With internet access now available on a myriad of devices, mobile-friendly content is crucial for connecting with users as well as ranking in search results. In the last few years, responsive design has emerged as the primary method for addressing the rapidly growing mobile users by making websites mobile-friendly. But as the user experience evolves, simply having a responsively-designed website is not enough.
Overwhelmingly users prefer the experience of a native mobile app. In fact, as of early 2014, over 86 percent of our time spent on mobile devices was spent in native apps, versus just 14 percent in mobile web browsers[i]. While a responsively-designed website is very important to ensure website visitors have a good experience when browsing on small devices, universities and organizations can complement their responsive content with a native app that provides users with the curated experience they expect.
Building a better mobile strategy — it’s about the user experience
Responsive web design is just one part of a complete mobile strategy. Responsively designed sites ensure that no matter which device is being used, visitors are met with a usable experience. Responsively designed sites present the whole website, with the same general purpose content and organization you could access from a desktop device.
Native apps, on the other hand, take the mobile experience to the next level. At their best, they do more than just repackage existing content and functionality; they also present navigation, content, and functionality in a way specifically optimized for the measurably different ways in which people actually use their mobile devices. The app experience can be curated for the users’ specific purpose to be actionable, glanceable and easily accessible in brief, spontaneous moments. Native apps can also engage users with push notifications and integration with platform and device capabilities unavailable on display-only websites. These mobile-optimized experiences can provide a distinctly more engaging, efficient, and effective user experience than responsive design techniques can on their own.
“Responsively-designed websites only partially address the needs of the mobile users,” and “A great mobile user experience is essentially about shortening the distance to the goal.”
For example, a student needs to visit a professor. On his or her mobile phone he or she could visit a responsively-designed site, navigate to the directory, search for the professor, copy the phone number out to their phone to call the professor, return to the site to learn where the office is located, and copy that location into a mapping application.
Native apps provide advanced functionality such as geolocation and geofencing, providing a personalized user experience based on the device’s GPS data.
Alternately, the same student could open a native app, select the directory right from the home screen, tap to call from within the app, then tap on the office location pin and use pathfinding directions to find the office. All of this is accomplished in quick, efficient bursts of activity within a single, consistent app experience.
Users who encounter mobile web experiences that force them to tap, search, copy, and navigate too many times will often give up on their original task. The deep-linking capabilities of a native app keep users focused, allowing them to complete their goal quickly and efficiently.
Furthermore, because native apps are able to take advantage of server-side logic, and app capabilities to minimize the amount of data and other information, app performance is a significant improvement over a responsive web site, saving end-users time and frustration.
How to incorporate your responsive site into your mobile app.
If you’ve spent a lot of time and resources getting your website to be responsive and fully optimized, the great news is that you can take advantage of your responsive assets and embed them in your native app. But take note – there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about it.
The wrong way: Yu explains that some universities and organizations design their entire mobile app to simply be a thin wrapper around their responsively-designed website, rather than something cut from an entirely different cloth and made to optimize the user experience.
“Mobile users want to find things quickly – simply placing a responsively-designed website inside a shell application does little to improve on a desktop experience; and furthermore results in poor performance because websites can’t optimize data to quickly display information the way that apps can.”
The right way: In contrast, mobile app users are trying to quickly achieve a specific goal, often in just 5-10 seconds. A curated mobile experience will include multiple resources and data feeds such as videos, maps, news, social, AND specific responsive web pages from your current web site, and other 3rd party sites such as other information sources, or even payment sites. In a well-designed mobile app, only the most relevant web pages are embedded directly within the app for a seamless, fully integrated experience that keeps users focused and on task. The app then assembles and combines these feeds and web pages with new workflows and features for a truly unified and rich mobile experience.
With a native app, you can quickly access the content you need most immediately.
For example, a curated mobile experience for Admissions may include important information that needs to be accessed at a glance like Tour, Information Session and Interview schedules, Checklists and Deadlines, Directions and Parking, Campus Maps, and Lead Capture Forms. Visitors may also be looking for more detailed information on, for instance, a specific degree program or an online application, for which a responsive page already exists. As noted above, existing responsive web pages can easily be embedded in the app workflow where needed, so administrators can reuse valuable web site assets and users don’t need to leave the app to find the relevant information they need.
Only native apps provide push notification technology, keeping users engaged and informed.
Other app-only features can further enhance the user experience: push notifications can remind prospects of important deadlines; pathfinding can help visitors find campus locations; and iBeacons can trigger messages during a campus tour when the user enters a specific building or location.
To ensure users are met with mobile-friendly content on any device, responsive web design is a key piece of any mobile strategy, but it really is only the first piece. The native app experience curates content, navigation, and functionality to help the end user quickly achieve their specific goal. The experience is actionable, glanceable, and easily accessible.
The right approach to a mobile strategy is not, “We already have a responsive site, so we’re done.” It’s, “How can our responsive site and native app complement one another and round out a true mobile strategy?” Keep your end users in mind, and know that the app experience is what they’re truly looking for.