7 Reasons to Choose Responsive Web Development over Native Applications

Context matters. Good product design requires a thorough understanding of the environment in which a tool will be used. For software development this means knowing the answers to some basic questions.

  • Where in the world are your users?
  • What task are they trying to accomplish?
  • What device are they using to accomplish it?

The selection of an environment for your software is critical because it sets the context in which users will discover and experience your products.

Responsive web design (RWD) is the name given to a web development approach aimed at providing an optimal viewing and interaction experience across the full range of devices (iPhone, iPad, and desktop) and operating systems (iOS, Android, and Windows). As a term of art, responsive web design is most often used in contrast to not doing anything to make a website perform on a mobile device. RWD can also be used as product testing and iteration strategy in contrast to iOS app development.

Earlier this summer at TimeTravlr, we were presented with a choice whether to build version 2.0 of our iOS app or to focus first on a web-based application (with a mobile responsive framework). In an ideal world (or for more established businesses) the answer is both. But every startup is a case study in the allocation of scarce resources. If you are in survival mode, you have to set priorities and determine an order of operations. Here’s why we chose Responsive Web Design.

1.) Developing for the web is more cost and time-efficient than app development. This calculus can vary based up on the skill set and proficiency of your development team. However, the costs of iOS App Store approval and its clunky process for deploying updates are significant. Iteration is everything at a startup. Waiting a week to get simple bug fixes and marginal updates reflected in your product is unacceptable. It will destroy your development budget and undermine your relationship with customers.

2.) Responsive web design reaches a larger audience than native applications. This is relatively obvious. If you have a niche audience and / or have a deep domain expertise from the outset, then perhaps you can afford to eschew a larger audience in favor of the right audience. But if you are still searching for a core group of early adopters you should consider building for simplicity and breadth of experience rather than depth.

3.) Engagement is for the web. One argument frequently made in favor of native applications is that they enable a deeper level of engagement (on a mobile device) relative to web applications. Native applications can seamlessly incorporate a smart phones’ GPS services and camera functionality. All of this is true, but it is very difficult to solicit deep engagement on mobile. Arguably, mobile is just not the right platform for engagement. Personally, I don’t want deep engagement on my iPhone. I want execution. My favorite apps answer specific questions.

  • What song is this? Shazam.
  • Where is the Kemah Boardwalk? Google Maps.
  • What is an Indian Summer? Google Chrome.
  • When was the Kansas-Nebraska Act signed into law? Wikipedia.
  • How am I going to get home? Uber.

There are some exceptions. Spotify, Instagram, and 2048 are applications I use for passive entertainment. But these are exceptions. For a startup, job one is finding product-market fit. Simplicity helps. If you really need engagement / user-generated content to prove out your value proposition (and not just to support your case for attracting advertising dollars), consider building engagement through the web. Airbnb and Facebook built active communities of users and deep engagement developing for the web. Save mobile engagement for when you have a bigger budget and a better understanding of your customers.

4.) The app store discovery process is broken. This reality has been written about ad nauseam. In the words of The Life Aquatic, “either they can’t hear us or they don’t understand.” Apple continues to push its Top 10 charts on users as if it were an appropriate way to discover useful, well-designed applications. Imagine if Google directed its users to a top ten chart when they wanted to search the web. The results would be something like porn, porn, porn, Facebook, porn, porn, porn, Twitter, ESPN, porn.

App store Top 10 charts are not much more helpful. They give the user a handful of known entities which he or she has likely already downloaded (Uber, Spotify, Instagram, Twitter) and a list of inane video games. The search function is also bad. There are no recommendations or personalization. Apps that can crack the top 10 list do get a meaningful bump in downloads. Which leads to the next problem.

5.) App-store optimization is a distraction. Paying for downloads is a thing. There are many thousands of people whose entire job consists of downloading apps, deleting them, and downloading them again. It’s called “App Store Ranking Manipulation” and it has absolutely nothing to do with building quality products.

6.) App fatigue. I want less apps, not more. I am tired of useless applications cluttering my iPhone. With the release of iOS 8, Apple has forced an additional three required applications down its users throats. I, personally, will likely never use them but there they sit taking up memory and screen real estate. Why not cast a wider net with a web application and use that platform to deliver an initiated user to the native application?

7.) Product differentiation. This is domain specific. At TimeTravlr, we have noticed a conspicuous absence of well designed mobile experiences in the travel space. Fewer than 25% airline bookings are made from mobile devices. We were inspired by Virgin America’s responsive web design and rethinking of the airline booking process. I had never purchased an airline ticket from my phone before trying Virgin’s mobile platform. It was pretty liberating. In the coming weeks, we will be writing more on opportunities in the travel space. For now, suffice it to say, that a consistent experience across platforms may help to draw out behavior long stifled by existing products from antiquated travel companies.