And if you are considering a mobile app for your library users, you are probably mulling over which option is the best solution for your library: Native Mobile Apps for Libraries or Responsive Websites for Libraries.
Before we proceed further, let’s pause for a moment to define some terms:
Native Mobile Apps – mobile apps are custom-coded specifically for each mobile operating system, be it iOS, Android, Windows 8 or RIM. This is not a one-size fits all approach. A native mobile app, as it’s name connotes, is created to take advantage of the device’s features, such as the camera, notification system, shake feature, accelerometer, compass, contacts, device geolocation. Native mobile apps will also work offline. These apps are deployed to the various device app stores where they can be downloaded and installed on the mobile user’s device.
Responsive websites – these websites have been updated or developed to provide a better viewing experience, rendering the web pages to the size of the mobile device window, making for easier navigation such as panning and scrolling. Responsive websites are run from within a web browser.
Web apps – these websites, usually written in HTML5, simulate the behavior of native mobile apps but they still run in a browser and are accessed via a URL. Web apps developed with HTML5 are able to achieve more native mobile app-like functionality. There are also hybrid apps, which are HTML web pages with a wrapper built around them so they can be deployed in an app store.
So, if you have been reading the blogs on this topic, you’ve probably come across the list of criteria illustrating advantages and disadvantages of one approach versus the other. Let’s dig a bit deeper into some of these criteria from the perspective of a library mobile app solution.
User Experience. In the area of usability, the native mobile app still wins hands down. While there have been tremendous advances in HTML5, the best web apps are not yet at the level of quality of native mobile apps. Just as there are differences in how web pages are displayed in different web browsers such as Safari versus IE, the graphics and visuals will not be rendered in a user’s device in exactly the same way from one device to another. App font sizes may render differently and can display awkwardly with different devices unless they have been specifically sized for the smartphone or tablet device supported. Web apps also include elements from the web browser such as search and navigation bars, which can clutter small device screens. Device user gestures such as swipes and pinches, clicking on buttons are also more fluid in a native mobile app. Native mobile apps for libraries can also take advantage of device specific features such as using the camera to scan barcodes, check out books, or truncate search terms for faster results.
While this doesn’t mean that you cannot have a decent user experience with a web app or hybrid app, it just means that graphics, visuals and user gestures will not be rendered in as polished a way as the user is accustomed to seeing in a native mobile app.
Mobile users tend to gravitate towards the best mobile experience and the data bears this out. In a survey done by Flurry, 80% of time spent on mobile devices in 2013 was spent within native mobile apps, and the trend is expected to increase to 86% in 2014.
Companies such as Facebook and LinkedIn who started off with HTML5 web apps have switched over to native mobile apps for improved user experience. Startups such as Carma have also made the choice to go to a native mobile app after launching with a hybrid. And this move appears to be working for Facebook as they recently reported that their mobile users soared past a billion users per month and they are the biggest winner of Flurry’s “time spent in device” app statistics.
So, if one of your priorities is providing a user experience that is consistent with the operating system and with the majority of the other apps available on that platform, then native mobile apps are the way to go.
Discoverability. There are arguments that responsive websites and web apps are more discoverable because search engines can find them. From the perspective of a library app, this advantage is moot since most of your users already know about your library and your goal is mainly to provide them with mobile access. If they are searching for a library, it is actually easier to find a library app in an app store since you are not competing with millions of web search results. You can easily make your app more discoverable by putting a simple link to it from your library website. Also, once an app is installed onto a user’s mobile device, it lives right there on his screen – thereby increasing the chances of his engaging with it throughout the day.
Maintenance. App maintenance has been cited as more resource intensive than web apps but this issue is mitigated with an outsourced mobile app solution like Boopsie’s library-branded app solution. The issue with platform independence is also irrelevant if you use a hosted solution that supports all the major device platforms as the solution provider takes on the burden of updating and maintaining the apps.
App Store Content restrictions, approval process, and fees. Some app stores, particularly Apple’s app store, impose a minimal developer fee and impose rules on content and design. While this might be viewed as taxing for app developers, it does provide users with the confidence that the apps they download have been tested and validated by Apple, and have met a minimum quality standard. Again, in a hosted solution, this issue is moot for the library and its users. Also the revenue cut taken by Apple for paid apps is not relevant for library mobile apps, which are free to the community.
Development cost. It’s arguable whether it costs more to develop web apps versus native mobile apps. There may be exceptions to the rule, but generally web apps that act similar to a native mobile app require a high level of expertise to build and may not necessarily be more cost-effective than native mobile apps. This is especially the case if you use a mobile app solution provider like Boopsie, which leverages economies of scale to offer competitive pricing for turn-key library branded mobile apps. Another advantage of going with a mobile app solution provider like Boopsie is that we have already invested the resources and time to integrate with your eBook and other content providers, so you can provide comprehensive access to all your digital resources. And one thing we have learnt from analyzing the millions of apps downloaded, it is that users prefer to use non-catalog based services.
At the end of the day, it’s not really about how your mobile solution is developed that is really important. It’s whether your mobile app provides the services and smooth overall experience your users are looking for – so that you can reach out to your underserved mobile population as well as expand the circulation of your digital subscriptions to the widest audience of library users.