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There has been a lot of discussion as to the best way forward when thinking about designing and developing a dedicated mobile site. Do you choose a web based mobile site or a native mobile app?

So lets assume that the forecasts are right and that smartphone usage will exceed desktop computers by 2015. Just getting a mobile website isn’t necessarily the smartest move. The smartphone is a platform, the possibilities of how to leverage it are ever expanding. Responsive, mobile web or application demonstrate key differences which include backend functionality, marketing, platform compatibility, design consideration and of course cost. In this article we will discuss these in more detail. Most importantly you need to know what your objective is to choose the right option, at the right time.



Firstly you need to think about what you want the mobile application or site to do? Is it part of a targeted marketing campaign, is it designed to be interactive, do you want people to use it for a long or a short time?

For example a Sydney Coffee House, CitiCafe, recently developed a mobile app designed to allow its customers to order coffee on their mobiles and then collect within a 10 minute window to reduce queue times. In this instance a native application suited the need because it served a specific purpose; an interactive tool, downloaded by loyal customers, used to place an order and book a pick up time. The nature of the app encourages brand loyalty and increased customer satisfaction by attending to a top complaint for a lot of people; having to wait in line.


What type of user interface will people access it through? Will you be designing it for all mobile platforms or is your user base predominantly iOS or Android. 

Mobile website: Can be viewed on any mobile via a browser, like a normal website can. A user would simply open their browser, for example Safari, type in the web address and the site will display in the browser window. The design and development of the site would be suited to the mobile viewer but the site can only be viewed while there is an active connection to the internet.

Native mobile app: An app is first downloaded and installed to a specific platform and device. When developing an application you need to consider developing for both iOS and Android for maximum market penetration, unless your market research indicates that only one platform is necessary. The app will then sit on the user's phone and can be accessed at any time, with or without a connection.


How and when the user is likely to view the site is also a consideration. If you are confident that the user will be using the application or site in areas of high internet connectivity then a mobile website or mobile web app might be a feasible option. However if the user will be in and out of range of an internet provider, then a mobile web app would be a more suitable option.

A mobile website is only accessible while there is a reliable internet connection but an app can be used offline, once it has been downloaded. It will syncronise when an active connection exists.

A good example would be a travel app which is aimed at people who are travelling through an area. A fair assumption could be made that they will be on the road, out of data range for a considerable period of time. During this time the application or site they are trying to access might be very useful, but if they need to rely on an active internet connection it may prevent access. However an native mobile app can be downloaded and only needs to synchronise when a connection is available to update, therefore as long as the phone has a charged battery, it is accessible. The nature of a downloaded native mobile application means that the user can access the information when they are at the beach, camping or simply out of range.


A website can grow organically, you can add pages and features as you find new purposes for the site, however an app is purpose built. This means it is downloaded with a function in mind and then used for that purpose until it is considered obsolete, forgotten or replaced. Often apps are designed for short term longevity, to support a marketing campaign, to install a game or to enter a competition.

If an app is very successful, new or updated versions can be built and will prompt the user to download the latest one onto their system, to keep it fresh in their mind and current. However generally speaking apps are designed for a specific purpose and timeframe. There will be instances where people will revisit and reuse an app for a longer period of time but these will include behaviours ingrained in daily lives. For example horoscope updates.

Having a short shelf life isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially in such a dynamic environment where new ideas and technologies flood the market daily. An application that is directly tied to an event, like perhaps the Olympics would become obsolete once the games were over, but while they are running would probably be more lucrative than a website in encouraging patronage, brand loyalty or new business. Anything that is specifically tied to an event, a competition, a very specific market or age range might be better communicated via an native app.


It's a less expensive outlay initially to build and maintain a mobile web site than to build a native mobile app, but cost is only part of the equation. The cost needs to be measured against the intended result and will be tied to the purpose of the strategy or campaign. It will always be more expensive to build something that is not working for the client than spend the extra for a purpose build application. The return on investment is directly related to a solid understanding of what you are trying to achieve. Here is a simple list to help you understand some of the basics.

Pros for Native Apps:

  • Once downloaded it can be used offline
  • Purpose built to perform a function
  • Integrate with the device, ie using the camera to scan or the flash as a light
  • Being purpose built it is often very easy for the user to follow and use
  • It encourages interactivity and can be a catalyst for driving brand loyalty

Pros for Mobile Web:

  • Less expensive to build and maintain
  • Easier to update
  • Easier way to introduce a client to the world of mobile technology
  • Broader purpose (this is a pro and a con)
  • No app store application process

While at first glance the cost of building an app might seem much higher than a mobile site, the real question is the value it poses to the company / client / brand. An application is often built with the view to generate interest, revenue, loyalty or brand awareness. It can achieve this in a way a mobile website just can’t do. However before a client takes the app route they need to know what they want the app to achieve for them and how it fits into their marketing strategy.

Design considerations

If you are thinking that a mobile app would be the best way forward for your client here are key considerations:

  • The app needs to be purpose built, the user needs a concrete reason to download and use it
  • It should complement the current marketing initiative and tie in with it
  • You need to decide what devices you want to develop for - Android, iPhone or both

In addition, developing an app is an investment and there are some considerations for the scoping and design process:

  • Always create a flow map, an app is an interactive tool so you need to think about how the user will move around the application and what tasks they will complete before even getting to the look and feel of the site.
  • Keep the design simple and focus on usability and functionality (while making it look good of course!).
  • Design for adult fingers. It seems obvious but so many apps don’t take into consideration that people have different sized fingers and this can be frustrating. If in doubt get a few different people to test.
  • If possible get a usability test done on the app, just testing it in house might be cheaper but could end up much more costly when people don’t use it.
  • Ask the developer to look over the design and functionality before you let the client approve it, that way if there is a better way of doing it, it can be implemented before the client falls in love with something that may not work.
  • iOS apps need to be submitted to and approved by Apple via the iTunes App Store before they can be launched. This needs to be factored into the cost / time equation.

If you are looking for some GUI templates to get you started, try Tehan+Lax. For some help brainstorming and developing clear designs and specifications for iOS applications see the Apple iOS Human Interface Guide

This article sums up the three part Agency Mobile Strategy series 1, but there is still so much more to cover. Read about mobile web and responsive design on our site and as technologies advance we will continue to bring you the latest news as we hear about it. In a few months we are doing a series on mCommerce (mobile commerce) and how it is changing the face of online shopping and the behaviour of consumers in general.

If you are new to the newsletter feel free to read the two previous articles on Responsive Design and Mobile Web

Next month we’ll talk about Facebook and how social media can accentuate a complete marketing strategy.


Citicafe mobile app: