Mobile UX – Responsive Web Design vs Web Apps.

The rapid evolution of mobile devices, and near global usage, has totally changed the way people access the internet. Now people use their tablets and smartphones for numerous common things: checking e-mails, surfing the internet, making purchases, keeping track of their finances, posting on social media, and reviewing kitten pictures. Oh and one more thing – in 2015 google announced the so called Mobilegeddon, and started to boost in ranks all websites with mobile-friendly design.

As a result, most companies are now designing with mobile usage in mind and crafting the best mobile UX possible has become a primary concern. To accomplish this, however, companies first have to build a mobile presence and have multiple methods at their disposal to do so. They can create an entirely separate mobile site, a mobile web app, or use responsive web design. As of right now, it seems the most popular methods are responsive web design and mobile web apps.

In this article I’ll go over a quick overview on the differences between them so that you can get to creating awesome mobile experiences even faster.

Responsive website design

A responsive website design is a website that automatically adapts when users transfer from one device to another (most commonly, from a desktop to mobile) in order to accommodate for resolution, image size and scripting abilities. This means that a website that is perfectly legible on a desktop doesn’t become tiny and hard to read while on a smartphone because websites that use responsive web design adapt their layout to the viewing environment or device.

What’s nice about a responsive website from a maintenance point of view is that you have one site to design/update/host. However, this also means that when it comes time to update a responsive website you have to test more variables – such as how a new element or feature affects the user experience on both desktop and mobile.  

Web applications

Web apps are client-server software that run user interfaces directly in a browser, and combine the versatility of the web with the functionality of touch-enabled devices. This combines the benefits of a regular mobile site with features supported by native apps. Since mobile web apps are web-based they are compatible with most key smart phones, making it easy to deliver your content to a large mobile audience.

What’s great about web apps is that they are widely used and have certain features that users love, such as the ability to run offline, and since you’re only focused on the mobile experience it can be slightly easier to test than a responsive website. However, this also means web app require companies to run a separate mobile-only website, with a new domain and host.

SEO and UX

It’s worth mentioning that ever since Google started boosting mobile-friendly websites, responsive websites have a slight SEO benefit over web apps if you only focus on a web app as your point of mobile contact. This is because your “main” website would be still be considered mobile-unfriendly, in which case you would lose to competitors with responsive design. Moreover, SEO for responsive websites is much easier and with no requirements of redirection from web to web app, your page load time would be less.

In terms of user experience, you have to be careful with responsive websites because it squeezes and condenses all of your design and UI elements in order to fit on smaller screens. You may overload small screens with buttons and UI elements if your website is rich in those things, but if you re-work the design and functionality too much towards mobile-friendly it may hurt the experience for non-mobile visitors and users. With web apps you have more freedom to do whatever is needed to create the best user experience for your mobile visitors since it won’t affect the functionality of your desktop site.

Bottom line

According to a Quantcast survey in November 2015, 65.5% of the top 10,000 websites have responsive design. It seems that they are doing things right if they have climbed to the top. However internet giants like Youtube, Wikipedia, Twitter, Zoho, Google services, and Vimeo run web apps for mobile users despite their websites already being responsive for optimal mobile UX.

My advice is that if you are creating a new website, go responsively. It has the all-round benefits and a lower cost to maintain in both time and resources. Moreover, it is easier to track changes while you run only one project. On the other hand, creating a web app allows you to more easily focus on the mobile experience. Of course, the best choice would be to have a responsive website and web app at the same time – it would provide the best mobile UX overall and have the added SEO benefit, but would require a much larger budget to build.