Mobile App VS Responsive/Adaptive Website Design

October 25th, 2016

UI/UX / Web / Mobile // Natalie

Adaptive or Responsive Website or Mobile app from a UI/UX Standpoint

Brands and companies are already aware of the need to adapt their websites for mobile devices. In the past few years, consumer behavior has changed radically, and people get information in a different way, no longer relying on their desktop or even laptop computers to search, read, and entertain themselves. All this demands the transformation of information sources and sales channels.

Despite this awareness, however, the process of adapting one’s projects for mobile devices is not a trivial task. It doesn’t just involve marketing decisions (what should remain, what menu points are not necessary), but also it requires a technical standpoint. Due to confusion in terminology, the task becomes even more complicated.

Therefore, let’s figure out the differences and what to choose: adaptive or responsive website design, mobile website, or native mobile apps.

One of the central questions for management to answer right away is: do you want to make your web product “mobile friendly” or invest in a standalone mobile application? (It's a trick question, too, since you might need both.)

In the first case, we’re talking about a website that is adapted (or responsive) to mobile devices. The latter option involves mobile applications that are downloaded from app stores.

The choice is both a blessing and a curse. There’s no one answer as to what option is the best, but you are free to choose any. Both approaches have their pros and their cons. It depends on the taste and needs, as well as on a number additional conditions, which we will describe in this article.

NOTE: Mobile applications can be native or cross-platform, and websites can be responsive, adaptive, or there’s also such a thing as a mobile site.

The two main advantages of optimizing web content using a mobile app vs responsive website design for mobiles is time and money. 

Both of these parameters are usually the crucial ones to entrepreneurs or product managers when they are considering various options, especially if the decision-makers do not have sufficient knowledge about technical aspects of the development process.

However, if you take a closer look at this dilemma, you will see that regarding quality and functionality, many other factors should be taken into account. Sp what's the difference between adaptive and responsive designs?

Responsive websites

Let’s begin with clarifying that the term “responsive design” as well as “mobile application design” mean that the digital content will adapt itself to any device screen resolution in which it is browsed.

What does it mean to have a responsive site? Responsive web design became popular when the business understood one simple thing: if the website doesn’t work well on mobile devices, it will have an adverse impact on the user experience and, as a result, will play a negative role in the conversion of a potential user to the client.

Poor mobile user experience = poor conversion and revenue decline.

Responsive vs. Adaptive Designs

As we noted earlier, despite the fact that both design types - adaptive and responsive - are created to develop mobile-friendly websites, there is a difference between them. When you develop a responsive website, it automatically adapts to whatever device you have, adaptive, on the other hand, is tied to the pre-defined screen sizes.

If you plan to make your website adaptive, you will have to provide layouts for each screen size on which it is expected to be viewed. If you forget about at least one such device, the probability of it looking ugly is quite high for that one device. At the same time, adaptive design is cheaper to make, even if it is less flexible.

NOTE: Further in the article, for simplicity, we will use the term “adaptive” web design for both responsive and adaptive approaches when comparing to the development of native apps.


Adaptive website design is faster and cheaper to create than a standalone mobile application. At the same time, you should not forget about the shortcomings of this option when making the decision.

Adaptive websites require the internet connection because adaptive websites use Internet browsers to work. This means that your product won’t be available anytime, anywhere. Depending on the purpose of your product, this may not fit the needs of your users.

On mobile devices, a website, even with adaptive design, will work slower than on desktops, because some of the components (for example, images & some scripts) are too “heavy” and slow to load. The users will have to wait until the browser loads the entire page and all its elements. As a result, this increases the amount of traffic, battery consumption, and time spent. (On the other hand, most mobile apps can be browsed and used offline.)

Another detail that must be taken into account is push notifications - a very effective way to attract user’s attention. They can only be used in mobile applications and are not available for adaptive websites.

Adaptive websites also can’t access the phone’s feature besides the browser, for example, the camera or calendar. Such technical limitation doesn’t only affect the product’s performance, but also restrict the developers at the stage of designing the product. Other features that cannot be used are QR-code reading, voice recognition, or augmented reality - these (and many other features) can only work inside a mobile app.

Got questions about adaptive / responsive web design?


Mobile applications are usually more expensive because the development team has to create unique design and code for each operating system (or create a cross-platform app). Also, before becoming available to the public, they must go through the approval process in the app stores that can take anywhere from two days to two weeks.

However, in terms of quality, speed, and the possibility to use the phone’s features, a mobile app is the best solution for business.

NOTE: There are native mobile apps (those that work on a particular platform, like iOS) and cross-platform mobile apps (that can operate on multiple platforms, for example, iOS and Android.) Read more about the difference here. We’re going to call them all mobile apps.

Mobile apps also solve the problem of slow loading because the app’s components are developed with an emphasis on being quick - they are usually much faster and tend to provide a more pleasant user experience. (Granted, if you’re using an old iPhone 4S, newer apps probably won’t even install on your phone - something to consider when evaluating your target audience).

Mobile apps can get access to most features of the phone (calendar, camera, etc.) even at the prototyping stage. Therefore, the developers can check how the app would work together with various tools, and they don’t have to limit themselves to just the browser window.

Mobile apps have a higher level of security, which is another significant advantage of native apps over the adaptive websites. The apps ensure the connection without the intervention of a third party.

Mobile apps are a tool that allows businesses to get directly to the screen of client’s mobile device. The customers don’t need to open the browser and enter the URL address or search for the service in Google. Just click on the app icon, and you’re ready, for example, to shop online or play games or check the bank account.

As we mentioned above, mobile apps cost more than building a responsive website. However, the benefits received should cover the costs of development.

Before you make your decision...

Evaluate your business needs before choosing a mobile app or adaptive design. You might not need to invest in an app when you have an informational website, and you don’t need the access to client’s camera, for example. An adaptive/responsive website will be enough for you.

You might need both solutions. Considering your business requirements, building a responsive website along with a mobile app might be just the solution. Technically speaking, if you have a website at all, you should consider how it looks on the mobile devices. Google ranks mobile-friendly websites higher than those that are “wooden” and don’t change if viewed from a mobile browser.

If your budget is tight, yet you think you need/want an app, you can consider creating a cross-platform app (an app that can work on iOS and Android, for example). We have talked about the differences between the development here.

Let’s develop a beautiful project together!

Author: Natalie

Natalie is a Project Manager who is a great team leader for her mobile development team. She is an expert when it comes to iOS and Android development and to building apps that win markets.

Tags Native Design Cross-Platform

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