Skip to main content
Internet FluencyThinksUncategorized

Mobile vs. Apps vs. Responsive – a primer

As mobile devices proliferate (tablets, phones – things with small screens and no wires…) the challenge of delivering an appropriate experience to those mobile users has increased – but things are now settling down and some general standards have emerged. As web developers and brand managers to our clients, we have been riding the developing needs of the mobile market in real time and responding in a variety of ways.

First, to clarify – why do we care about mobile? We care because this is where the users are – anyone who looks around on a train, in a coffee shop, or on the street can see that we are all hunched over our devices. A lot of that poking and swiping is purposeful – we are seeking answers in real time to present questions – how do I get to your office? What’s your phone number? What are your hours? How do I tell people about my present experience? For organizations that want to efficiently reach customers on mobile, its important to ask the question – what do people REALLY need to know about us as quickly as possible? Mobile is generally about taking action – not simply browsing or entertaining. It’s smart to design around the question of action in this case.

There are presently 4 ways to reach mobile users who are seeking these answers – a basically un-altered desktop website, a stand-alone mobile site, a mobile-compatible website (also called a responsive site, more on this in a minute), and a mobile application. Let’s walk through these.

1: The Non-Mobile Site – The iphone is the default standard of mobile. For reasons of his own, way back when the first iphone came out Steve Jobs & Co. decided to not support Adobe (macromedia) “flash”  – a dynamic web programming environment that was used by many developers to create visually exciting and interactive websites. Overnight, this decision precluded any responsible web developer from continuing to use flash to develop sites. A flash site, even today, is just a blank blue square on your iphone. The phone does support most other base web protocols – HTML, PHP, java – but you know that if you pull up a “standard” website – especially one that is a few years old – you can expect to do a lot of zooming and scrolling and pecking at tiny buttons and links. This is because the site was designed for a standard desktop screen, not a tiny phone.

2: The stand-alone mobile site – Websites can be big, expensive and difficult to manage or evolve. For this reason, as organizations encountered the development of the mobile market it has often been simpler – and better- to develop a simplified, streamlined mobile-only site. If you use your phone to browse the web you have encountered these – often after entering the URL of the site you are seeking – for instance (the website for the Norman Rockwell Museum) – you will see the address URL change to What is happening is that the site is detecting your device, identifying it against a look-up table of available devices, determining you are on a phone and redirecting you to a subdomain where there is a stand-alone website designed specifically for the mobile user. These sites typically present a streamlined and enlarged set of menu buttons, and the underlying content is generally also streamlined, stripped off graphics and photos for the most part, and shortened to provide mobile users with the answers they are seeking – hours of operation, directions, contact information, basic event calendar – that kind of thing. The advantage of the mobile stand-alone site is its low cost of design and deployment. The down side is that now you have another website to manage – and some of the info that users are looking for may not be on this site (which is why we always include a link to the “full site”)

3: The Responsive site – This is the flavor of the day – responding to the mobile market, web developers have created updated code and template systems for all the major content management platforms like Drupal, WordPress, Joomla and others – these templates are “responsive” – that is, the page and the page content reshapes itself dynamically to the size of the viewers screen. In addition, site navigation elements are often redrawn in ways to optimize the user’s experience. If you have a tablet or phone, pull up some sites and rotate the device – see if the site automatically rescales to the width of the screen and if the content re-aligns itself. Often this will involve “blocks” of content on the page re-stacking into a long column instead of flowing across the wider page. Responsive sites are the de-facto standard for development now – we generally don’t build sites that aren’t responsive anymore. That being said, if you are an organization with a website that is 3-5 years old, it may have been developed just before responsiveness became available or common – and you may be looking at some significant redesign or rebuilding to achieve responsiveness. Here’s a site we just launched for Albany Berkshire Ballet that is fully responsive.

4: Mobile Apps – Apps, or “applications” are specialized programs that you download to your phone to address a specific need – we all have dozens of apps on our phones to manage our bank accounts, music, social media, games, etc. These apps are specifically designed to serve a single purpose – and they do that very well. For many organizations, there is a tendency to view apps as “cool” and “cutting edge” – anyone who is part of a large organization or institution has sat around the table discussing whether or no “we need an app”. I’m here to tell you that except in very specific cases, the answer, at present, is usually “no”. Here’s why – apps are expensive and difficult to develop and usually impossible for the organization to manage directly after launch, unlike a basic wordpress site. More importantly, apps require the user to take specific and complex actions – identify that their is an app available, choose to find and download the app, choose to locate and activate the app on the device, learn the app’s unique interface and structure, and then remember at a later date that the app still exists and is on the device. A lot of museums are pursuing apps to allow visitors to enhance their experience – this is fine but likely could be as easily addressed with a simple stand-alone purpose-built website which only requires users to type in a URL. We recently deployed such a solution for Hanock Shaker Village with their site – purpose built to behave like an application on an ipad but using conventional wordpress structure.


So what should you do? As I stated at the beginning of this post, you need to identify what action a mobile user is most interested in taking with your site. What does the user want to do? Start with answering that question, then take a look at your current presence on the web and how you appear to mobile users today, and then contact us and we can help you figure it out! Mobile is here to stay – make sure you are considering that experience for you customers.


Sprague Studio Admin

Author Sprague Studio Admin

More posts by Sprague Studio Admin

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Heather says:

    “Mobile vs. Apps vs. Responsive – a primer | Kevin Sprague” was indeed quite engaging and helpful!

    Within the present day universe that is tough to do.

    Regards, Wilfredo