Apps vs. Responsive Web Design: Brad Frost Weighs In

Apps vs. Responsive Web Design: Brad Frost Weighs In

If you use your smartphone to browse more websites than you do on your desktop, then you may have encountered some not-so-pleasant mobile-web experiences. Mobile Web Designer Brad Frost is looking to alleviate those difficult-to-access mobile websites, and one way he’s doing that is by using a growing design trend called responsive web design.

Though Frost doesn’t create traditional mobile apps, his work on mobile websites for brands such as Tiffany & Co. and Nike sparked our interest into the growing responsive web-design trend. Creator Ethan Marcotte defines it as designing web experiences that are tailored to work and look good on a multitude of devices. So, no matter what device you’re on or how big (or small) your mobile screen is, a website is tailored to look perfect on it.

Frost is also the mastermind behind the popular WTF QR Codes and WTF Mobile Web Tumblr blogs and is the creator of the Mobile Web Best Practices website. Additionally, the man is busy being a musician, front-end developer at a New York City-based digital agency, artist and blogger for his personal site, (Surprisingly, he said he still catches some sleep.)

To us here at The Recapp, it seems that Frost has his hands on everything mobile right now, not to mention he has terrific insight into the growing responsive web-design trend that is taking the web-design world by storm. Turns out we were right.

  1. How did you get started in the mobile-web world? What made you want to be a mobile developer and designer?

    Like many great things, I stumbled into mobile-web design by accident. I was looking for anything at the time, so I thought I would use this mobile-web thing as my foot in the door and eventually get a chance to make "real websites." Little did I know at the time that this was where everything was going. I was extremely fortunate.

  2. We’ve gathered from your blog posts that you’re an advocate of responsive web design. When do you recommend your clients use responsive mobile sites over mobile apps?

    Good question. There are some big differences between sites and apps. Mobile apps (whether native, web or hybrid) are typically focused experiences that take advantage of a device's capabilities, while sites (whether desktop-only, separate mobile template or responsive) can take advantage of the web, the world's largest publishing platform. In short, I usually sum up the difference between sites and apps as "fidelity versus reach."

    It's dangerous to think in terms of "site versus app" or "native versus web." These channels aren't mutually exclusive, so it shouldn't be approached as an either-or decision. The web is fantastic because it's ubiquitous, meaning you can ideally put your content and functionality in front of anyone with an Internet connection. While apps can't claim that level of reach, they can tap into the device's full capabilities to create some really robust utility.

    It has become essential to create optimized web experiences across a growing number of screen sizes and contexts. Creating separate mobile sites works for now, but there are more connected devices emerging every day, and creating a unique web experience for all of them simply doesn't scale. That's why flexible experiences that adapt to the device's capabilities are becoming more important. It's extremely challenging to create contextually aware, adaptive experiences, but it's becoming really important to do so.

  3. What are the key entities to an enjoyable mobile-web experience? What about a not-so-pleasant one?

    An enjoyable mobile-web experience is when you get what you're after without a lot of hassle. First and foremost, that means having access to the content or functionality you're looking for. The content should load quickly and interactions should be optimized for the device you happen to be browsing with.

    Too often mobile-optimized sites arbitrarily lop off content as a way to deal with the relative lack of screen real estate. "Ah, mobile users don't need this," is a pretty common assumption, and that assumption has really damaging implications. Users are often redirected to a mobile homepage, forced to download an app, or simply presented with a "sorry, content not available" message. Not achieving content parity is the worst mobile-web offence. After that, slow performance is the next biggest challenge. Mobile users do indeed want a robust experience, but if the experience takes 25 seconds to load, users aren't going to hang around to check it out.

  4. You run both of the WTF QR Code and WTF Mobile Web Tumblr blogs. What was your inspiration for creating these popular blogs?

    WTF Mobile Web was a team effort between myself and Jen Simmons, the brilliant host of The Web Ahead podcast. She got in touch and let me know she's been hoarding screen shots of terrible mobile-web experiences. As it turns out, I've been doing the same thing on my own and happened to own the domain name So we joined forces and launched the site.

    For WTF QR Codes, I noticed that QR Codes are freaking everywhere. There's a lot of QR pollution in New York City, so I started taking pictures of some of the more boneheaded specimens. I thought it would be funny to publish them on a blog, so I got in touch with Craig Villamor, who's a great mobile UX designer and has a good eye for this sort of stuff. Once we launched the site, we were flooded with submissions from people who apparently feel the same way about QR codes.

  5. What is the best advice you have received in terms of mobile development? What’s the best piece of advice you can give to other developers?

    The best advice I've ever received is to keep experiences simple and uncomplicated. And that's what I can pass on as advice.

    Some designers and developers introduce a lot of unneeded dependencies, bells and whistles to an experience. Everything you introduce to an experience should add real value. Don't over-engineer things, and strive to keep things as clear as possible for the user.

Bonus Question:

What are the best resources (blogs, forums, etc.) you turn to when you have questions about the mobile web?

The main reason I created the Mobile Web Best Practices site was because I got asked this question all the time. So I do recommend checking out the resources on the MWBP site.

I think Twitter is an absolutely essential mobile-web resource. There's tons of people, myself included, who are happy to answer questions. This stuff is really hard, so it becomes important to have a collective conversation about the many opportunities and pitfalls of mobile-web design.

I also think the Mobile Web Yahoo! group mailing list is an essential resource. It's a great place to ask questions, get opinions and get a feel for how the community feels about certain techniques or trends.

Follow Brad Frost on Twitter.

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