Mobile applications are everywhere and it is increasingly difficult for any brand to be relevant without a mobile optimized web site. For healthcare marketers, the number of different options in the mobile space is daunting. Do you build an app? If so, on what platform? Is a mobile site better suited to meet your needs? If so, which devices do you target? Should you use a mobile app platform that promises a 'build-once, run-anywhere' approach? Where do tablets fit in – are they mobile devices, browser-based sites or something else? The questions are endless.
Here, we are going to look at how native apps differ from responsive web sites. Lets start by discussing the main differences between the two, and then review some basic guidelines to help you pick the approach that will best suite your business needs.
A website is responsive if the pages automatically adapt to the resolution and capabilities of the device the site is being viewed on.
This approach may mean that elements of the site experience are added or removed based on the size of the screen available. In other cases, the page elements may be moved around for more optimal navigation or their visual representation might be changed to make it easier for the user to navigate. Responsive approaches also allow for difference in device capabilities. For instance, an iPad has a resolution that will handle most computer browser type interfaces, however, some interface items need to change to allow navigation of the site without a mouse. A responsive site will handle this elegantly without the user realizing it.
A native app is an application that has been developed for a specific platform – such as iOS, Android, or Windows to name a few.
What are the differences?
A responsive web site, as we have seen, adapts automatically to the device, and provides an optimized layout. The navigation allows them to use touch interactions while connected to a WiFi or 3G/4G network. Generally, a responsive approach results in a mobile site that is ideal for delivering the types of experiences that we expect on full-size computers, but with an interface that is optimized for a smaller screen size. It provides the user a navigation paradigm that is appropriate for the features and form factor that their device offers.
A native app, unlike a web site, cannot be browsed via a URL but instead needs to be installed from an app store such as those provided by Apple, Android or Microsoft. The application, once installed, can access the features and hardware specific to that device (such as the digital camera, accelerometer, etc.) but it can also display content as a browser would. Since apps are compiled of binary code for a specific device, they often offer a more consistent experience than what is capable on a browser. In addition, they offer a wider array of capabilities much like a Microsoft Windows application would if compared to a web site viewed in Internet Explorer. Among the difference are: more robust visual capabilities, interaction with the file system of the device, interaction with device specific features of the phone, ability to use applications when not connected to a network and enhanced security capabilities.
Physicians use multiple-screens in their daily practice: 99% are using the desktop/laptop, 84% a smartphone, and 54% are using a tablet. Source: Manhattan Research.
Which should you choose?
Whether a native app or responsive web site is best depends on what the purpose of the site is, what the target audience is, how large the budget is and what functionality is required.
If the goals of the site align with the marketing or communications to the public, then a mobile site is almost always going to be the better choice because of its cost effectiveness and broad accessibility. Here are some of the situations that would make building a responsive web site the better choice:
- Compatibility - Responsive approaches will support a large number of devices (PC/laptop bowsers, tablets, smart phones, etc.). In addition, they make it easy to utilize some mobile technologies such as QR Codes, SMS and NFC.
- Updating - Responsive web sites are easy to update and avoid the complexity of releasing a new app. Content can be added, removed and altered easily and quickly – allowing the user to see newly published content almost immediately.
- Sharability - Mobile web sites make it easier for users to share their content with others by sending a URL to a friend, or posting the content to social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, WeChat, etc. Users can also be easily directed to the responsive site by simply publishing a URL.
- Time and Cost - Responsive sites can be developed and supported faster and more economically for the simple reason that a single code base is easier to manage than a portfolio needed to support the popular platforms (iOS, Andriod, Windows, Blackberry, etc.)
- Findability - Responsive sites are easy to find. They can be located with search engines and easily accessed from virtually any browser. Mobile apps require the user to put forth considerably more effort to find and install the app.
- Longevity - Responsive sites can't be deleted but it is hard to know how long an app will remain on a users phone.
From March 2012 to March 2013 Desktop usage drops from 98% to 96%, while mobile usage grows from 45% to 58%.
Despite all the advantages of a responsive web site approach there are some areas where a native app is worthy of serious consideration. Generally, here are some of the scenarios where a native app might be a better choice:
- Interactivity or Gaming - Since these experiences tend to be fairly complex, functionally and visually, a native app is almost always the best choice. There are also excellent frameworks and SDKs to make building these types of apps relatively simple compared to doing so on the web.
- Personalization - If a user is going to regularly interact with the software and personalize the experience, then an app offers some distinct advantages which enable these types of experiences to be very rich and highly customized. If personal data is being collected, it can often be done so more securely in a native app than on a responsive site.
- Complex Calculations - If the software is going to manipulate data or display complex information in charts, graphs or tables, or follow a specific flow (decision tree or other algorithmic type calculation) then a native app is the better choice. Something like a diagnostic app in the healthcare space would be a good example of this.
- Native Functionality - If the desire is to take advantage of hardware features of the platform that might be unavailable in a web browser – such as the accelerometer on an iPhone – then a native app is a good choice.
- No Networking Connection - If the software needs to function in an environment where the user will be offline – such as a hospital – native apps will offer more options for maintaining a high-quality user experience than with a responsive web site.
Optimizing browsing for mobile devices is critical: 62% of physicians prefer to leave the website when the pages are not optimized for the tablet or smartphone. Source: Manhattan Research.
A Final Word
There is tremendous buzz around responsive approaches to web design right now while native apps have been around for a number of years. Both technologies will continue to co-exist in the market, both serving different purposes. There is no definitive right or wrong answer; however, these guidelines should be used to help match business needs to the strengths of the two approaches. Finally, it is important to note that these approaches do not need to be mutually exclusive. Instead we advocate for both approaches to be part of a comprehensive strategy to deliver the best user experience taking into careful consideration the behaviors and desire of the user as well as the business objectives.