Your Mobile Design Strategy: Responsive, Adaptive, Native, Or Not At All?

Responsive design is a buzzword in User Experience. Adoption is moving  at blazing speed. Websites such as Disney.com have redesigned their sites so they work across multiple devices. Designers are blogging all kinds of advice about what mobile strategy we should follow.

But really, mobile first for everything?

Like anything in User Experience, it depends on context. There is no single approach, and yet designers make sweeping declarations before understanding the differences in user needs. There is no one size fits all solution, no matter how many presentations at conferences say so.

There is no single  approach, and yet designers make sweeping declarations before understanding the differences in user needs.

Determining your mobile needs is like buying a car: the user may be an Italian speed demon that wants to go fast, a soccer mom that wants utility or a naturist that wants to go offroading. Each has a different context, and no one car can fill every need.

Before we proceed, here are the definitions:

  • Responsive Design: Designed for multiple devices, adjusting the design based on the device. Equal, but different.
  • Adaptive Design: Designed specifically for a mobile or tablet experience. Not equal and separate.
  • Native Application: A program designed specifically for iOS, Android or Windows. Different and separate.
  • No mobile design: Designed for desktop and tablet only.

There may be situations where it makes sense to only adapt part of your application to mobile. Analyze  both the tasks (reviewing a document) and the context (in a hotel room) to make a decision on what the application should do.

You may pursue a strategy that is maybe a combination of all approaches– responsive, adaptive, native or not at all, but that strategy should only be defined after asking the following questions:

Does your website have a lot of return users?

How engaged are you with your users? How often do they use your website? Are they coming back daily, weekly, yearly?

Some websites have what I call single serving content: you’ll go there once, and not return until you need it again. It could be a long time until you go back, so the user wouldn’t install a mobile application.

Some websites have what I call single serving content: you’ll go there once, and not return until you need it again. It could be a long time until you go back, so the user wouldn’t install a mobile application.

An example is a marketplace that I designed for a freelance client of mine, Archeo Domains. We went responsive because it was more cost effective. Mobile visits most often would be a “single serving user” — they come once, but would probably return on their desktop computer to complete the transaction. It’s responsive, but there’s no ROI for a mobile application.

Mobile applications for sites like Twitter and Facebook are necessary because there’s a lot of return engagement. Users are  performing  actions like posts and messages, and reading more content. Their applications are always on and always notifying, so the users are engaged.

Does your website have a lot of expert users?

A great example are business to business applications. Users are in the office or at home performing certain tasks several hours a day. Their screens are very complex because they want access to as much information as possible. Speed and utility trump mobility (and for that matter, emotional design).

Many business to business applications have a lot of expert users that use the application between six to eight hours a day. The users perform complex tasks sometimes on not one but multiple screens. Speed is of the essence. Mobile in any form is not appropriate in that context.

For tasks like reviewing content and approving workflow steps, adaptive mobile design plus adaptive email design makes sense.

For tasks like reviewing content and approving workflow steps, adaptive mobile design plus adaptive email design makes sense. Anyone may perform those tasks  and they could be anywhere — at lunch, on vacation or at home. The application was also designed with the “Everyone Loves Raymond” scenario in mind: managers reviewing documents on their iPad while at home while watching television. Since many applications would contain a single task, it would make sense to adjust the application design for tablet, but not for mobile.

Does your website feature a lot of consumable content?

It is important to build your website so consumable content could be optimized for the viral loop — content that is shared once will likely be reshared to other users. The best way to do that? Responsive web design.

Consumable content is any link that could be shared on a social media network like Facebook, Twitter or Flipboard. The links could be a photo, a news article, or other interesting content that you can share with your friends.

If yes, build responsive because the content will open up within the frame of another application or it will be quick read. This is especially true for non-destination websites. The NY Times  redesigned their website, and only the article pages are responsive —  that’s the content that will be shared on social media. It’s an interesting and forward thinking choice for business decisions. They don’t necessarily want repeat users to read their site for free, they want to subscribe to the newspaper and download their native application.

When I converted Usability Counts to responsive design, I saw a sizable increase in traffic because many of the users were consuming content in their spare time on their mobile devices. The website also works pretty well in Flipboard (I have to add the customer RSS Feed to truly optimize it), so I also saw a bump from that too. The UX Drinking Game is another example where a site has a lot of consumable content that could be read in many environments. Both mobile and desktop breakpoints average over 12 page views per user.

It is important to build your website so consumable content could be optimized for the viral loop — content that is shared once will likely be reshared to other users on any device. The best way to do that? Responsive web design.

Does your website have a mobile audience?

Are the users on the road all the time? Is it an action they will never perform in front of a computer? Are their needs immediate?

If that’s the case, a mobile application may be the best approach. Instagram is a great example: users are taking photos with your mobile phone, and sharing content on multiple content platforms — my Instagram photos to Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.

Or, would you walk around San Francisco with a laptop to take photos for Instagram?

Instagram does have a website and it is responsive. However the context is that you want to bring your photos with you to share with your friends, so a mobile application is the way to go. The website is minimalist, and is built in a way to drive traffic to the mobile application.

A site that should have a good mobile application is Caltrain: most of their users need access to updates and timetables, and the only solutions now are applications that aren’t affiliated with Caltrain. Caltrain has failed its users needs, and it probably adds to customer support costs.

Does your website require native technology to create a great experience?

Spotify and Square are both amazing technologies — they allow users to use just about any device to use their systems. Spotfiy allows music discovery, but primarily acts as a background application. Square functions as a cash register for small businesses, and that purchase could be anywhere.

Both work best with native technology, and even Spotify’s desktop use is a native application, sitting in the background as the user performs other tasks, like working. Both are omni channel (the user can access them from any device), but their core use cases are native applications. Square even has an additional requirement — adding a piece of hardware to swipe credit cards, which will go away as soon we adopt digital wallets.

PhoneGap can achieve some efficiencies, but even companies like Facebook admits the limitations of mobile web technologies.

When determining your needs, figure out if specialized technology renders the mobile strategy conversation a moot point.

Conclusion

When I started writing this article, I discovered quickly there was no one size fits all approach — you have to make some calls based on the data you have.

Mobile is will expand and evolve, but you have to make some decisions whether it’s worth it for your organization. Examine your options before deciding on your mobile strategy.

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