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The New Design Trend: Build a Website; Enable Self-optimization Across All Mobile Devices

The continuous evolution of smart phones, regular release of newer mobile OS versions, availability of a huge variety of mobile applications from different app stores and high speed internet connections have completely transformed the way consumers use their mobile devices.

According to report by Cisco, global mobile devices and connections in 2014 grew to 7.4 billion, up from 6.9 billion in 2013. The vast majority of mobile data traffic (97%) will originate from the smart devices.By 2019, there will be 8.2 billion handheld or personal mobile-ready devices.And the global mobile data traffic will increase nearly tenfold between 2014 and 2019.

This revolution is influencing many companies to shift towards a “Mobile First, Desktop Second” strategy for their business. However, the shift from desktop to mobile requires web designers to refocus - not completely away from desktop design, but certainly with an inclination towards mobile.

There are several ways to approach a mobile web presence, such as implementing a separate mobile site or a mobile web app. The most recent and popular approach seems to be Responsive Web Design.

This paper explains the difference between Mobile Web App and Responsive Web Design, and provides a framework for resolving some of the key questions decision makers have. These include what factors to consider when choosing between Responsive Web Design and Mobile Web App, and what type of industry Responsive Web Design is most suitable for. The paper examines the pros and cons of each approach, and presents a sample scenario from the retail industry as well as a case study. As the paper guides you in how to make the right choice, it draws upon RapidValue’s experience helping enterprises succeed in the complex and evolving mobile ecosystem.

Device-Specific Approach: Mobile Web App

When a developer creates a website, they often design for large screens and lose sight of how it will look when a user browses the same website from their mobile device. When users click links within the site via their mobile phones, reading and navigating become difficult, requiring zooming and resizing to read or click. This is when you need to think developing a device-specific site.

The most common option for companies looking for a mobile version of their website is to build a mobile site. This is a separate version of your website that users are redirected to when they access your website via a mobile phone or tablet. The main benefit of implementing a mobile version of a website is that it provides an optimized view across mobiles and tablets.

And what is Mobile Web App? This is an increasingly popular type of mobile development in which the application is built to run over the internet from a central server, from where it can be accessed by any device with a web browser. The web technologies used to develop the app are HTML5, Sencha, jQuery and others. The underlying technologies are JavaScript, HTML and CSS.

A mobile web app combines the versatility of the web with the functionality of touch-enabled devices. Therefore the application provides the benefits of a regular mobile site, i.e. it works across browsers and a wide range of devices. It also provides some of the features supported by native apps — rich look and feel, offline browsing, location based services and video capabilities.

Since mobile web app is web-based, they are compatible with most key smart phones, making it easy to deliver your content to a large mobile audience.

One Size Fits All: Responsive Web Design

In simple terms, Responsive Web Design is the methodology that recommends the design and implementation of a website that responds to user behavior and environment based on the screen size, orientation and operating system of their device.

From a technology standpoint, the framework consists of a combination of flexible grids, flexible layouts, images and intelligent use of CSS media queries. As the user switches from one device to another (for example, desktop to iPhone), the website automatically adapts to accommodate for resolution, image size and scripting abilities. This eliminates the need for resizing, panning and scrolling by the user in order to view the website on the new device.

The following figure illustrates a retail website implemented using Responsive Web Design. You can see the rearrangement of images and text when the user browses the site from their desktop and then from their mobile device.

One Size Fits All: Responsive Web Design

Responsive Web Design: When Is It Most Appropriate?

Typically, Responsive Web Design is suitable for informational web pages, with information on the right side of the screen in desktop applications brought to the bottom of the page in mobile applications.

Some of the advantages of using Responsive Web Design are:

  • Single code base – build once, run across all devices
  • Renders across any screen size – one can view the internet on 20″ monitors, 15″ laptops, 10″ netbooks, 7″ tablets, 3″ smartphones and every size between. It also considers the huge difference in widths and heights, whether the screen is landscape or portrait, and screen resolution.
  • Improves SEO – a single version of the website improves page ranking. Issues have arisen in which having two versions of a site (website and mobile site) impact page ranking.
  • Reduces maintenance cost and effort due to single link.
  • Provides control and flexibility – changes can be made at one centralized place. You do not need to contact multiple vendors to make changes when your mobile site/ mobile application is built by different development companies.

