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Responsive web design vs mobile web apps

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By now most publishers have hopefully started to think about the mobile web. They’ve seen their Google Analytics reports, and noticed an ever-growing portion of their online traffic is coming from mobile devices – and those mobile users need something better than an ad telling them to go download a native app. But the jury is still out about the best way to handle the explosive rise of the mobile web.

Mostly the thinking falls into two categories:

Do you build a separate web app for tablet and smartphone visitors (delivered from the browser from a subdomain like Or do you re-do your desktop site with mobile responsive design in mind?

While responsive design is a cutting edge solution, and often exactly what a publisher will need, we feel the approach is not always the best one. From being able to deliver a far more interactive experience, to better tools to monetize, to simply catering to user needs, there are a few key ways mobile apps will differ from responsive design. And these points should be considered when planning your mobile strategy.

Let’s take a closer look at those key differences:


1. A more interactive, gesture-driven experience

While it might be true that a mobile-first responsive web design creates easy-to-read websites for tablets and smartphones, it’s not the same kind of interaction that happens when you send the user to a web app that was born and raised to do one thing right: give readers the best possible mobile experience.

Responsive web design comes with the burdens of having to make one site work across both desktops and mobile, such as long vertical-scrolling articles, site map-style navigation based on tapping small links instead of buttons, and re-loading pages every time you hit back. When you go on a responsively designed website you never feel like you do when you are reading a native mobile app, such as Flipboard. You may be able to see everything fine, but it’s not the same level of immersion.

On the other hand, mobile web apps, built using HTML5 and Javascript, give users an experience much closer (often exactly the same) as native apps. This is an experience that was built for mobile devices from the start. It’s this kind of experience a new generation of mobile readers, who grew up with native apps and touch technology, are now expecting. Just look at this cute baby for proof.

Mobile web apps deliver an interactive, gesture-driven experience. At Pressly, we call it the “guided tour” style of reading, and it includes (but isn’t limited to) swiping from page to page, multi-touch gestures, full screen videos and photo galleries, big beautiful buttons with no clumsy link taps, font control, and pre-loaded non-stop content.  This is much closer to the native app experience, which is one key reason publishers pick this approach.



2. Increased engagement (more pageviews, time spent)

This is related to the point above but it’s worth emphasizing on its own. Mobile web apps are generally more effective at engaging users than optimized websites via responsive design.

Responsive design certainly helps with mobile engagement, but not in the same sense. Responsive design fixes the big problem of mobile drop off. It gives visitors a welcoming experience when they hit the web page and ensures they don’t run out the door due to a broken experience.

With mobile web apps publishers get all that, and then some more.

Because of that “guided tour” style of reading described above, mobile web apps guarantee readers stick around longer and see more content. Just using our own customer data as an example, we’ve found mobile web app visitors to a Pressly-run news app viewed 22 pages on average, and spent 14 minutes seeing content. Bounce rate was also far below the typical rates at 4%. These numbers are not just marginal improvements – they blow the average mobile engagement rates out of the water.


3. New ways to drive business

Mobile web apps also give publishers new ways to monetize their content and align it with business goals. Because most web apps are divided into carded, swipe-based pages, publishers are given a natural, clean way to show sponsored messages to readers. With standard IAB-style advertisements you can show ads in-stream or between focus points (between the pages). Unlike responsive web design, there is no “below the fold.” And your sponsored messages have a better chance at being engaged with.

Web apps also offer a built-in opportunity to show full-screen, highly interactive interstitial ads, which also appear between article pages. While this market is still young, some analysts have pegged the up-side of mobile advertising to be a $20 billion market. Publishers have a better chance at unlocking those gains with a web app.

For marketers, instead of “ads” they gain more powerful engagement points where they can focus attention to calls to action, such as sign up widgets, form fields, and so on. Imagine using an interstitial ad to drive sign ups to a free trial, for instance.


pic of tablet ads

4. Designed for the user, not the screen size

At its most basic level, responsive design is all about changing the elements of the site to fit on a specific screen size. The problem with that is that it leaves the user context (where they are when reading, for example) out of the equation. Mobile is about so much more than smaller screen size. And your content should cater to that.

With a mobile web app, the content is presented in a way that is designed specifically for the context the user is likely in when reading that content. Why should smartphone users be treated the same as tablet or desktop users?


context profiles

The take away

Responsive design is a powerful solution for publishers. It allows you to leverage your existing web traffic (from SEO, social, and paid campaigns) and give those users an optimized mobile experience. And it does all this in a straight forward, build-it once approach.

The good news is that with the right solution, you can get all the same benefits from a mobile web app strategy, while at the same time getting all the other benefits listed above.

On the engagement front, there’s no question mobile apps provide a better experience for the mobile user. And there are plenty of solid solutions, such as Pressly, that make creating multiple mobile web apps, that scale to multiple devices all at once, easy.

But… it all depends on your needs. In some cases, especially if you have just a single blog and want a fast way to make it readable on all devices, a responsive design solution may be the best fit. But if you are looking to deliver a more engaging mobile experience, or perhaps want to create a mobile property that is distinct from your website (anything you might call an app), then creating a mobile experience with a web app is likely the best call.

>> Related: read part one in our ongoing series on responsive design and find out more about the importance of mobile user context. 

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