Deciding between whether to start with a mobile-friendly website or a native application is like deciding which came first - the chicken or the egg. Deciding which should come first can be quite difficult, as there are so many important considerations that need to be taken into account. This article will explore the differences between the two, and provide you with some guidance in making your best decision.

From where we’re standing, the best strategy is to generally first build a mobile-friendly website, focusing on the most important flows on your site. Following this you are in a much better position to look at your data and redirect most of your resources into building an exceptional native application. For details on how to determine whether your native app should be built on an iOS or Android platform, you can read our in-depth analysis here. Here's a quick summary of what this article will tell you:

  1. The Difference Between a Mobile Website and a Native Application
  2. The Top Eight Advantages of Mobile Websites
  3. The Top Nine Reasons for Building a Native App
  4. How to Build Both a Mobile Website and a Native App at the Same Time
  5. Case Study: How Zappos Handles their Mobile Website and Their Mobile Native App

What’s The Difference Between a Mobile Website and a Native Application?

native vs mweb

A mobile website is just that: a website that a customer goes to by using a browser installed on their smartphone (Safari for iOS, Chrome for Android). The main difference between a mobile website and a desktop version website is that when the user is establishing a connection, the host website detects that the user is coming from a smartphone, and instead of rendering the desktop version it shows the customer the mobile-friendly version of the site instead.  The look and feel of the website has been optimized for a mobile view so that when the customer is accessing it from a smart device, they have a decent interaction with the website. The pictures, content, and navigational structure of the site will all have been adjusted so that the user can easily read the information presented and interact with it in a fairly smooth manner.

A native app is a smartphone application developed specifically for a mobile operating system  — think Objective-C or Swift for iOS vs. Java for Android. Since an app is developed within a mature ecosystem following the technical and user experience guidelines of the OS (e.g. swipes, app-defined gestures, left-aligned headers on Android, centrally-aligned headers on iOS, etc.), it not only has the advantage of faster performance, but also “just feels right”. What feeling right means is that the in-app interaction has a look and feel that's consistent with most of the other native apps on the device. The end user is thus more likely to learn how to navigate and use the app faster.

Native applications have the significant advantage of being able to easily access and utilize the built-in capabilities of the user’s device (e.g., GPS, address book, camera, etc.) When a user sends text messages, takes pictures using the device’s default app, sets reminders, or uses the device’s music app that came with the phone, they’re using native apps. In short, native apps are exactly that — native to the user’s OS and hence built per the device's guidelines.

Top 8 Advantages of Mobile Websites:

  1. Your Mobile Website is Your Company's New Business Card 

Mobile websites are very powerful. Of the approximately 6 hours that customers spend on various digital channels each day, 51% of their time is spent on mobile, 42% on desktop/laptops, and 7% on tablets (source). And while native apps account for 80% of the time that users spend on mobile devices, chances are good that your customers’ first interaction with your company will happen on your mobile website.

While this doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to have your entire website optimized for mobile, it's important to understand that this first impression will very likely drive the possibility of future interactions with your company. Another way to look at it is to think of your mobile website as your new business card – if it looks and feels right, the customer is much more likely to engage with you further. If it doesn’t, the likelihood that this customer will even download your application and give you any of the limited real estate on their phone is close to zero.

  1. Mobile websites are available instantaneously to the customer, and can be used to drive traffic to the native app

A mobile website can easily be accessed without hassle by any user. All they need to do is open the browser on the mobile device, type in the address of a website, and (typically within 2-3 seconds) the website will be rendered on their screen — hopefully in a mobile-friendly view. By contrast, a native application needs to first be downloaded onto a device before it can actually be used by the customer.

What many companies have started doing is using mobile websites to drive traffic to their native applications.  Let’s look at Seeking Alpha: They're an investment research platform that's pushing customers to download their app while still allowing content to be made available on a mobile device through the browser:

seeking alpha homepage
As we can see in this screenshot, Seeking Alpha uses the prime real estate at the top of the page to market their mobile application. Not only is this a prominent call to action that entices the user to download the application, but they also highlight their app's rating. They also allow customers who have already downloaded the app but who accessed the website to switch easily and directly from the mobile view over to the app. As you can see, their mobile website is perfectly optimized for mobile view: their content is refactored for readability and provides enough space between headlines to allow for easy tapping. This is a perfect example of offering a great mobile view while simultaneously promoting their native app.

