In the ongoing debate of “native app” vs. “mobile web” there is plenty of attention paid to the technologies, their costs, and their limitations. However, what you need to focus on is selecting the delivery mechanism(s) that strengthens your relationship with your customers while also aligning with your business strategy.
Both “native apps”, developed to be installed on a mobile device, such as an iPhone app, and “mobile web” apps, or those applications which are built in HTML (usually responsively) and accessed through a browser, have unique benefits for both your company and your customers. As mobile market share continues to increase, more and more traditionally “desktop” products are being made available to mobile users, however, the process of deciding what and how to introduce a mobile product can be difficult. In order to support this process, ask yourself the following questions about your business strategy and customer needs:
1) Thinking of your place in the market, you want to be known as…
A trusted advisor
Mobile web, when done well, is comfortable for users, and tied to already familiar patterns and functionality in your web application. Since you’re operating in the same HTML medium, your brand assets are also more easily translated to mobile web, providing another layer of familiarity to users. Mobile web is accessible in essentially the same way — via browser — across all devices, and should function nearly the same across devices, meaning users can access your application however they choose and be assured a consistent experience.
Native apps provide a new contact point for customers, typically found in an app store. By virtue of being in the app store your app may be viewed as more trustworthy, as there is a vetting process to be in the store. Further, reviews in the app store can substantially bolster your perceived trustworthiness — if, of course, you maintain positive reviews. Finally, native apps provide the ability to not only be faster than mobile web apps, but also the ability to provide a dedicated channel for your product and brand, tied directly into the user’s device.
Mobile web applications typically provide value through features, rather than interactions. Generally, these features must be tied to a “cloud” connection, giving users the ability to tap into data or functionality while on-the-go that will sync with your greater product ecosystem. While libraries have been developed to tap into some hardware functionality, and mobile UI performance continues to improve, mobile web apps simply can’t match native performance in these regards.
Native apps, meanwhile, can provide unique value without a greater product ecosystem, or even without an internet connection. Products such as Snapchat and Instagram have proven that businesses can succeed from a mobile-first or even mobile-only approach to the market. Further, with the ability to both store data locally and to tap into the power of the device hardware, including cameras, accelerometers, GPS, and smoother graphics processing, native apps can create value through both features and interactivity. While native applications provide a wealth of opportunity, they come at a steeper cost of development and maintenance, especially when developing across platforms (e.g. iOS and Android)
2) Thinking of your customers behavior, you want to…
Make existing behavior more efficient
Mobile web can provide users with a mechanism for completing their work in much the same way they do from a larger device, typically utilizing exactly the same processes and similar UI components across devices.
Native apps, unlike mobile web, are typically going to be structured uniquely from any web counterparts, using patterns specific to the device and features and processes tailored to the smaller mobile interface. For applications that are both complex and frequently used, users may have to learn new methods for completing their work on mobile, but once learned are likely to complete these tasks more efficiently than with mobile web.
Drive behavior change
Mobile web, at its core, provides users a new channel to interact with your product, and thus may create behavior change simply by allowing them to work away from a computer. While mobile browsers are evolving to allow better connections to hardware data tracking and push notifications — core opportunities for driving deeper behavior change — these functions are today most reliably served by native apps.
Native apps, through hardware and local storage, can track many different data points, including GPS location, steps taken, and other health-related metrics. These apps can also interface with other devices to extend their tracking functionality, and provide data which can help inform and change user behavior. Beyond data, native apps support a rich notification infrastructure, allowing your app to actively interface with the user and catalyze their behavior.
3) Within your market, you view this application launch as…
A competitive advantage
Mobile web can provide you with a competitive advantage, however this advantage will in most cases be tied more to the features you’re providing and the ease of use rather than by virtue of having a mobile-accessible experience. While in the past simply having a mobile experience may have been an advantage, today having a mobile experience is pervasive and generally just expected by your customers.
Native apps, while still common, offer the ability to provide a more unique experience. While mobile web typically exists as an extension of an existing featureset into a new channel, native apps provide opportunities for both extending existing functionality and also introducing new, mobile-specific functionality. With native apps, you can build off the mobile hardware’s ability to store data offline, provide smooth touch interactions and high quality visuals, get input in unique ways (such as audio and voice), and to passively track data.
