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I was recently asked by a client “If time and money weren’t an issue, what type of mobile development would you do? Responsive, mobile or app?”

“All three,” I replied.

“Ok...  And if you could have just one?”

Most of my projects (and particularly the one in question) revolve around brand communications and loyalty programmes, here’s my running order:

In first place: mobile

Built exclusively for use on a mobile phone, a mobile website is likely to feature different content to its desktop counterpart, and will be designed for a premium browsing experience on smaller screens.  So why’s it my preferred solution?

A mobile website is created with nothing other than an optimum mobile experience in mind.

I can start with a blank sheet of paper. There are no constraints about what desktop site content I need to include or how it will scale - I can focus purely on a mobile solution.

Smartphones are getting better, browser capability is improving and network connection speed is going to get a whole lot faster with the advent of 4G.  It’s therefore possible to create app-like features and interactions on mobile websites without the headache and expense of building an app. Here are some of the best mobile sites I have experienced recently:

  • BBC is user friendly, has lots of content and delivers a consistent brand experience
  • TKMaxx has appealing ‘swipe’ features, is well scaled down and easy to use
  • BMW Austria includes a neat ‘pull-down’ menu, ‘swipe’ features and clear content

In second place: responsive

A responsive site will adapt to fill the user's screen size. Clever front-end developers will add in some JavaScript and CSS code that will show / hide content as you resize, allowing you to optimise aspects of the display for your particular screen size.

I like responsive sites, and for several of our clients they have been absolutely the right solution.

Why aren’t they my default choice?

Simply because there is almost always be an element of forced compromise (unless you have very little content). If it’s to be responsive then I have to consider desktop and mobile together - I can’t focus 100% on mobile phone users. That said, there are some very good responsive sites out there, for example:

  • https://lowdi.com– an awesome fluid site that re-scales extremely well across all common screen sizes

And finally: the app

Now I do like apps – and if you’re building a game or something highly interactive then an app may well be the best route for you. However, it’s number three for me because of a few simple reasons.

Because of all the device variables it’s always going to cost a lot more money and take a lot more time (than a responsive or mobile site) to design, build and test. Ongoing maintenance is also a potential headache. Your app’s going to need to work on updates to mobile operating systems so you will need to make regular updates to it.

Apps are often let down by other technologies. I like the idea of having a Tesco Clubcard on my phone rather than in my wallet. Unfortunately, the Tesco till system in their petrol stations can’t scan the phone...

And finally… if I start with a mobile site then I can learn what my customers are using their phone to access. Analytics will show me where, how and if an app will be useful. I can then make an informed decision about whether or not to invest in app development.

In conclusion

So there we go.  For me - while apps can rate high on the cool scale, and responsive sites rightly have their place - the ideal workhorses are mobile websites as the best medium to deliver intuitive and tailored mobile experiences.

What’s your preferred mobile solution?

Luke Brason

Published 3 January, 2013 by Luke Brason

Luke Brason is Head of User Experience at Grass Roots and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can connect with Luke on Google Plus and LinkedIn

8 more posts from this author

Comments (5)

Maria Wasing

Maria Wasing, VP of Marketing Europe at EPiServer

Thanks for sharing Luke, nice post! In your work with clients, does content forking and search come up as an issue when creating a mobile version of the site? Or the maintenance issue with content that needs to be managed in multiple places? Early in 2012, when researching marketers challenges in this area, we found that 76 % had a mobile strategy in place and 26 % expected to implemented a site which was optimized for other screens than the desktop within the coming year. The gap was larger than I expected, but I look forward to seeing if there is a change now when we repeat the survey. Still, I would expect that most organizations today want to create a piece of content once and easily use it across all of the sites or channels. The time to market for launching new websites for the enterprise is reduced by reusing existing content structure. And then the final question that came to me when reading your post - when do you recommend that the customer spends time on analytics to decide which content is most important to share with customers accessing it from a mobile device? Thanks!

almost 4 years ago

Luke Brason

Luke Brason, Head of User Experience at Grass Roots

Hi - thank you all for your comments and taking the time to read my article.
The sites I'm working with are generally fairly small - c.10 to 20 pages and often on the back of an existing website. E.g. a new loyalty programme for an existing product / company. They are therefore usually part of a wider programme rather than a single end-point in their own right.

@ Maria. If I understood your questions correctly:
1. I'd look at analytics as often as possible. For example what browsers & screen resolutions have been used to access any current sites. Once a new site is live I'd review regularly (e.g. monthly) against previously set goals and adjust accordingly. E.g. we monitored one of our registration forms for the first few months and found it had a c.25% abandonment rate - with the proportion abandoning when using a mobile way higher than when using a larger screen. This data gave us the impulse to review the structure of the mobile form and the communications driving people to the registration page.
2. I'm a big advocate of user testing too - ideally first at wire frame stage and then again at graphic design stage (and potentially AB testing as well). Real customers will point a lot of things out to you that you'd otherwise miss.
3. As the sites are fairly small they normally have 1 Campaign Manager and 1 Copywriter looking after them who can ensure that content is well managed and consistent across any different versions (and also manage consistent comms into emails, sms, social etc.) – the content is managed out of the same system.
4. Where we have a mobile and a desktop site version we'll use browser detection to determine which version to display. On mobile site pages we offer a link to view the full site if the user chooses to (I am pretty sure this is how the BBC example above works).

almost 4 years ago


Tom Hacon

Nice article Luke. I almost 100% agree with the choice you have made but my one reservation is the is that the mobile site stands alone and therefore needs to be updated separately.

Can you not conceive of a responsive site that scales in such a way that the design is not restricted by the full size site and does not require content to be updated twice?


almost 4 years ago

Luke Brason

Luke Brason, Head of User Experience at Grass Roots

Hi Tom - thanks for your comment. Absolutely can conceive of where a site scales across all resolutions. I think the Lowdi example in the article above does that beautifully.

Screen resolution typically goes from 240px to 1680px width and that represents a massive difference in available screen estate. Therefore the amount of content (text, images/media and navigation) you ought to show for the most intuitive of customer journey's is often different on a small screen vs a big screen (and at the various sizes between).

I have found that starting with mobile / small screen is a great process for cutting unnecessary content. It may be that after wire frames & early user testing is complete that the developers reckon they can deliver any content differences via responsive techniques rather than as separate sites.

I.e. the design process I have begun to adopt is to start with mobile 100% in mind and go from there - rather than to start with responsive in mind and getting caught up in thinking about scaling / potential compromise across resolutions.

almost 4 years ago


Tom Hacon

Hi Luke,

I like the idea of starting with mobile 100% in mind. I expect this approach will remove a lot of the content that is used to pad out a site on a larger screen and make for a better user experience on all devices.

almost 4 years ago

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