  1. Application updates do not require user approvals and are available immediately

Because you are ultimately dealing with a website and not an application, any update / release you choose to make to your website will trickle automatically to your mobile web view. There is a certain amount of bureaucracy, especially on the iOS side, that exists around submitting an app for review prior to a new version being made available in the App Store. Some developers call this a flat-out nightmare. (Source)

By contrast, when you update your website you are in full control. You can choose the time of day (or preferably night) when it happens. You can thoroughly test the code after a release in production. And yes — in those rare cases when something goes terribly wrong, you can roll back the release. The process of dealing with a native application is a lot more complex.

  1. You may not need a native app at all

As we will see below, a native app has a lot of advantages. For all intents and purposes, native apps win the war against mobile web EVERY SINGLE time. (Source)

However, as other writers have pointed out (source), great for users looking for the content they need to make quick decisions, while native apps are better suited to when you expect the user to engage in various tasks tied to your business model:

do you need a native app

Source

It all comes back to return on investment for your company. Depending on what industry you’re in, having a mobile-friendly website may just be enough. For example, when I needed to get my dog groomed last week. I simply pulled out my smartphone and looked up groomers in my neighborhood. All I wanted to know was which groomers were closest to my address and what phone number I need to dial to make an appointment. I needed pure information, and don’t anticipate ever downloading a dog groomer's mobile app.  Google and a mobile-friendly website delivered what I needed. Depending on your business' needs, you may very well decide an optimized view is all you need.

  1. You don’t need to worry about platform specific user experience and controls

This is really both an advantage and disadvantage for mobile websites. One of the greatest advantages of a good native application is its user experience — we have written about this at length before (source). When you build a native app, it fits within the ecosystem of the operating system on which it resides. Because I have an Android, I am used to the style, look, feel, and operating controls of its platform. When I end up on a mobile website that looks different from what I am used to, I am not getting the user experience I expect.

In building a mobile website you can create one simple user experience that can be accessed by all the smart phone users in the world. You are not constricted by user experience guidelines that specific to iOS or Android. Similarly, you can use any style guide that you see fit for your icons and your controls, and all your users will have the same experience. That saves you time and money.

  1. You don’t need specialized skills for a mobile website

The lead front end developer who works on my team can build the html version of both the web and the mobile view for the software that I manage. Unfortunately, he would not be able to do the same for a native iOS application for the simple reason that it is not his skill set. He’s not familiar with the  Xcode platform, nor has he ever coded in Swift.

All this means is that in order to build great native applications, you need specialized skills and resources, and unless you're dealing with full stack developers (and very few are really good at it), you will need different resources for Android and iOS developers. By contrast, when you are simply dealing with mobile websites, the same resource can do both.

  1. Mobile websites are significantly cheaper than native applications

Mobile websites are significantly cheaper to build and maintain because ultimately you’re using one source code for both the website and the mobile web. As we saw above, the same resources creating the html for the website can be used to build the mobile view. As such, new releases on a website can typically be coupled with changes in the functionality of the mobile website.

In my experience, the incremental effort needed to be invested for a mobile view as compared to a website view is approximately 20% more effort. By contrast, when you build a native application, the end to end effort would literally be double or more given the different platforms, programming languages, app submission protocols etc. that are needed.

  1. Search engine optimization is king on responsive websites

If you are relying heavily on the Great and Powerful Google to attract new customers by employing various search engine optimization techniques, then a mobile website will go a long way in making that happen. There are virtually zero benefits to having a native app first if SEO is one of the primary strategies that your company employs to attract new customers. Basically, apps act as completely closed environments which cannot be crawled by search engines. However, any page on a mobile website can be made SEO friendly, and as such can easily help you attract new customers.

Mobile apps are great introductions to your businesses, but in the long term native apps are the way to go

As I mentioned above, it's my opinion that a mobile website is typically used as a business card. It creates the customer’s first impression of your company, so it better be darned good. More and more frequently we're seeing that native applications provide the best “bang for your buck” in terms of user experience, engagement, metrics, and revenue.

