The Differences Between Web Apps and Mobile Apps
“Good mobile user experience requires a different design than what’s needed to satisfy desktop users.”—Jakob Nielsen
Before we get into our discussion of how to create responsive user assistance for mobile devices, it is important to understand the difference between a mobile Web application and a mobile app. Often, the responsive user assistance that we produce does not differ significantly across different mobile platforms, but keeping their basic differences is mind can help us to create deliverables that work best on the relevant platform.
Web sites and applications consist of HTML pages that are linked together. Users type a Web address into a Web browser to access Web pages over the Internet. Both mobile Web applications and the mobile breakpoints of responsive Web applications are designed for smaller hand-held displays and have touchscreen interfaces. Mobile apps, in contrast, are native, device-specific applications that users can download and install on their mobile devices. Nevertheless, mobile apps can download content from the Internet—just as mobile Web applications do—and can store that content on a device so a user can view it even without an Internet connection. Mobile apps can implement loyalty programs and mobile payments on a single, device-specific platform. Hybrid mobile apps also comprise HTML pages, but are hosted on a native mobile platform, so users can access a mobile device’s built-in features such as its camera and contacts.
From a user’s perspective, a mobile app is ideal for frequent and repetitive use and provides a device-specific user experience. It offers the look and feel of the device operating system, along with location-based services and advanced video features. In contrast, as Rinish Nalini has said, “A mobile Web app combines the versatility of the Web with the functionality of touch-enabled devices.”
When creating user assistance for mobile devices, it is good to keep these differences in mind and determine our approach accordingly. Whether we’re offering product-oriented or service-oriented user assistance, we must determine the mobile platform and target audience first, then provide the right content and design solution to deliver an optimal user experience. Through iterative design and content development, we can ensure our solutions meet users’ needs and enable them to take full advantage of the mobile platform.
The Role of User Assistance on Mobile Devices
“The last several years have seen a very rapid conversion in the IT industry in the way software is designed, implemented, and consumed. This creates an important pair of questions for you as a user assistance professional: What is your role in mobile and how can you prepare to take that on?”—Joe Welinske
User assistance plays a major role in optimizing a user experience on any platform, including mobile devices. As technical communicators, we must always keep abreast of technical innovations and innovate solutions that complement them. User assistance has evolved from static Microsoft Word or PDF documents to interactive user assistance and context-sensitive Help systems. User assistance must be easily accessible, simple to understand, and effective, regardless of the device on which a user is viewing it.
Responsive Web designs automatically adapt to the user interface of the device on which a user is viewing them—whether a desktop computer, smartphone, or tablet. They enable users to view, read, and understand the same content across all of their devices. Similarly, mobile user assistance must be responsive in terms of both its content and its presentation. It is fruitless to design user assistance that does not work across all of the devices on which a user is likely to view it. As technical communicators, we must take that extra step to understand how we can create an effective user-assistance medium that works optimally across all devices, from the desktop to a tablet to a smartphone.