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Mobile App or Responsive Website?

19 Jun 2015

When we were planning our new website in early 2014, we did a lot of thinking about whether a native app should be on our product development road map or whether we should concentrate on building a responsive, mobile-ready website first.  The debate on the internet seems to be framed around an "either / or" question of app vs responsive design - largely, I think, for SEO purposes.  In the end, we went down the responsive design route and looking back a year later, I'm very happy with that decision.  Responsive, mobile ready websites are no longer an optional "nice to have" feature.  They are must have, jumping off point for any intelligent online strategy.  Quite honestly, if your site is not responsive or you don't have a plan to go responsive, you're failing.  Our own traffic stats bear this out, as does Shopify's global stats for their merchants.  Last year, mobile accounted for 50.3% of all e-commerce traffic on the Shopify merchant network.  That figure is only going to grow.  The message is obvious: go mobile or go home.  

That said, a native app has some obvious attractions for The Canvas Works and we're now in the build phase for both an iOS and Android app.  Why? Two key factors have encouraged us to invest in native this year.  First, whilst our mobile responsive site works beautifully on tablets, it's not the full experience on mobile phones.  That was down primarily to our decision to use Aviary for our photo editing and filters functionality.  With Aviary, you license based on platforms - there are separate SDK's for web and mobile and their web SDK is not optimised for mobile.  So our web app works perfectly on desktop and tablets but we had to turn off the cropping features on mobile because it just wouldn't work properly.  We knew this would be an issue for us down the line - it just became an issue quicker than we'd anticipated.  As more and more of our traffic comes from large screen "phablet" type devices, it simply was not permissible to continue without a fully-featured experience on this screen size.  

The second factor that has emerged in recent times relates to app discovery.  Google and Apple are making big strides in solving this problem now - but even a year ago, app discovery was the elephant in the room.  What good is building a nice app if absolutely no one knows about it or can discover it?  The problem still is not solved but with deep-linking in apps beginning to roll out and google now returning app install ads on web searches, it seems likely that the app discovery problem could soon be a thing of the past.  

Ultimately, it rarely comes down to an either / or choice when it comes to apps vs responsive design.  My guess is most companies could find a way to deploy both, were it not for the issue of cost.  But it's a no-brainer to start with a responsive site first in my opinion. From an SEO and cost perspective, responsive will give you more bang for your buck initially and a faster return.  When you're up and running, rolling out an app to enhance the customer experience or to address key functional requirements is a sensible second phase.  

So what are our expectations for our native app?  In truth, incredibly low.  We're confident we can deliver a great app, but we're not at all convinced it will be a significant earner for us in the short term.  We're still a tiny, Irish business with a customer-base that is largely in Ireland.  We'll be happy that customers using our site on a mobile device will shortly have a fully featured experience, tailored to phablet sized screens and if it helps us pick up a little more international business, that's great but we're not holding our breath.  An app does have the potential to internationalise a business more readily than a responsive site alone but there's a lot more to attracting overseas customers than simply giving them a nice app to play with. More blog posts to follow as we continue down the dual app and responsive road!


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