When skeptical business stakeholders challenge me on this, I almost always reference the 2015 US Mobile App report from Com Score, available here (source ). As you can see from the graphs below, where mobile websites get disproportionally more visitors, users spend significantly more time on native applications.

get more visitors with mobile web

users are more engaged on native apps

 

Top 9 reasons for building a native application

  1. Engagement with your user base via a native app cannot be matched by any mobile website

As we can see from the graphs above, native applications are far more successful at engaging users than mobile apps could ever be. The simple fact that native app users spend 18-fold more time on a native app than on a mobile website is befuddling. Or is it? Let me put it differently: Why are customers more engaged with a native app to begin with?

First, a native app installed on a smart phone is physically present on the user’s device. That means a user can access that application in a heartbeat — this is convenient and easy for everyone. By contrast, to access a mobile website you need to open a browser and type in a website address. Second, applications fulfill very specific function. Of course, each person has a different style of organizing content on their smart phones, but let’s look at my smart phone for a second by way of example. Like most people in the millennial generation, I use folders to organize applications (53% of users who organize content in folders on their mobile devices are aged 18-34.(Source)

smartphone folders

 

As you can see from these screenshots, my applications are organized by cognitive tasks – social, banking, and ecommerce. Each category represents a set of tasks which — in my mind — are closely related. So if I want to reach out to one of friends, my mind automatically thinks social  - the Hangouts app. If I want to pay for my mortgage, I think banking — the Chase app. If I want to pay at Starbucks, I think ecommerce – the Starbucks app. The point is that every app I've downloaded is associated with a specific task I need to engage in at one point or another.  I have purposely excluded the apps that came built into my smartphone, which I consider to be utterly useless. Who ever uses Blockbuster's app anymore?

The ultimate goal of any company's application is always to associate it with something a customer wants to do. So for each app there is a use case which, by definition, drives up engagement. By contrast, mobile websites are done deals. I complete my task and then the connection between me as a user and the website is severed.

Apps “talk”. They do it through push notifications that remind their customers that it’s time to reorder a certain product, or that a certain game is running a promotion, or that someone they know just joined a social platform that they're on. Facebook, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Instagram – you name a social media app, they all do it.

In fact, a new report shows that apps that use push notifications are effectively 45% more successful at retaining and engaging a customer than those that don’t use (source). Mobile websites don’t send push notifications — at least they don't at the moment. You can see the effectiveness of a native app strategy: you are 45% more likely to keep your customers engaged with a native app that sends push notifications than you are with a mobile website.

  1. Best-in-class user experience

Native applications have already won the war on this one. When a native application is created, developers must use a set of controls and UI components that are specific to their respective platform. Following the motto, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” let’s look at the differences between iOS and Android implementation for the Facebook application.

facebook android vs ios
Source

As you can see, from a user experience point of view the two platforms – iOS and Android – dictate various controls that are platform specific, and which were implemented differently to account for how users are accustomed to interacting with apps.

The search function, the placement of the “Status/Photo/Check In”, and the primary navigation (News Feed/Requests/Messages/ Notifications) are all differently displayed on the Facebook native apps for Android and iOS. What Facebook did here was simply to provide the best user experience — the one that the customer is familiar with. Mobile websites are platform agnostic. Native apps feel and act in a way that is familiar to the end user.

  1. Best performance. Only on native.

Facebook is now fully native. But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, the first mobile strategy that Facebook implemented was to build apps in HTML5 (responsible web), which allows for mobile development outputs that were platform agnostic. In his first interview after becoming the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg admitted that Facebook’s reliance on HTML5 was the biggest mistake the company ever made because it impacted the performance and reliability of the application. (Source)

Native applications provide the fastest experience for the end user, which is exactly what mobile users want and expect.  As a developer argued in a different article:

“Technically, it’s simple. The web cannot emulate native perfectly, and it never will. Native apps talk directly to the operating system, while web apps talk to the browser, which talks to the OS. Thus there’s an extra layer web apps have to pass, and that makes them slightly slower and coarser than native apps.”  Source

This is something that users have highlighted again and again. According to a 2015 study, performance is the second-biggest reason why users download apps, surpassed only by the convenience of easy access to an app versus typing in an address in a browser:

why customers prefer native over mobile web

Source

  1. Accessing device specific hardware/ native software

Offering customers what they need based on location is certainly a trend that has been on the rise in the past five years, as companies have realized that location-based services are critical for smart phone users. According to one Google Trends report, event tickets is the number one category of products purchased through smartphone devices that is, by definition, location based (source).  In another article we covered how collecting personal information such as  credit card numbers is facilitated by smartphone built-in functionalities such as the camera function, making the process of collecting personal information a lot smoother.

