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Apps and Mobile Sites and Responsive Design, Oh My

It is no secret that mobile devices will eclipse desktop computers as the primary way people access the internet. Know anyone who bought an iPhone or Kindle lately? Compared to a desktop computer they’re lighter, cheaper, easier to use, and can be taken anywhere.

If you own a business, now might be a good time to start thinking about how you will engage customers using smartphones, tablets and other devices.

If your website was built for desktop browsers only, don’t worry, it may still be usable on mobile devices. If you don’t have a smartphone or tablet, borrow one from your child, or grandma or a coworker and take a look at your website using it. Hopefully your website still functions to some degree.

Acquired one or more of these devices to experiment with and make sure all the basic needs of your users can still be met on your website.

  • Can people contact you?
  • Can they read about your products or services?
  • Are the buttons and links easy to click and is it generally not a problem navigating the website?

Hopefully, you answer yes to all of the above but if not, or if you feel you need to provide a better experience for mobile users, keep reading and I’ll go over some of the options available to give a better user experience to your mobile users.

You’ve probably heard of Apps and maybe mobile website, and if you’re really paying attention, adaptive or responsive design. These are the primary ways of tailoring content for mobile users.

We’ll start with a simple overview of each:

  • A Mobile Website is a website independent of your main (desktop) website that is designed and will be displayed solely and specifically for mobile users. When a user requests your website by either: searching for it, clicking a link to it, or typing the URL into their browser, the server sends them the files associated with either your mobile site or the desktop version of your website based on the device being used.
  • A Mobile App is an application built for a specific device and/or operating system like an iPhone, that must be downloaded and installed by the user before using.
  • A Responsive Website is a design technique that arranges your website’s content in a way that is easy to view on devices of all types and sizes. If you are viewing this website from a desktop computer, go ahead and decrease the width of the browser window. You’ll see how the content moves(responds), based on how wide the browser window is.

Pros & Cons of Each

Mobile Website Pros:

Mobile websites were one of the first ways of addressing mobile users. They serve a completely different website to users on mobile devices that is designed for use on said devices. They can be, but are not always a fairly cheap method of serving content to mobile users.

Mobile Website Cons:

There are problems with mobile websites. You may only be addressing users on a narrow range of devices or device sizes, leaving users on other devices in the dark. You may also have to keep two completely separate websites updated, your mobile site and the desktop version of your website. And because you are offering two separate versions of your website to users based on the device they’re using, it can cause confusion and/or a disconnect with your marketing message. Many mobile versions of sites also exclude or limit the content that is displayed on the mobile site, which could frustrate users who can’t find something desktop users are able to still access.

Pros of Apps:

Applications tend to be created for businesses that have very complex functionality they wish their users access too that might not be possible or would otherwise be very difficult to do with just a mobile website.

Cons of Apps:

Although there is some software and cheaper services to help build applications now, Apps still tend to be labor intensive to create. Plus you will have to maintain your website and the App at the same time. Not to mention an iPhone app doesn’t work on Kindle or Android, or Windows, so you may end up needing multiple apps to satisfy all these different users. But the biggest problem with applications is it requires the user to have knowledge of the App to start, find it, download it, and then install it before they can access your content. None of which is necessary with a standard website. Often the cost of developing the app is small compared to the cost associated with spreading the word to your customers about the app and getting them to use it.

Pros of Responsive Design:

Responsive design is becoming the standard in web design and development so you should expect it to be around for years while other methods may become less popular. You can design your site to look a specific way for all devices and if you wish, focus more time for those devices you know your customers are using most. There is no need to maintain additional mobile sites or applications, just the one website.

Cons of Responsive Design:

There can be some cons with responsive design. Some design techniques are more difficult or time consuming to create with a responsive design. Also, because responsive websites by design do not have one set layout, it can be difficult during the development phase for you to know what your website is going to look like, since there may not be a set mockup the designer can give you. Often times, responsive designs are built directly in the browser, instead of in a program like Photoshop as a concept, and then coded.

Cost of Each Method

There actually isn’t any one method that will always be cheaper than the next. Some content management systems like WordPress, have basic mobile versions that come with a theme, or the theme may be responsive.

Differences From A Normal Website

Not always but most times, designing for multiple devices also means higher prices because their is more code to right, along with more designing and more testing. As mobile continues to grow the price may go down. In five years most web designers will most likely be building all websites for multiple devices.

For hobbyist or others who use a WYSIWYG editor like Dreamweaver to build websites, they will most likely not be able to create or work with any of these techniques. They require a lot more knowledge and the skill to code websites on their own, without the help of a visual design program. You really must know the languages they are written in to develop websites using these techniques. For a business owner this isn’t important just make sure the designer you choose is familiar with, and can show you examples of the technique in question before doing work with them.

Which Do I Recommend?

I have personally never built any mobile applications but I have done mobile websites and do responsive design. For my projects going into the future I plan on using responsive design. It is the standard for web design going forward and provides the widest range of accessibility for devices. I also like responsive design because it is highly customizable. You can just give basic functionality for mobile devices or you go all out designing for each and every device you choose. It’s just a matter of how much time you have and the budget of the project.

Apps do have their place, but for smaller businesses I don’t really feel they have a need or they have the budget to be successful with an App.