Mobile web provides a great platform for making your existing features available to users on all their devices. With a responsive design, any updates you launch will immediately impact all users at once, ensuring timely improvements and consistent experiences. As mobile traffic across the web is ever-increasing, having a mobile web experience will continue to become more and more expected across all industries and products.
Native apps can build off sets of existing patterns, typically built into the mobile platform itself (e.g. iOS), to provide simple applications and enable users to complete some tasks through their mobile device. Unlike mobile web, where users are likely to expect a near-complete product experience, native apps often target only certain functionality that is likely to be effectively utilized through mobile devices. Depending on your product and the market in which it competes, you may be able to target specific functionality through a simple native app(s) to effectively establish a place in the mobile market.
4) Will the service be a part of…
An existing business stream (channel)
Mobile web is, most often, the easiest way to extend existing products into the mobile channel. Through a responsive approach, you can likely leverage some existing pieces and reconfigure your product through mobile-first design to work at both large and small sizes. In this approach, you also have a single codebase that doesn’t need to be “pushed” to users, making maintenance and updates easier.
Native apps will build off your existing product’s feature set, but likely in a way that differs slightly from your desktop applications. Though hybrid approaches may allow you to leverage some existing pieces, you’re likely to have to develop more from scratch compared to a mobile web application. As a result, most native applications build from only part of a product’s existing feature set, and should shift those features using patterns and interactions specific to the mobile context. Native applications will require new code for every platform you wish to target, and changes will need to go through the app store and be downloaded by users, making maintenance and updates a bit more complex than mobile web.
A new business stream (channel)
Mobile web is less commonly used to introduce a new business stream, though it’s certainly possible. Products and features that are primarily useful while on-the-go are prime targets for innovation and introduction through a mobile web application. As an added bonus, you can point users of your existing products to these applications without requiring them to download an app — something many people are hesitant to do.
Native apps, through their advanced data, input, and display capabilities, are prime for introducing new business streams. Recently, numerous successful companies have launched not only mobile-first, but even mobile-only, eschewing the outdated notion that you need a web experience in addition to native. Because native apps are neatly “packaged” and provided through the app store, they provide a greater opportunity than mobile web to give your new product a unique name and brand. Depending on your particular needs, you can even develop a suite of applications, ideally with a consistent experience and appearance, with subtle variations unique to each product (Google’s Docs, Sheets, and Slides are a good example of this sort of suite).
5) You are more concerned with…
Maintenance over time (roughly same features)
If you plan to launch a fully-featured app, and are more likely to be supporting the initial feature set rather than adding to it, mobile web will make maintenance fairly easy. While mobile web patterns are always evolving, there are no defined patterns for the platform, and users adapt to the many different patterns currently in use. A well designed mobile web app today is unlikely to look too out of place in the mobile ecosystem a few years from now, and browser compatibility on mobile unlikely to shift dramatically in the near future.
To maintain a native app, a bit more care is needed when it comes to compatibility. As OS updates are launched, your app may fall out of date and be unaccessible to users on the new platform. Maintaining functionality across both legacy devices and newer devices may require additional development. Additionally, native apps typically follow standardized platform conventions, and these conventions often get changed alongside OS updates. To ensure users can easily use your app, it may be necessary to update some design elements to follow newer patterns and ensure your product fits established expectations.
Scalability over time (new features over time)
Mobile web, compared to native applications, are generally much easier to scale. You have, in most cases, one codebase, meaning feature updates and additions can be made once and applied across devices. Users will see these updates as soon as your production servers have the code, meaning small tweaks and improvements can be launched in a rolling fashion without forcing users to install an update.
Native apps, on the other hand, have a higher overhead when it comes to updates. Every platform will require some unique code, thus some changes may need to be made both to your existing product and to each of your native apps. Further, updates to the core of your native app will need to be pushed through an app store, requiring both app store approval and user installation. As a result, small tweaks and improvements likely need to be batched and launched as part of more substantial releases to avoid constant app store updates.
This isn’t a simple decision, and there’s no single “best” approach. Neither approach is free, however both may bring tremendous user benefits. If you find your company stuck in the technical considerations of your mobile platform, step back to understand your customers’ needs and how that aligns with your business and digital product strategy.
We hope the above questions start the conversation and prod your organization to a platform that drives customer loyalty as well as the bottom line.