelty of the World Wide Web wore off, we as a society spent less time following random links and started more purpose-driven Internet activities, such as shopping for books, buying airline tickets, and meeting people in “chat rooms.”
When smartphones arrived on the scene, the Internet world was shaken pretty hard. We discovered that websites that looked good on CRT monitors and laptop screens were nearly unusable on phones. It was clear that smartphones weren’t going away and that a new approach was needed to improve the user experience.
Solution: The Responsive Web
Thus was born the concept of the responsive web. Responsive websites have technology that detects the user’s screen size and orientation and presents a version of the website that is optimized accordingly. The mobile version typically has buttons and other active (tap-able) areas that are larger relative to the overall screen size than their desktop/laptop counterparts. This is needed so that users can actually see them without zooming in and so they can be manipulated by fingers, which are also relatively larger than mouse pointers.
Many websites now use responsive technology. This is particularly true of sites that generate revenue for their owners, who recognize that not having a mobile-friendly website puts them at a competitive disadvantage. Nowadays, when you see a site that isn’t optimized for mobile, it’s usually a government, nonprofit, or small business who is unable or unwilling to put in the investment for a mobile-friendly version.
And that’s the main problem with responsive websites: You are pretty much committed to maintaining two websites, each with a separate code base, different content and different functionality, and each with its own development and testing burden.
Responsive Web vs. Mobile Apps
So why not forget it and develop a mobile app instead? All the cool kids have mobile apps, right?
So glad you asked! Here are some things to consider when thinking about each approach:
- A mobile app is usually not a good replacement for a website. A mobile app’s value comes from the features and functions that it can exploit on the mobile platform, such as the camera, GPS, and other sensors and inputs that are not typically found on desktop and laptop computers. So even if you have a mobile app, you will still need a website. And if you think it’s hard to keep two website versions in sync, try coordinating a website and a mobile app.
- A mobile app may also require parallel development. Although tools exist that enable developers to develop for both iOS and Android from one code base, there will still be cases that require separate code for each, depending on what you are trying to achieve. So going with a mobile app to eliminate parallel development may not actually buy you anything.
As with any software development, the decision to develop a mobile app, responsive website, or both should be driven by compelling business needs—a business problem to solve, or a market to serve—not “because everyone else is doing it.” Ask yourself the following:
- What do my mobile customers need to do that they can’t do on the regular website?
- What features of the mobile platform can I take advantage of that would improve the user experience?
- What’s my expected cost savings or return on investment with either approach?
Of course, to really ensure all bases are covered, you can do both responsive web and mobile app. As an example, consider the strategy of any large bank. Most bank websites enable users to check their balances, pay bills, and transfer funds on their regular websites. The same functionality is also offered on their mobile-friendly websites, which implement a completely different user experience. But these banks also offer mobile apps, which include not only all the website functionality but additional neat mobile-only features such as depositing a check by taking a photo of it.
It’s your business. Figure out what makes the most sense and invest accordingly.