If “there’s an app for that” why should I care about AWD?
Where would we be without our mobile apps? Nestled on our smartphones, they can tell us when the bus is coming, map out the stars in the sky, and direct us to the nearest ATM or coffee shop. There are thousands of ways that apps can make our lives easier, and there are millions to choose from: the Apple Store claimed 1.2 million in 2014, while 1.3 million were available for Android.
Native apps have a lot to offer. They provide the functionality to push notifications and promotional material to the user, and can add value by integrating with a phone’s other features, such as the accelerometer, camera, and location sensor. Plus, since large portions of the app are housed on the device, performance tends to be better than the open web — navigating through menus and flipping page to page is near-immediate (albeit with delays introduced wherever content must be pulled from the web).
When native gets tough, the tough…
The functionality and performance come at a cost, however. Separate apps must be built for each mobile platform: iOS and Android at minimum, plus tablet-specific apps and Windows and BlackBerry in some cases. Each of these separate apps requires ongoing maintenance as mobile operating systems evolve. To implement a new technology or functionality across all applications, it can easily require 3, 4, or more separate projects, each with different challenges and timelines.
Plus, while app usage and engagement is growing by almost every measure, the native landscape is still dominated by mobile-centric businesses at the nexus of games, social media and messaging. These apps tend to be broadly popular across demographics, and often have addictive qualities. For your average bear – companies in sectors like retail, travel/hospitality, print media, and non-profit – engagement is much harder won. For these companies, an expensive app development project may be met by frustratingly low download volume and low in-app engagement.
For example, a typical user might open Twitter’s native app twenty times a day to kill time, use WhatsApp to communicate with friends, and spend a half hour each night playing Doodle Jump on her couch. But she might also instinctively go straight to Google to shop for shoes or research hotels, rather than find and open a specific brand’s app. The latter would require a trip to an app store, and adjusting to a new interface. Moreover, why would she limit her research or shopping experience to one brand, when a web search can provide a whole world of options, presented in a familiar format, and with practically no delay?
Incoming: Adaptive Web Design
Adaptive Web Design (AWD) is a relatively new method for delivering browser-based mobile experiences. It builds upon the ideas behind responsive web design (RWD), while addressing several of the issues faced by both RWD and “m-dot” mobile web apps. AWD apps have the ability to optimally deliver and display pages for any combination of location, device, and network capability. This means it delivers better performance on mobile devices while maintaining visual consistency between the mobile and desktop sites.
Adaptive works by factoring in awareness of specific conditions and modifying the application itself to match. For example, a user on an iPhone6+ with an LTE connection might be served a richer, more expansive experience than a user on an iPhone 4 on a 3G network. Crucially, the adjustments necessary to drive this functionality are performed on the server side, rather than the phone’s browser (i.e. the client side), as is the case for RWD.
When implemented, AWD allows a company to leverage the device- and OS-specific customizations typically found in native apps, while also offering that experience to all users via conventional means like search, links, or direct URL. AWD also streamlines the delivery process to achieve better performance than a typical web app. Instead of forcing the browser to download an entire page’s content at once, AWD offers the ability to sequence delivery and rendering based on priority and action – for example, a company may choose to initially serve users just the content that’s visible “above the fold”, ensuring that it’s rendered quickly, while serving other content later, or on-command.
Does Adaptive Work?
Though adoption of AWD has not taken off as quickly as RWD has, it’s quietly growing among leaders in mobile adoption.
Amazon, for instance, has a handful of hugely popular mobile applications. And yet they have clearly not let that take away from the open web experience. Their main web application leverages AWD principles, showing a rather different experience on a phone than on a desktop. The desktop experience your author sees is very busy, filled to the brim with 3rd party advertisements and various other Amazon offers like Prime, Kindle unlimited, and gift cards, in addition to the recommended books and products. The mobile presentation, however, is streamlined, simple, and focuses mostly on recommended products. When scrolling, after passing just four groupings of offers, one quickly arrives at a menu tree sitting in the footer. It’s very fast, even on a 3G connection.
This is clearly not a different website – it has the same ‘www’ subdomain. Yet it’s not an RWD site either, or else the phone presentation would consist of a very, very long page filled with dozens of elements. Overall, the mobile web experience is not a whole lot different from what can be found on Amazon’s native shopping app. This is what AWD looks like in action.
It should be noted that AWD is not easy. Compared with the standardized development practices for native, RWD, and mobile-only, AWD introduces new methods and more overhead for development. But it’s not just the super-powered giants like Amazon who are finding success using it.
The retailer Avenue32 (www.Avenue32.com), profiled in Website Magazine, claims a “400 percent increase in smartphone and tablet orders, a doubling of mobile traffic, and average mobile transactions increasing by 270 percent” through the implementation of AWD. Vendors of all sizes, the article notes, are “embracing adaptive design in order to deliver their sites on mobile up to 40 percent faster.”
Native apps have their place, to be certain, but for companies looking for a greater degree of interaction and conversion, opportunity is knocking with AWD.