Location-based services have become so second nature to most customers that in 2015, a staggering 75% of all US customers looked for offline, location-based services on their smart phones.

  1. Personalization is king on native applications

There’s a lot of buzz about personalization on mobile devices. Companies are starting to invest significant resources into creating a personalized user experience. The epiphany many companies are experiencing is related to the simple fact that if an application is sitting on a customer’s smart phone, customer segmentation can become as targeted or as general as you want. You can easily decide which customers to target, then through a simple push notification you can measure the effectiveness of the personalization strategy. As such you can easily engage with various user types. See the example below on how Groupon is personalizing my experience on their native app:

 

Groupon's personalization in-app strategy

Groupon's app excels at personalizing the experience by providing contextually relevant information based on the user's in-app experience.

On a mobile website, personalization can still occur, but it requires user authentication. On a native app, users provide their credentials up front one time, and following that input the app can use those credentials in perpetuity. This article  compiles a list of studies that have been conducted to determine the importance of personalization for customers across the US. Given the fact that there is no better means of personalizing a user’s experience than through a native application, this should prove how critical it is to take advantage of personalization on mobile:

  1. 73% of consumers prefer to do business with brands that use personal information to make their shopping experiences more relevant (Digital Trends)
  2. 86% of consumers say personalization plays a role in their purchasing decisions (Infosys)
  3. 45% of online shoppers are more likely to shop on a site that offers personalized recommendations (Invesp)
  4. 40% of consumers buy more from retailers who personalize the shopping experience across channels (Monetate)
  5. 80% of consumers like when retailers emails contain recommended products based on previous purchases (Listrak)

To read more about these studies and to access the briefs for each report, go here.

  1. Native apps have heightened security over mobile websites

If we've learned anything from the continuing battle between Apple and the FBI, it's that smart phone devices are very secure — way too secure as far as the FBI is concerned. If devices are that secure, then so are the native applications that reside on them. Now in all fairness, some of the reasons why apps are more secure are related less to specific mobile websites then to user behavior in general.

For example, accessing various websites exposes users to the dangers of phishing, which is the process of obtaining sensitive personal information without the user’s knowledge. Technically, a mobile application does not have this issue because it only connects to specific APIs. There is no Same Orgin Policy with cookies so cookies can’t be poisoned with malware on an app, but more importantly there has been significant headway made in the field of app security, which does not currently exist on websites.

In addition, developers can use encryption technologies to ensure that critical information is never stored at the application level and that it gets deleted at the end of a session. While companies may attempt to do the same on websites, most browsers offer customers the option to save credit card information and passwords, and as such are riskier to the overall security solution.

Lastly – and this is truer for enterprise applications, but it can and should become a common practice over time – developers can remotely uninstall or log users off of their application on demand. Overall, various security mechanisms implemented either at the OS level (iOS or Android) or at the app level make native applications more secure than mobile websites — at least for the time being.

  1. No need for login on native applications

For those of us working in e-commerce and product management, the job of enhancing the user experience is to ensure customers buy from our companies. The statistic that we dread the most is this: 22% of customers adding items to their shopping carts leave the website because they don’t want to login or register (source). And no matter how you optimize it – whether by offering guest checkout or social login – that number rarely shows much change.

A native app doesn’t have that issue – if you were successful in getting the customer to log in once on the application, then he or she will be logged in forever. That makes everything easier – showing personalized content, redirecting them to a cart to continue with a purchase, highlighting promotions, bringing users back to a social platform or game, etc. All of that is accomplished without the obstruction of a login flow.

