Responsive Design or Mobile App?

Managing a website can be a tricky business, just when you think you’ve got your website working well you realise that an increasing number of visitors are trying to access it from a smartphone and that they may not be getting a good experience. Smartphones are now expected to be the most common way of accessing your website in 2014 so businesses need to make sure they are not losing opportunities, and this can mean deciding between a responsive design or mobile app.

The key thing about technology is to make it as easy as possible for people to do business with you. The best way to deal with the increasing ubiquity of smartphones and tablets is different for every business, as they all have customers with different needs.  It is clear that any sensible business owner/marketing manager must be thinking through the implications of mobile for their business.

To illustrate the different options that companies have available, we have taken some screenshots from National Rail-

mobile friendly or mobile app

From left to right is the desktop version, the responsive website (mobile friendly version) and the mobile app. All these were accessed on my mobile to show the differences between the formats.

Desktop version

You can see it is very difficult to read the content there. I have to zoom in to read it, and then I have to scroll upwards, downwards and left to right in order to find the option I’m looking for.

The desktop for National Rail site is not the worst that I have seen, because they have put the key feature that I am likely to be looking for, straight in front of me (the train times) and all the boxes open up on a mobile too which isn’t always the case when accessing desktop versions on a mobile phone.

Responsive Site

This is much better for me to access on a mobile. National Rail have clearly realised if I am trying to access on my mobile, I am probably out and just after the train times. I don’t have to zoom in and scroll around to find what I am after because it is all easy to view.

It is also connects much quicker. This means I can get the information I need without having to download as much data which can be the difference between being able to get the information and not, which can in turn, be the difference between a frustrated customer, and a happy one.

Mobile App

The third option is a native mobile application. This doesn’t need to load up as it is already in my phone so getting the information I want is super quick (quicker than the responsive design). It also has extra functionality – it uses the phones inbuilt GPS to know my location so it can tell me the nearest station, it has my favourite stations and regularly journeys stored so I don’t have to re-enter this, and it can also give me reminders of when my train is about to leave. As a customer I really appreciate this extra level of attentiveness and it helps me make sure I get the train I need.

This National Rail app is a native application rather than a HTML5 app, I won’t go into detail about that here, but Code99 are advocates of native applications in order to get a quicker and better experience, and in order to be able to take full advantage of utilising the smartphones key mobile features.

Responsive Design or Mobile App – What can mobile do for you?

Key questions to think through are-

1. Are visitors likely to want information about you whilst out and about? (eg contact details, times, dates, prices etc).

2. Do you get many site visitors on a mobile browser? (use analytics, such as Google Analytics, to find this out).

If you answered yes to either of these questions then you should consider a responsive website.


1. Would anything location based or GPS based be useful?

2. Could reminders for anything be useful for your customers?

3. Would push notifications? Eg is there anything you want to tell them about such as new products etc that they could want to be alerted about.

4. Any personalised details that they need to check regularly?

If you answered yes to any of these four, then an app might be the better option. If you answered no to all these questions, then you may be fine to save the time and money and stay with a desktop version of the website.

There are good reasons to do your homework first as developing an ill-thought through mobile application is a costly exercise without returns. Choosing the right option for your business will allow you to connect with your customers in the most convenient way for them which is what every business should be trying to do.

3 thoughts on “Responsive Design or Mobile App?”

  1. Good article Neil, nice examples. National Rail really need an app but too many businesses look at that option when all they really need is a responsive site rather than an app that won’t get used.

  2. I agree Barry, many businesses seem to get an app just for the sake of saying they have one, rather than listening to what their customers actually want or need.

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