Here are three main scenarios where Responsive Web Design would be most applicable:

1. Corporate Websites/Blog Sites

Corporate Websites/Blog Sites

The website first and mobile second is usually the business need. For corporate websites, the need for rich images is lesser, device-agnostic solutions is higher, and target audience is a huge factor. And for blog sites, extensive user input is not required and images required are minimal.

For these types of sites, brand consistency is primary. With one website that works on both desktop and mobile screens, you will find it much easier to keep a consistent brand identity. Also, no style guides are required to communicate between multiple vendors such as different entities responsible for the desktop and mobile versions of your site.

2. Media/News Sites

Media/News Sites

In these types of sites, users are more accustomed to scrolling from top to bottom using their mobile. Responsive Web Design works well here. These sites are more text-heavy, and sections such as breaking news require real-time content updates which add to maintenance cost if different mobile technology options are used for the design.

3. Location-based Services

Location-based Services

Maps and direction finder services are generally image heavy. In these types of services, to view the routes closely and to get better clarity zooming and re-sizing the screen with fingers become necessary. Auto-adjustment becomes essential, which is supported in Responsive Web Design.

Key Challenges in Responsive Web Design

In previous sections, we discussed what Responsive Web Design is and what kind of websites it is most suitable for. But like any other technology option, this design approach has its drawbacks. The top three are described below.

1. User experience not as rich as Mobile Web App

While Responsive Web Design does optimize the user experience across devices, it does not provide a user experience as rich as the Mobile Web App approach. Responsive Web Design uses a single code base, but in reality different devices have to be accounted for. While a desktop version can display a lot of content at once, for smaller screens you need to know exactly what content truly matters. To create a great experience for all users, you need to consider that people will use different devices in different circumstances and with different goals. With Responsive Web Design, more effort and time will be involved to get the right user experience for your target audience.

2. Navigation enabled from top to bottom, not left to right

Typically, Responsive Web Design supports top to bottom navigation. Content is pushed from top to bottom when users switch from their desktop to mobile device to access the website. This approach is useful for informational sites such as corporate sites, blog sites and news sites. However, for many other industries such as sports, entertainment and retail, mobile users (especially those with touch screen devices) are comfortable scrolling from left to right, especially when viewing pictures in a carousel photo and video gallery. Left to right navigation is supported by Responsive Web Design but requires some customization in the layout and code, which again leads to more time and effort.

3. Longer development cycle

Designing a website using Responsive Web Design takes longer than building a normal website (a dynamically generated web page which recalls various bits of information from a database and puts them together in a pre-defined format to present the reader with a coherent page). If the website is already built using the normal website approach, rebuilding it using Responsive Web Design in order to optimize across mobile devices will further add to the complexity.

In addition, prioritizing the content in Responsive Web Design is essential. This is to ensure that important content is not missed when the user switches from a laptop or desktop to a mobile device.

Placement of the navigation menus plays an important role too, especially on more complex desktop websites with multilayer drop-down menus that have to be adapted for smaller screens. Once a hierarchy becomes too complex or different than what you want mobile users to see, the argument for Responsive Web becomes less compelling.

Based on the above factors, if a rich user experience, left to right navigation and faster implementation time are your primary requirements, you should consider the Mobile Web App approach.

Comparison Summary

Due to differences in underlying technology, each approach has inherent advantages and drawbacks, development frameworks, and appropriate use cases. Careful analysis is required to ensure that your mobile solution is built using the right approach to meet your requirements. The following table summarizes the strengths and weakness of each approach.

Criteria Responsive Web Design Mobile Web App
Versions Single version – build the website and optimize across mobile devices Two separate versions – build one for website and another for mobile
Development Cost Higher. Cost increases with increase in number of elements in the website Medium
Implementation Time Longer development cycle. Development complexity increases as the website map gets more complex Less time if you know the exact features you need and you have planned your roadmap well
Design Approach Requires specialized knowledge of this new approach Straightforward if you know the exact features and functionality you need in your mobile solution
User Experience
  • Slightly lower user experience since the app is designed for a website and optimized across mobile devices
  • Navigation enabled from top to bottom by default. Left to right navigation requires additional customization and modification in layout and code
  • Better user experience, specifically designed for mobile phone and improving further with HTML5 technology
  • Left to right navigation enabled to support carousel navigation
Performance Potential bandwidth issues when server sends larger media than needed and text-heavy images Better, more streamlined performance
Ongoing Maintenance
  • Lower maintenance cost and effort
  • Single version to maintain for the website and across a wide range of mobile devices
  • Provides control and flexibility to make changes in website, which are reflected across all mobile devices
  • Medium
  • Separate for website version and mobile web app version
  • Requires changes to be made separately in website and mobile web app versions
Responsive Web Design is a great way to give an enterprise a mobile presence. But it shouldn’t be considered the only mobile approach. Before making a decision, an enterprise should evaluate both options — Responsive Web Design and Mobile Web App, and select the technology option which best suits your business requirements.”