By contrast, and primarily due to security reasons, most websites will have a session-level timeout policy – usually within an hour of a session being executed – to automatically log a user out. By definition, your mobile website will have the same issue. That means that, by default, every time you've successfully convinced 100 users to begin a task, 22 of them will leave because when the time comes for them to register/ login, your system will have logged them out.

  1. Offline mode only exists on a native application

Have you ever been on a plane without an Internet connection? If you're anything like tens of millions of people in America, you probably responded by playing Candy Crash. If you did, or if you played any of the many other games available while in the offline mode, you took advantage of one of the advantages that native mobile applications have.

Another favorite example I like to give is Shazam – a slick native application that can help you figure out who's singing a particular song on the radio or in a restaurant. When WiFi or a 4G connection is down and you're trying to determine what song you’re listening to, the application will record the tune on your device — then when you regain access to the Internet it automatically detects the song and adds it to the list of songs you've listened to.

 

Shazam's offline mode

Shazam's offline mode makes users' experience enjoyable even when mobile data is off.

While I have no doubt that one day many mobile websites may provide offline functionality (primarily through the proper use of caching of information on the smart phone device), the technology is not there yet. For the time being, native applications are the only ones that have the ability to capture the user’s attention when they are not able to access the Internet.  

  1. The complexity of your digital solution can be better addressed on a native application

As software solutions grow in popularity, they tend to become more complex. It may be a result of listening to customer feedback and trying to match your website’s functionality on your mobile site, or perhaps you tried to optimize various m.web flows. Whatever the reason, over time the mobile website becomes so complex that no matter what you do or how skilled your developers are, the very complexity of what you’re trying to expose your user to creates a situation where no matter how critical those functionalities, they become an obstacle to a m.web or hybrid app’s success.

I’ve personally dealt with this problem many times while building complex hybrid applications or mobile websites, and each time I ended up on the losing side because the technology stack could not allow me to do what I intended without impacting the performance of the app or website.

By contrast, because native code is optimized for performance to begin with, you can exponentially grow your mobile business solution without fearing repercussions down the road. Based on the fundamental difference between how native apps and mobile websites work, native apps will always win this battle.

In simplest terms, native apps sit directly on top of the operation system (iOS or Android) and communicate directly with the OS, while mobile websites send commands to the browser on the customer’s device (Mozilla, Chrome, Safari), which then sends commands to the Operating System. This means that by definition, mobile websites must jump through an additional hoop in order to work properly. This means that the more complex your mobile solution is, the more likely it is  that customers will end up frustrated for one reason or another.

Doing both mobile web and native app at the same time (for different purposes)

The primary reason for creating a mobile website and a native app sequentially is the gap between the time to market and available resources / skills. However, the two are not mutually exclusive, nor do you necessarily have to do one before the other.

The best way to look at the two mobile implementation strategies is in terms of goals and target audience. You want the mobile website to be an introduction to your services – a way of showing what your company does and what it offers. You also want to ensure that your mobile website easily and concisely conveys the clear value the user would get by engaging with you. This means that it covers both the what and the why.

In addition, the benefit of a mobile website is tied directly to increasing the SEO value of your online presence. This is particularly true if you are an up-and-coming company that wants to make sure that people who like your product share it with others through word of mouth, email, social media. So far you cannot share a native page on social media.

Still, as we proved above, in terms of overall engagement metrics and best user experience, the native app is the way to go.

The simplest way to think about mobile websites vs native apps is to remember that they are targeting different audiences: the mobile web is for prospective customers and outreach marketing efforts, while the native apps are primarily designed to serve current customers. Because of these two very different end goals, it may very well make sense to do both at the same time instead of prioritizing one set of users over the other.

How Zappos handles their mobile website and native mobile app

Following the motto a picture is worth a thousand words, let’s look at how Zappos — the famous online retailer for shoes and clothing — employs a mobile web strategy and a native app strategy simultaneously to speak to these two different audiences.

This is Zappos' homepage for their mobile website:

zappos mobile home page

First, they assume that the primary goal of a prospective user — or one who doesn’t have the app installed on their phone — is to search for products. As such, as you can see that "Search" takes up more than 50% of their page, and it’s displayed in two ways: At the top of the page there's a prominent search field, and towards the bottom there is a product configurator that will narrow down search results. So if the user selects shoes it will ask for gender (male/female). The user can then select shoe size to narrow down their results to what is most pertinent to them. As you can see, before the user can interact with the page, Zappos presents an overlay encouraging them to download their app.

