Mobile: apps, mobile sites or responsive?

A mobile app isn't good enough these days

device-readySo, you’re aware that over half the traffic on property websites is on a mobile device, and you’ve decided to establish a mobile presence for yourself – that’s a great start.

Now, one of the first decisions you’ll need to make is whether to have a “native mobile application” created, which users can download, or a mobile website, which they access via a browser, or whether to build a fully responsive website. These can look very similar, but the way they work, and how your customers use them, varies quite strongly.

In this article we look at some of the main differences, and with the relative strengths and weaknesses in mind, we’ll explain how to make the very best of your agency’s mobile presence.

(1)  “Native Apps” – speedy, but often impractical

In the early days of mobile, mobile apps became very popular when Apple pioneered the App Store and made it possible for developers to create programmes for users to download easily onto their phone. Since then, there has been an explosion of apps, as other mobile operating systems quickly followed suit, such as Android and Windows Mobile.

When an app is downloaded onto a phone, it often works pretty fast as the code for each page is stored on the phone, and doesn’t need to travel via the satellite to reach you. The only times the app typically needs to use the internet is when it’s calling for more data – for example, to retrieve search results or to access photos requested by a user wanting to see more pictures of a house.  Another plus of so called “native apps” is that they can harness the “push notifications” feature of the phone, which is highly instrusive way of getting a new matching property in front of a user – much like SMS.

But while the speed when using the app is often cited as a big advantage, the huge drawback is that to start using it in the first place the user needs to download it onto his or her mobile phone from the relevant app store (Apple, Google, Windows etc). This often involves having to find it in the store, remember your password, and following the relevant steps.  And a side headache is that you’ll need to develop separate apps for Android, iPhone, Windows, etc.

In reality, if users go to the trouble of downloading an app, they’ll be more interested in the wider range of properties available from a portal’s app.  Couple this with the alarming fact that the average repeat open rate of a native app is a pitiful 1.6 times, and you’re looking at a distraction from the main game…

However, that doesn’t mean you can’t appeal to house-hunters and instructions with mobile – quite the contrary, it’s still a big area of opportunity.

(2)  Mobile websites – usually a more flexible approach

So, while an app is nice and fast to use, it’s hampered by being prohibitively unwieldy to bother installing in the first place.  And so we turn to the mobile web as a better alternative. Mobile websites have improved dramatically in the last couple of years, and offer huge advantages over a mobile app:

  • Accessibility: a mobile site is instantly accessible to any mobile user with a browser, which means anyone with a smartphone. There is no need to visit an app store and download anything. This also means the reach of the website is much wider, as it’s available across all platforms, it’s ready and waiting for those all-important email entry points, and because all the pages of the mobile site can be indexed by search engines and shown in search results.
  • Easy to upgrade: a mobile site is more flexible to update – if you want to change the design or content, you simply publish the relevant changes and the edits are instantly visible. No need to upgrade a new version which needs to be downloaded, as is the case with an app.
  • Time and cost: there is a wide range of options available, but on the whole the development of a mobile website is quicker and more cost-effective than the development of a dedicated app. This also goes for the ongoing support and enhancement, which can be more difficult with an app.

(3)   2nd generation mobile web-apps – best of both worlds – fast and flexible

So while “native apps” are often fast, and “mobile websites” are more flexible, there is an option where you can avoid compromise and enjoy the best features of both.

During the last 12 months a new breed of hybrid mobile “web-apps” delivered via the web have emerged (so no need to download anything from an app store).  In this case, when you visit the website on a phone, it recognises that you’re using a mobile and when it provides you with the first web page; it packages up the other pages of the app and sends them to your phone in the background. As such, all the pages are thereafter stored locally on your phone.  So, although you’ve not had to download an app from an app store.

The main advantage of this approach is that get all the speed benefit of a true single-page app, i.e. native app like performance, but with the advantages of the open web.

On the downside, you need to work very hard at intelligent two way redirection, and it’s harder to get the same level of user account integration.

(4)   Responsive design – the be all and end all?

The final option is to build a single “responsive website” that reshapes to provide an optimal user experience — easy reading and navigation with minimum pinching, panning, and scrolling — across a wide range of devices (from phones, through tablets to desktop).

Pros: this is obviously a great way to go, making a good usability experience, whilst also keeping your system holistic.  You only have one set of pages to worry about, and you get consistent URL structures and user account integration out of the box.  Redirection isn’t an issue – there is no redirection to do!

Cons: the responsive approach isn’t quite as fast for mobile, and even though you are reshaping for mobile, responsive design remains on a page-by-page model and has to be mapped one-to-one with the desktop processes, so you are not cut totally free to have different interaction models you ideally want.  It’s a lot more expensive to build (properly), and it’s a much bigger commitment as it involves rebuilding everything.

For the technically minded amongst you, our engineers have written an in depth blog post that talks about this and a similar approach to web design, comparing responsive and adaptive approaches.

Summary / Conclusions:

It may feel like a technically confusing minefield, but don’t panic: you’ve read as much as you need to, and now we’re here to help!  Our summary advice is:

Only do a “native app”, if you have cash sloshing about and you particularly want the bragging rights with vendors.  It is simply not an alternative to a proper mobile site.  The push alerts are potentially useful, though the confusion probably makes it not worth the effort.

If you have a good desktop site already and you aren’t about to upgrade right now, then you should simply add on a mobile website with either of approach (2) or (3) described above.  Homeflow provides mobile websites and solutions for a wide variety of agencies, from large agency networks and corporates through to specialists and independents.  You can read a full feature list here.  And we can help out with several of the approaches above.  Please contact us so we can help you get it right.  It’s so quick and easy that there is simply no excuse not to bolt one on in the next couple of days.

However, if you are considering a full site refresh, you have a more complex choice to make.  You might want to go fully responsive, or you might want a “single page web-app” and a partially responsive site for tablets and above.  There are advantages to both approaches and the decision isn’t clear cut.  However, you certainly don’t want to go for a static, first generation mobile site in this situation.

Don’t get left behind by the mobile revolution, capitalise on it!