A brief guide to web vs native apps

In this week’s #UXchat, we’re discussing web and native apps and answering almost all of the following questions…

What’s the difference between native and web apps? What are the pros and cons of each? Who delivers a great consistent experience between both platforms? Wouldn’t it be cool if an app turned around one day and snapped, “actually it’s appLICATION” in a very passive aggressive manner?

mobile phone with lens flare

Look, it’s tough to find a non-clichéd stock photo of a phone, but I thought this was at least *quite* nice

Just in case you’re new to UXChat, here’s a little background to our weekly UX conversation where you can rub shoulders (or at least virtual Twitter wingy shoulders) with our lovely UX community every Thursday at 4pm, and discuss a different user experience topic every week.

This week’s conversation was hosted by Ilya Birman, product designer and all-round generous and talented human being. We’ll get to our UX community’s own comments about native and web apps soon, but first, let’s get a few important questions out of the way for the newbies…

What’s the difference between a native app and a web app?

Native apps

You’ll already be fully aware of native apps, they’re the things that clutter up the screen of your smartphone that 90% of the time you won’t use more than once, or keep meaning to delete because you can’t figure out how to turn off the push notifications.*

Native apps need to be downloaded from a store or come pre-loaded (like that VERY HANDY stocks and shares app that I care LOADS about).

Stocks app on an iPhone

‘Fascinating’

Native apps don’t necessarily need a constant connection to the internet to work, so you can still use them when crammed up against strangers while marooned deep in the underground.

Native apps aren’t necessarily the preserve of mobile. Spotify has a native desktop app, which you can download and fire up to use even when there’s no internet – providing you remembered to make all your favourite Gloria Estefan tracks available offline.

Native apps won’t work on two separate devices though. If you want to develop your own app, you’ll have to be build separate versions for iPhones and Android phones. I know! Annoying huh!

Web apps

Unlike native apps, web apps are exclusively accessed through an online browser (Google Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer!?) much like any other website.

However unlike all the other boring, impersonal websites which show the same content to any old stranger who visits, a web app offers an individualised experience based on what the user wishes to achieve.

For example, Google Analytics is a web app. You sign-in via your browser, and the functionality is entirely set to your own preferences and parameters. Same with an email provider like Hotmail or Gmail, a social channel like Twitter or Facebook. Our own WhatUsersDo user testing platform is a web app. And of course Spotify has its own in-browser version too.

spotify web player

Web apps don’t need to be downloaded, so they won’t take up any extra memory or affect your processing speed. However, they will only work when you’re connected to the internet. Otherwise you’ll just be endlessly playing the little dinosaur platform game rather than listening to the sweet Latin-influenced sounds of the Miami Sound Machine.

Now let’s ask the UX community about what they prefer when it comes to native vs web apps.

What are the pros and cons of web and native apps?

Web apps: pros

Basically, people really hate using app stores and clutter…

Web apps can also be more cost effective to develop than native apps, and should technically be device and browser agnostic.

Web apps: cons

A web app is only as good as your internet connection. If you have zero connection, you’ll just have to talk to someone next to you for entertainment. *shudder*

And then for more ‘web app cons’, you can just read the next section of ‘native app pros’ as a list of subtle digs at web apps.

Native apps: pros

Our top results include being able to work offline and their security.

Also, according to Lifewire, since native apps work with a device’s built-in features, they are easier to work with and perform faster on a respective device.

Native apps: cons

Native apps also tend to be more costly to develop. Bear in mind you’ll have to build a new version for every operating system.

You also need to get your app ‘approved’ by the app store before anyone can download and use it. You also have discoverability issues – meaning you’re at the whim of customer reviews and the app store’s own algorithms.

What should you keep in mind when designing a web version of a previously native-only app?

Here’s what our community has to advise when it comes to any app developer who wants to adapt their product to a browser-shaped online home. Ultimately, as it always should, it comes down to keeping the user in focus….

What are your favourite web apps?

As well as the ones mentioned in the introduction – Gmail, Google Analytics, Spotify – the following are recommended by our experts, including Trello and everyone’s favourite podcast sponsor, Slack!

Thanks so much for everyone who took part in #UXchat this week. Please follow us and tune into Twitter every Thursday at 4pm for more insightful UX based discussion.

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Main image by Rodian Kutsaev, stocks app photo by William Iven

*not a real statistic, purely anecdotal based on a sample size of me.

Christopher Ratcliff
Christopher is the Content Marketing Manager of WhatUsersDo. He’s also the editor of wayward pop culture site Methods Unsound. He used to be the deputy editor of Econsultancy and editor Search Engine Watch.

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