The rest of the homepage is dedicated to a content carousel  used to present material that is relevant to prospective customers. The goal is to  entice them to look at targeted product results, with the first —Spring Break and Beyond — targeted towards women and redirecting to a listing page of spring essentials, and the second highlighting their “Ask Zappos” feature and informing customers that if they’re looking for a specific product, they can text, email, or upload a photo and someone from Zappos will contact them. This effectively means that  you can be standing in line at Starbucks, see someone wearing something you admire, take a photo of what they're wearing and then send it to Zappos for them to do the dirty work of finding it for you online.

Finally, Zappos is known for their exceptional US-based customer service support. As you can see, contrary to what most companies do they place their phone number prominently on their main page.

Now let’s take a look at Zappos application.


zappon mobile homepage
The only common element between the app’s homepage and the mobile website is the phone number, which is listed at the bottom of the app's homepage. The rest is completely different, and serves a completely different function.

As I said above, the mobile app is meant to serve recurring customers rather than potential or infrequent customers. Gone is the prominent search bar at the top of the page. It's been replaced by a need to tap the search icon, which then displays the search field.  This saves Zappos valuable real estate and allows them to show the user personalized content. They also expect returning users to know exactly how to use search on a mobile app on Android vs. the mobile web version, which is platform agnostic.

The app page focuses primarily on product categories rather than search, and this is probably ranked based on a customer's order history. What this means is that it provides a different way of relating to the user. While new customers are more likely to search for a specific product, there is an expectation that returning customers will spend time on the app discovering products. Hence the different focus of the navigation.

Because this is a native app, Zappos can show dynamic messaging at the bottom of the page where the phone number is listed without worrying about performance issues. These three dynamically-displayed messages reinforce the value of the company:


zappos banner notifications
There’s another subtle difference between the mobile web and the app. If you take another look at the mobile web’s header, you see the star symbol for favorites lists. It’s placed in a prominent location because if the user wants to access it or add products to it they need to login or register. On the app, it’s actually hidden behind the menu (as you can see below). People using the app on a regular basis can go to a level deeper since they’re already logged in, while with prospective users the company is hoping to turn them into registered users — and offers use of the favorites functionality as an incentive to do so.

favorites

 

As you can see, from a strategic point of view Zappos treats their mobile web very differently from the mobile app. The mobile website focuses on attracting new customers by providing two sets of search options on the homepage and a carousel introducing potential customers to the “cool things” Zappos does. By contrast, their native application caters to a personalized experience designed to take the user through discovery flows in various product categories. The mobile app has a set of dynamic messages at the bottom of the app, reinforcing the company's value to the customer, and this is made possible by the significantly better performance that a native app provides over that of a mobile website.

Zappos is a great example of a company that should builds on both its native application and its mobile website at the same time. Since the two strategies address completely different overall goals, having both at the same time is crucial to the company’s overall success in the mobile field.

Summary

There are a number of both advantages and disadvantages to native apps and mobile websites. I have purposely focused strictly on the competitive advantages that make each solution compelling to a company. That is because I believe that in today’s mobile ecosystem, most companies require both a mobile website and a native app to compete for mobile users’ attention. Your mobile website will always act as the business card for your company – it will render critical information to the end user which will, hopefully, start a relationship between the customer and your brand. It will help with search engine optimization and search results overall, and give customers a flavor of what your offerings are. In addition, it will give you the data points you need to determine whether the majority of your customers (current or prospective) are coming from iOS or Android. These data points will allow you to make an informed decision as to which platform you build your first application on.

When it comes to providing users with the optimal customer experience, native applications rule the world of smartphones. By most business metrics, native applications are the key to the future: They provide the most engaging experience to the users, the best user experience, the best security and the best performance. They will allow you to create personalized marketing campaigns while accessing device-specific functions that mobile website are currently unable to tap (geo location, camera, and calendar functions to name just a few).

If you’re contemplating what you should do next, the answer is simple: Make sure your company has a great mobile website presence first, and then an amazing native app for ultimate engagement with your customers later.