Recently (12.03.2013) Tom Loosemore, deputy director at the Government Digital Service published an article outlining the UK government’s mobile strategy. Unsurprisingly it doesn’t include the development of native mobile apps, instead Tom makes a case for responsively designed mobile sites:

“When it comes to mobile, we’re backing open web standards (HTML5). We’re confident that for government services, the mobile web is a winner, both from a user and a cost perspective.”

The government clearly understands the many advantages of a responsive approach and by embracing HTML5 (the latest mobile friendly, or ‘open’ web language) has shown it believes this to be the future of mobile development. We agree. In fact Zeta has been taking this responsive design approach for several years – here’s why.

First, know your native from your responsive

This article will explain the benefits of responsive design, but I also want to include a short explanation for each of the four mobile development options available to developers, and the pros and cons of each.

Mobile websites are a mobile version of a standard desktop site, normally hosted on a separate domain such as m.mywebsite.com. Traditionally they have often been created as an afterthought once a desktop site has gone live, and therefore can look quite different to the original version, resulting in a disjointed brand experience.

Responsive design refers to a website that adjusts to the dimensions of any device used by a visitor. Responsively designed sites are accessed from a single domain name and maintain a consistent brand experience. To see how this works in practise, try accessing www.bensongroup.co.uk from your desktop and then on a mobile device.

Web apps are HTML5 web based applications that run through a browser, as opposed to a device’s operating system (OS). Web apps use touch screen gestures, such as swiping, to deliver a native app user experience – see www.ft.com.

Native apps are designed to run on a mobile or tablet’s operating system and more often than not need to be adapted to work on different devices. They are available in app stores such as Apple’s iStore and Google’s Play and require approval before being downloaded.

Cost

It is faster and more cost effective to develop and maintain a responsively designed website compared to a native app. Unless you want to make use of core device features such as the camera, GPS or accelerometer, a native app is not required. If you do want to use them, a web app may in fact be a better option: the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is creating standards across mobile devices to enable these features to be accessed via browser application programming interfaces (API)s.

Native apps must be adapted to work on different devices. If a brand requires its app to have a presence across Apple, Android and Windows devices then three different versions must be developed and maintained. Conversely, a responsive website can be accessed from any device via a web browser – and with a single code base, responsive sites also cost far less to develop and maintain.

User Experience

A responsive website can deliver a similar app-like experience. Since Apple launched its App Store in 2008, internet technologies have developed rapidly to keep up with user’s expectations of how a website should work on mobile devices. A responsive site can make use of touch gestures, such as swiping, and provide a similar interactive experience as a native application.

SEO

Search engine optimisation is the backbone of any B2B brand and integral to B2C operations – however native apps cannot be optimised because all the content is locked inside and therefore is inaccessible to search engines. With a responsively designed site, content is engineered in a way that is picked up by Google and can be found by searchers. This is a no-brainer for any brand that embraces SEO and wants to continue building its audience.

Increased ability to broaden audience reach

If your native app isn’t promoted by the companies that own an app store, the task of getting users to download it can be challenging. Being in the app store may sound impressive to the casual observer, but in reality it actually removes you from the ever-expanding traffic on the web.

A responsive design approach also reaps the benefits of social media, ‘deep linking’ and inbound traffic from search engines. Deep linking is when people can link to a specific piece of content on your website – whereas with a native app, users can only create a link to the app store to download it.

No Barrier

With a responsively designed website your content is open and available for everyone to enjoy. However if you were to place this content within the walled confines of a native app, your visitors will have to tackle what could best be described as a virtual obstacle course. To access content, users must first:

  • Click to visit an app store
  • the store info, reviews and then click to download
  • Log into their store account
  • Wait for download
  • Load onto their phone

Approval process

Responsive design enables you to take complete publishing control of your content, whereas native apps are subject to an approval process by Apple and/or Google. Although Google can generally be quite lax with its approval process, Apple is a tougher nut to crack and apps can take weeks, if not months, to be accepted.

A responsive design website is hosted by you on your domain – giving total control of publishing, updates and future feature add-ons.

Updates and Features

Every time you want to release an updated version of a native app, it must go through a whole new approval process. For Apple this normally takes around eight days, however it isn’t unusual to have to wait longer, thus hindering the progress of any urgent updates required as a result of customer feedback and analytics data. A responsive website allows you to be agile and make improvements quickly.

We’re with the government on this one

So when it comes to mobile, don’t be too hasty to go native without first exploring a responsive approach. When you consider the bigger picture of time, cost and marketing; responsive design is the clear winner – so we’re pleased to see the UK government leading by example on the future of mobile internet.

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