By Stewart McCoy

Prudence and the mobile bandwagon

I’ve heard “we need an iPhone site” a lot over the past couple years; lately, it’s “we need an iPad app.” You might have, as well. But with the mobile market more competitive than ever, and smartphones and tablets becoming pervasive, we need to think strategically about mobile web design; we need to be aware of how a site behaves on mobile devices, and determine whether users need a mobile-optimized site, a web app, or a native app.

Defining mobile strategies


A mobile-optimized site scales content to the viewport of a mobile browser. This can be accomplished several ways, including CSS3 media queries.

Building a Web App

HTML, CSS, and JavaScript is used to load the app in a web browser. In the context of a mobile strategy, a web app is designed to be used on smartphones and tablets, rather than a PC.

Building a Native App

Platform-specific code is used to create an app designed for a particular device. iPhone apps are coded in Objective-C and Android apps are coded in Java, for example.

Mobile Strategy is Contextual

As with all design challenges, whether you need a mobile strategy, and how to implement one, is about context. If you’re a hotelier, you need a mobile strategy. Travelers need to find location information and room availability, and they might want to reserve a room. If you’re a newspaper, you need a mobile strategy. Commuters like to catch up on the news—on their smartphones and tablets. A board of education or an ophthalmology organization, however, probably doesn’t need a mobile strategy; a mobile-optimized site would likely meet user needs.

Furthermore, in addition to the various content that users need to access, they’re usually on the move, whether on foot, train, or car. You also have to consider the increased importance of legibility because of small screen sizes.

Focus on User Needs and Business Constraints

To support your long-term business strategy, you should offer a mobile web app or native app depending on your user needs, as well as your business constraints.

When a Web App is Appropriate

If you have a broad user base accessing your app from multiple platforms, consider offering a web app. Advanced APIs now ensure that users have equal experiences across devices, comparable to one they would enjoy with a native app. And developers can use their familiar toolkit—HTML, CSS and JavaScript—instead of learning new languages to code native apps.

What’s more is you can bypass the app approval process. No iTunes. No Android Market. No BlackBerry App World. When you update your app, changes are deployed instantly; users don’t have to manually install updates. Netflix recently explained the ability to make seamless updates is one reason they chose HTML5 for user experiences on devices (including the PS3, iPhone, iPad, and Android).

Content-heavy sites or those focused on e-commerce should consider offering a mobile web app. (The New York Times, eBay, and Target are good examples.)

When a Native App is Appropriate

If your app focuses on games or entertainment, it is likely to require inputs such as multi-touch or the use of an accelerometer. Consider creating a native app that can directly access such hardware features. You should also consider that:

A native app might better interface with a phone’s camera, voice recorder, contacts, or other features. (However, mobile development frameworks are becoming more sophisticated and making it easier for web apps to access those features.)
You can make money from selling your apps.
It’s easier to make your app available offline.

Mobile Strategy Recommendations

With both web apps and native apps, you’re not just creating a mobile-friendly version of your website. You are integrating mobile into your overall business strategy. That means looking at analytics and defining metrics to make sure your decisions are paying off.

When considering whether you need a mobile strategy, start with your users.

  • How would they benefit from a mobile experience?
  • Would a web app or a native app make more sense for your use cases?

Also consider your business objectives:

  • Which app development process fits into your long-term business strategy?
  • Which approach do you think will pay off?

Further Reading on Mobile Strategy and Development

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