By Elena Sanchez under Insights 22 March 2016
The question of whether to develop an app using native or hybrid technologies is one that comes up a lot – from clients across all industries.
Instead of diving straight into the pros and cons of each approach, let’s first illustrate the whole thing in simple terms using a metaphor coined by our Head of Design: we’ll call it the Coca-Cola Metaphor.
The Coca-Cola Metaphor
Imagine you are offered three types of Coca-Cola: classic Coca-Cola, Diet Coke, and Coke Zero. Your choice will depend on your taste – no big news there. The interesting part is that people usually compare both Diet and Zero against the classic Coke. Why? Well the classic Coke is the one that has set the bar, providing you with the full experience – any other types of Coke will be judged against it.
Got that? Right, now let’s get back to apps.
When it comes to the native versus hybrid debate, the very first thing we should be looking at is the user experience. By getting into the mindset of experience over technology or platforms, it is easier to determine which approach to take, and the different strategies available to craft a digital product or service.
At the dawn of the smartphone revolution, web apps were a clever way to address a new market. They provided virtually the same core functionalities as a desktop site, but adapted to a smaller screen.
The issue, however, was that designing for mobile is not the same as designing for desktop, and there was poor control over the user experience. In many cases, this was obviously detrimental to the business. Anyone who has used an old banking web app will understand, here. The premise was to allow people to bank on-the-go, but the overall performance performance was so slow and painful that people would defer until they could access a desktop – leaving the mobile solution an unfulfilled promise.
Today’s native mobile web browsers are far more powerful. In theory, a web app should be the perfect approach to reach billions of users in one go, regardless of the platform. Unfortunately, the lack of control over the user experience is still a major challenge.
On the other hand, web apps can indeed be a quick and cost-effective way to experiment with your service or product, utilising the resources you already have – such as a website. However, it is important to remember that whilst this might allow you to deliver quickly and apparently cheaply, if your competitors are providing a far better experience for users than you can achieve with web apps, then it was a false economy in reality. Recalling our original metaphor, to someone who is used to – and expects – the great taste of classic Coca-Cola, your web app might feel like Coke Zero. Comparatively, there is something missing that means you fail to connect to your users.
A hybrid app combines native elements with web elements (mainly through web views). This seizes some of a native platform’s potential whilst utilising an existing platform or web-based legacy system.
The positive side of hybrid apps is the ability to tap into an existing website or platform at a lower development cost in the short-term. For example, a store owner could display their product catalogue through web views, but the final checkout process is built natively to make the transaction experience more seamless, mitigating the risk of users abandoning purchases out of frustration. Arguably, a well-developed hybrid app shouldn’t impact user experience – but it is equally true that a hybrid app often fails to utilise the device’s full potential.
It is also true that, when implemented badly, a hybrid approach will slow down the performance of your app, and can make the experience as painful as the early web app days. There is also maintenance to consider: supporting web views on mobile devices not only makes the architecture more complex, but it will also increase costs over the long-term.
So, is a hybrid approach basically a trade-off – compromising end-to-end control on the UX for the sake of reusing existing web-based systems? How deep is the gap between the experience one gets using a hybrid app versus a native one? And if you go hybrid, are you still ultimately giving people Diet when they really expect Classic Coke?
Maps within apps
Let’s take a closer look at these challenges with a particular example: maps within apps.
Imagine you have a chain of outlets, and a responsive website with a map, pinning their locations. You need to get this map into the ‘Locate Us’ section in the app, but you have both time and budget constraints. So, you decide to use a web-view to display the map on your app. Voilà, map embedded, and you are good to go.
Your customers were happy to use the map in your hybrid app to locate one of your five stores. However, what happens when you start opening more and more stores?
Now the map begins to get cluttered, and users are finding it hard to navigate. It is not just that the map is now slow, but the web-view has a hard time rendering all the pins – sometimes, they flicker or disappear while the user moves the map around.
Then you think that perhaps your mobile users could benefit from a location search box, just like on your website. However, this clutters the layout further and entering a query doesn’t play well with the native device keyboard. Entering postcodes or addresses whilst walking becomes a user painpoint.
Now, your hybrid app has become a constraint. How many unsuccessful attempts will it take before your customer, frustrated by your app, sends it to the background, and opens Google to search for your store? The answer: not many. At all. And what they will remember is that your app wasn’t good enough to help them when they needed it.
Companies like Google and Apple roll out frameworks and tools to developers, along with new devices and operating systems. These are tailored to suit the device’s in-built software, and utilise its full potential. This is essentially a native app’s big selling point: the ingrained compatibility with the device. When done properly, a native app blends smoothly from screen to screen, and provides better control over notifications, user settings, and offline behaviour.
But what does this mean for your own app with it’s struggling map? Ultimately, the user experience bar is being set ever higher. The interactions become faster, more fluid, more intuitive – and all whilst accommodating a broad range of capabilities. As a result, your users now expect seamless interactions and you have a new competitor: Apple and Google are defining UX standards with their own native apps.
In short, native apps resemble classic Coke: they become a subconscious reference point that we judge our experience of other apps against.
Wrapping it all up
So if your users all ultimately expect the great taste of classic Coke when it comes to their user experience, does that mean there is no place for hybrid or web apps? Of course there is – all three approaches are valid, and in certain situations, present a number of advantages.
If you have very intricate legacy systems, for example, then going fully native could represent a technical risk, or require a lot of stakeholder buy-in. In this instance, a hybrid approach may help with phasing the technologies, whilst quickly helping you to reach mobile-enabled users and drive results from your product.
The key takeaway here, though, is that the real challenge is not choosing which route to go. It is delighting your users by helping them achieve their outcomes – like finding your store on a map, for example. Your app should enable them to do this as painlessly as possible – if it gets in the way of that in any capacity, then it is time to revisit it.