Businesses are already aware of the need to adapt to mobile. With more than 3.5 billion smartphone users in the world today, it’s no longer a question of whether you should adapt for products for mobile devices, but rather how to do it properly. Deciding whether you should go for a responsive web app or native app is one of the first questions that you will need to figure out.
Both responsive web apps and native apps have their advantages and disadvantages, and it’s important to understand these in detail before committing to a particular development path. This article explores both paths and highlights their pros and cons.
Responsive web refers to the web designs that accommodate different screen sizes, so the content looks great on any screen size. Responsive web design is normally created using the “mobile-first” principle—the experience is defined first on mobile and then scaled up to larger screens such as a tablet, desktop, and TV. Responsive web design uses fluid grid systems (flexible grids that use relative sizes rather than absolute ones), fluid images (images that scale to fit the grids), and media queries (to alter the layout of the site when certain conditions are met).
In terms of visual appearance, a responsive website can look almost the same as a native app.
Pros of responsive design
- It lowers the cost of production. If you’re building a product from scratch, a responsive website will be much less expensive than a mobile app. Using lightweight, responsive frameworks like Bootstrap or Foundation make it easy to create a web app that looks good on any screen size.
- You have cross-platform accessibility. Responsive websites use HTML and CSS to display pages, and these can be accessed with any browser. As a result, responsive websites work equally well on various platforms and devices.
- There’s no need to install anything on your device. To start using the app, you only need to type your website URL into the browser address field. Potentially, all devices that are connected to the internet can access the website.
- It reduces time to market. The product team doesn’t need to go through approvals at the App Store for iOS or Google Play for Android (a mandatory step for every native mobile app). Thus, if you want to change the design of your website, you can simply update your code, and the changes will be immediately visible to your users.
- The content is more shareable. A responsive web app makes it easier for users to share and link to your content. All you need to do is share the URL.
- Content is indexed by Google and other search engines. Content from your website can appear in search results, enabling customers to discover your product.
Cons of responsive design
- It requires an internet connection. Since a responsive web is a website, it cannot work offline. Users will need constant connectivity to make use of the website.
- You need to optimize content for mobile. High-resolution images and fancy animated effects should be adjusted for mobile devices. If you don’t, users will have poor performance and longer page load times, which will ultimately lead to a higher bounce rates.
- There’s limited support of native device features. Responsive websites have limited support of mobile device features such as access to a camera, microphone, and push notifications.
- It cannot be distributed through an app store. This can be a problem if you’re looking for ways to monetize downloads of your app.
Native apps are developed to run on a specific mobile operating system. They are created in a programming language for OS. For example, if you are going to develop a native app for iOS, you’d do the development in Swift. You’d create the app based on the guidelines proposed by Apple and go through the App Store review process before your app becomes available for users.
Pros of native apps
- It has better performance. Well-written native code always runs faster than a responsive web app code. Mobile apps can store essential data on devices and do not rely on a middle-state processor (web browser) to perform even the most elementary functions.
- There’s consistency with OS design. Native apps act like the rest of the user experiences on the phone—both visual design decisions and interaction patterns will be familiar for your target audience. As a result, they will spend less time learning how to use your product.
- It leverages a mobile device’s hardware-control features. Native apps can normally access all the functionality of the chosen device, such as a camera, microphone, and Bluetooth.
- It offers more personalization. Personalization is about offering a tailored experience to users based on their interests, location, and behavior. Mobile apps let users set up preferences from the start. This makes it easier for you to track users’ interactions so you can customize their experiences according to their needs.
- It can work offline. Once the app has been downloaded, its data can be stored directly on a device. The product team can decide which content it wants to make available for offline use.
- You have more freedom in design. Mobile OS gives designers more options in terms of visual and interaction designs. Designers can introduce gesture-based interactions or complex animated transitions in mobile apps.
Cons of native apps
- It can’t run on a device with a different operating system. For example, you’re not able to run an iOS app on an Android. If you want your app to run on both, you need to develop two versions of your app—one for iOS and another for Android.
- It’s expensive to build. The biggest downside of building native apps is the type of coding necessary. If you want to build an iOS app, you will need to learn or hire a developer who can code in Swift. If you want to build an Android app, you will need a person who knows Java. If your product team wants to release an app for iOS and Android, then they will have to write a code for each operating system.
- It’s harder to acquire new users. Users need to be motivated to install your app. The average person uses 25 apps per month, with the average cost per install (CPI) for iOS devices at $2.37 in the U.S. Even when the user installs your app, 21% of users abandon an app after one use. This means that you will need to invest significant resources in marketing and advertising to get more downloads.
How to choose between responsive web vs. native apps
Ideally, you should have both. Users might want to access your website on their devices at some point—even when there’s a native app, and it’s installed on their mobile phones. That’s why online services like Instagram offer two versions of their product: a responsive web app and a native app. This gives users more options to access the content.
At the same time, mobile apps don’t have to duplicate all the features of the responsive website. Some app functions cannot be applied to a website, either due to technical reasons or because of a product decision. For example, Instagram users can view and upload photos when they use the mobile app, but they can only view photos when they interact with Instagram through its website.
When it comes to choosing between responsive and native apps, it’s worth remembering that both have their advantages. What matters the most is satisfying your users’ needs. Carefully specify your business goals and find the right way (or ways) to achieve these goals using a responsive web app, native apps, or a combination of both.