Responsive Design vs Mobile App - Your website on a mobile device
Just recently, a big change came along in web design; Arguably the biggest revolution since modern web standards in the early 2000's.
Responsive Design has been invented. It's a term used in new age architecture to describe buildings that behave 'responsively'. That is, they adapt or respond to conditions such as the amount of people in a given room, for instance. They will automatically change heat, air and even room size (yes, the walls expand and contract!) to accommodate more or less people.
And just like Responsive Design in architecture, when it comes to the web, responsive design allows websites to no longer behave like static online brochures that scroll, but rather they adapt by expanding and contracting, resizing themselves to appropriately fit a variety of screen sizes. So for example, a website might have five columns when viewed on a 52" wide screen, but when viewed on a laptop it may scale down to three columns, two on an iPad and down to one column when viewed on a smart phone.
The best way to illustrate this is by viewing this gallery of well-designed responsive sites. You'll see four views for each site, from wide screen down to a small screen. Pretty impressive, huh?
The best part is, designing sites to be responsive does not add a lot of size, scope or complexity to a project. Sure, it adds some work for the designer and developer. But really in the grand scheme of building a website from start to finish, building it responsively is not all that time consuming once you know how.
Now, like all things in life, there's a catch. Building a website with responsive design is not a replacement for a mobile app or site. There are subtle but key differences.
Depending on your business, you may find that you actually need a mobile web application instead of just a website that scales to a variety of devices and screen sizes. The reasons are:
- Business Model
The trick with responsive is that it's all in the layout. When a user is on a smart phone, they are looking at the exact same site as on a desktop computer, but the CSS or style sheet is scaling the site visually to look better on a mobile device. It's kind of like window dressing. The HTML page is exactly the same.
Now you may find that on a mobile device, you want to do more than simply make the website look different. You actually want to take advantage of a mobile device' hardware. You may want to let the user shake their phone to randomize a search, upload photo's through their phone camera, plot their location through GPS. These are things you'll actually have to build specifically for the mobile device - you obviously don't want this functionality for users on a desktop!
There may also be a lot of functionality on your main website that you want simplified and altered significantly on the mobile experience. If you have an iPhone, think of how different the main Facebook website is from the iPhone app version of Facebook. On the latter, the functionality is simplified significantly from how you would use it on the website (no instant messaging for example).
An added benefit of mobile websites is that you can include a link at the bottom of the site "Click here to leave the mobile version". This way, you can present your user with choice so they default to the mobile version, but can always load the desktop version on their phone if they so choose.
With responsive, again, the HTML page is exactly the same regardless of what device you're viewing it on. On a mobile device, every bit of information a user has to download counts - because users often have slower internet connections and their phones have less memory than a desktop computer.
So if your main website has a lot of intensive graphics, videos, and sounds that a user has to download, responsive design is not going to change that when the user is viewing it on a smart phone. A mobile web app on the other hand is a completely different site, made specifically for phones, and there are a lot of techniques developers can employ to make the page as fast and lightweight as possible.
3) Business Model
If you have a blog, chances are your website will be used the same way regardless of what device you're user is accessing it with. Blog's are always for finding and reading content, and sometimes commenting on a post. In that case, responsive design is probably a perfect solution, since it allows the content to be optimally viewed on a phone.
Now on the other hand, if your website involves a lot of user functionality, like the aforementioned Facebook, which includes adding photos, tagging pictures, posting content, finding friends and more, it's much better to design a specific mobile experience that varies greatly from the desktop experience.
And you don't have to be as big as Facebook either. There are a lot of companies whose desktop websites wouldn't translate well as merely a shrunken down mobile version, but would benefit from a true mobile app. Some examples may be banks, movie theatres, restaurants, concert venues, e-commerce stores, social sites... the list goes on.
The other factor to consider too is whether or not you want to sell your app and/or make it available on the iTunes Store or Android Marketplace. If you do, responsive is not going to work. On the other hand, you could make a native iPhone/iPad/Android app, OR build a mobile web app using open standards and using the insanely clever PhoneGap, you can package your web app as if it is a native app. This will enable you to use the phone hardware like contact lists, voice and camera, and will also allow you to sell it on app stores.
As a general rule, I like to think of it like this: If your website is meant to be viewed, Responsive Design is an amazingly simple technique to please visitors on your site (in fact, I think that building in Responsive is the first place every company should start when they want to dip their toes in the mobile landscape).
On the other hand, if your website is primarily meant for users to interact with (games, accounts, videos, social, e-commerce etc.) then a mobile web app is an important investment worth making.