Rinish Nalini, Chief Technology Officer, RapidValue Solutions

How to Choose the Right Option for Your Business — Retail Industry Example

A high quality user experience has always been the primary requirement for consumers, a fact that mobile service providers now recognize. The mobile service should be simple to use, easy to navigate and provide seamless transactions, especially when it comes to online shopping.

Retailers can choose either design approach to build a mobile service for their consumer. Your business requirements will determine the right technology option.

Here is one scenario: you are a retailer and you already have a website. You now need a mobile solution which has an attractive user interface, can be launched in 6-8 weeks and is cost effective. Before making a decision, you need to consider a few additional parameters which are important for your retail mobile service:

1. Right Content, Layout and User Preferences

Right Content, Layout and User Preferences

The right content must be provided to your target audience. In order to retain existing customers and reach a larger audience, capturing user preferences and providing content, features and capabilities based on their requirements should matter the most.

The mobile web experience is different from the desktop experience. For retailers, where quality of experience is critical, a separate layout and experience for the mobile web is strongly recommended. This is because:

Right Content, Layout and User Preferences
  • Retail consumers with mobile devices are usually accustomed to scrolling from left to right for viewing the product catalog (especially phones with touch screens)
  • In a desktop website, multiple filters may be present on a single page, but in mobile web, due to lack of real estate, these filters are placed on different pages, accessed sequentially and hence the same structure may not work

Both of these capabilities are supported in Responsive Web Design as well as Mobile Web App, but enabling them using the Responsive Web approach takes more work.

2. Build and Deploy Mobile Service in an Iterative Fashion

To really be responsive in your design, you as a retailer should build web services/apps based on user feedback, as this will help create a more optimal user experience over time. Design and development should be combined in an iterative manner to allow retailers to take full advantage of the mobile channel. Retailers should start with minimal but relevant features in their service/application for their consumers, get their feedback, and respond to that feedback and evolve the service/application over time. Therefore a long-term service roadmap is essential before you start building your mobile service.

Considering all the above factors, for this type of scenario the Mobile Web App approach will work best.

Case Study: Mobile Web-Based mCommerce Solution

Mobile Web-Based mCommerce Solution

RapidValue launched a Mobile web-based mCommerce solution for the world's largest online retailer of street-wear. The solution allows consumers to shop online using their mobile devices.

The client wanted to add a new mobile channel for their consumers. To meet client requirements RapidValue had to identify the optimum solution (Responsive Web Design vs. Mobile Web App).

The main requirements were a cost effective solution, fast implementation time, ongoing maintenance and support, and a high-quality user experience.

The client already had an existing website as well as Android and iPhone native applications.

For this client, it was important to select the Mobile Web option instead of Responsive Web Design, for the following reasons:

  • To reach the largest number of consumers while providing service across multiple device types
  • Native apps are not SEO-friendly
  • Converting the existing website to Responsive Web would take more time and effort

RapidValue designed the complete user interface, built the mobile service and deployed the solution, all within 3½ months.

Conclusion

Responsive Web Design is an emerging trend that involves designing websites and applications for optimal viewing across multiple devices and screen sizes using a single code base. But will it meet web application challenges in today's mobile world? The answer depends on what you are trying to achieve with your website or mobile app.

The advantages of Responsive Web Design include a single code base that provides easy and low maintenance along with a single version of the website that improves SEO. Mobile Web App provides a better user experience, lower risk of performance issues and faster implementation time for your mobile service if you know your exact requirements.

The design of your website and mobile service should be based on your target audience. Building a site using either approach requires thorough planning and a good understanding of the user’s roadmap through the site on every type of device.

Therefore, if you want a solution that’s easy to maintain, makes use of existing skills and that you can control, then Responsive Web Design is the approach for you. If you want a high quality user experience, better performance, faster implementation and seamless transactions, then you should select Mobile Web App for your business.

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