What, when, why: Responsive web design vs. app development

When we talk to ISVs or the CIOs and development managers in different companies, we hear that many of them are planning and thinking about creating apps and responsive websites. We also find some confusion regarding these two approaches. If a business wants to make sure its website performs well on various mobile devices, when and why should it decide for a mobile app and when is a redesigned website the better way to go? Let’s take a closer look at each of these development approaches.

Planning the best visitor and user experience

A mobile app is a product you can download from one of the online app shops, such as the Apple App Store for the iOS platform or the Play Store for Android devices. A responsive website opens in a regular web browser as well as in the mobile browser on a tablet or other device, no matter whether it’s in portrait or landscape mode. A responsive website presents and performs well in a variety of operating system environments and on many different devices, offering a consistent experience without any issues.

What do you want to offer visitors and users? The distinction between people visiting your site and using your app is already meaningful. Whether you should decide for responsive site design or develop an app depends very much on the kind of service functionality and experience you want to provide. Also bear in mind that the website people see on their desktop computers should be consistent in terms of appearance and capabilities with the one they view on their mobile devices.

Research into customer experiences and expectations can help in your responsive design and app planning decisions. According to one source, 60 percent of consumers say they are more likely to purchase from a mobile-optimized website than from a company’s standard website. However, apps from retail businesses absorbed at least 27 percent of consumers’ attention and spending. A responsive website may be able to provide all the functionality your customers need to transact business with you, but the quality and immersiveness of the experience will usually be far superior in a mobile app. The app experience is likely to achieve and strengthen customer loyalty much better than a responsive website can, but of course that also depends on the demographics you target and the kinds of products or services you market. On the other hand, if SEO is part of your strategy for driving traffic, launching offerings, or growing your brand, you will want to go the responsive website route—SEO is not something today’s apps can accommodate.

Many websites offer rich, often multimedia content to tell a story about a company and its offerings. They may include discussion forums or other social capabilities. Apps go beyond this by making use of mobile device features such as the camera or the GPS. Once users download and install an app, much of the related information may also have been downloaded, and at least for some app functions an internet connection may not always be required. If you want users to receive notifications when their blood pressure is up, or when a sought-for product is available for ordering, or what-have-you, that’s something you want an app to do. In that case, you “go native,” as in, you create an app for a specific operating system environment, which means you repeatedly create a close-to-identical user experience with all the extensive functionality you want to offer.

Cross-platform availability, cost considerations, and launch complexities

If you want your content to be available in the same way across all platforms—iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry, even desktops—responsive design is probably the best and most economical way to go. You build your website just once, deploy it, and it is available to anybody who has a browser and connectivity. When you build your team, you recruit for web design skills instead of looking for developers with expertise in specific platforms. For a number of reasons, including the range of functionality and the depth and breadth of developer talent you need to hire, creating an app is usually more costly than building a responsive website. Many companies use their own resources when they build a website, but outsource development when they have determined they need an app.

Depending on the nature of your app, the returns may justify the initial development expense. If, for example, users can make in-app purchases, a popular app may quickly turn a profit. In some games and other apps, you can enter your credentials and buy credits or make some other form of payment to get to another level or gain the ability to access additional features. This is not something you could easily represent in responsive design.

In most scenarios, it takes much less time to complete a responsive website than a mobile app. Also, permissions are different. If you own the site, there is no issue at all. If you want to launch an app through one of the leading app shops, you need to obtain approval from the managers and comply with their guidelines. Approval lead times are shorter than they used to be, but it can still take weeks before your app is available, even if there are no issues that prompt the app store managers to ask for revisions.

Nearshore expertise in responsive site and app development

At Tiempo Development, we will help you determine which strategy is best, create a different app for each platform and deliver all the functionality to users that way, or build a responsive website. Within our arsenal of tools, there are also products like Xamarin, PhoneGap, or Titanium, each of which has different capabilities for translating website features into a mobile app. While these resources are universally available, they still require developer savvy to work with them and efficiently produce the result a company looks for. Sometimes, our nearshore teams start by building a responsive website and later transition to an app, using one of these tools. If this is done well, it can also save you expenses in hiring platform-specific developer expertise, although it all depends on what exactly you want to achieve and how powerful your responsive website already is.

As I mentioned, if you want to use maps and geolocation features, any kind of image processing, a Bluetooth connection to run or connect to another device, connect with sensors in the internet of things (IoT), operate your home security system, and other, more complex tasks, you probably need a full-fledged app. If you offer marketing and branding content, stories and information, or e-commerce product catalogs and sales, a well-built responsive website is more what we would probably recommend.


In any case, given our experience in many different client projects, we can make nearshore responsive website and app development economical and productive, so it meets the needs of your business and its customers. I and my colleagues will be glad to talk with you, so please send me a note at lguardado@tiempodev.com or reach Tiempo at contact@tiempodev.com. Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn. You might also want to learn more about our entire portfolio of services.

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