The Three Levels of Mobile Readiness

Smartphone and tablet adoption has skyrocketed, permanently changing the way we interact with information. Businesses are still trying to catch up with user preferences, and the natives are getting restless. There are many options for transforming a website or web-based product to delight customers using different devices. Here, I will explore the differences between varying degrees of mobile readiness.

Mobile Compatible

The website/product works on mobile browsers. User experience is just fair, but all the core features are available.
Today’s user expects to access the components of a desktop experience on mobile devices too. Mobile compatibility should be a minimum requirement for any web-based product. Websites, by definition, are already mobile compatible. An example of a mobile compatible website is one which renders on your mobile device but still requires zooming in and out to read text comfortably, or might have a few unsupported features like Flash video or hover states. Like a puzzle, it takes a lot of effort for the experience to fit together. Mobile compatibility isn't a given, especially for legacy software products. There is tremendous cost in converting a native desktop application to web-based software in the first place. Software focused on heavy content creation will likely still be a desktop-first experience. Software makers often have to choose where they want to focus their best user experience, on the desktop or on a smaller mobile device. But even for desktop-first software, users will greatly appreciate the ability to access the product from a mobile device when they are in a pinch.

Mobile Optimized

The website/product works well on mobile browsers. User experience is good, as readability and interactive features have been designed for mobile devices using modern web design with responsive style sheets.   Mobile optimized websites and products detect screen size and serve the user with a targeted experience. Responsive design allows users to interact with slightly different experiences depending on the device they are coming from. It can be costly for products to be optimized perfectly for all browsers and devices, so setting responsive breakpoints for relevant screen sizes and devices most used by customers can be important. The end users of a mobile optimized website or product will be able to spend long periods of time comfortably using the service on a mobile device.

Mobile App

An Internet application designed to run well on a mobile device. This may be either native to the device, or web-based. User experience is excellent.
There are two flavors of mobile apps: native and web. A web-based app is similar to a mobile-optimized product, in that it is also designed to work well on mobile devices using web languages like HTML5, CSS, JavaScript, etc. But a key difference is that the web app is designed specifically for smaller devices. Unlike the mobile optimized strategy, which attempts to serve a full range of screen sizes with responsive design, the mobile web-app might be built just for smartphones, for example. Taking it a step further, you might have a mobile web app built just for a specific line of smartphones, like iPhone. A web app is rendered through a mobile browser, though it may be launched from an icon for easy home-screen access. A web link to the app can be distributed to new users without the need to gain approval or share revenue with one of the app store ecosystems. Since different mobile browsers all treat web code differently, a mobile app is a great way to go if you can target user demographics to a particular device or OS, and build a great experience just for them. User experience for a mobile web-app is as good or better than a mobile-optimized site. While the promise of building one app that works across iOS, Android, and Windows Phone is luring, the reality is that this is a very costly option. Each device and browser interacts and displays web apps differently, frustrating developers that fix a display bug on iPhone only to create a new one on Android. Many software firms fall into the trap of thinking web apps are inexpensive because they already have HTML developers on hand. Building for the endless combinations of mobile is quite another thing. As web languages advance, and browser standards conform, web apps will become a more promising option.

A native app is built for a particular operating system, like Apple iOS or Google Android. Native apps leverage software development kits that speed up the development process for software providers, while also standardizing a few key user-experience options common to the app ecosystem. Native apps are available through the app store particular to the OS, such as the Apple App Store or Google Play. This can be an extremely important distribution channel for developers, though distribution comes at the cost of sharing revenue. The user experience for a native app is fantastic, as it is built specifically to run on (supported) devices. The native app can take advantage of other device-specific capabilities like the camera, gyroscope, calendar, email, and more.
There is a final hybrid approach that blends native and web to build mobile applications. At the most extreme, developers build a mobile web-app based on HTML and then wrap it into a native frame. This strategy leverages core code that can be inserted into multiple native wrappers, providing maximum reusability while also leveraging distribution channels of the App Store, Google Play, and others. A more moderate option would be to build an app that has a healthy mix of native and web content, balancing the benefits of native code for smooth interactivity and ideal user experience, with the reusability of web code to present more static content.

Build for Purpose

All web-based products should at least be compatible with mobile browsers, providing access to key functionality when needed. Most developers should target a higher standard of user experience on mobile devices, either optimizing their products for different screen sizes, or going all the way toward building a dedicated application. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for mobile app development. You'll need to weigh the costs and benefits of each option and build the right solution for your target users.

Mike Barad is the Head of Product Components & Services for Morningstar. He leads an interdisciplinary product development organization that provides shared services, components, and mobile application development across Morningstar’s software products.

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