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Mobile Apps and Responsive Design: What’s Best for eCommerce Merchants?

Steve Susina • August 19, 2016

For eCommerce merchants, investing in mobile is no longer a nice-to-have. The mobile revolution is here, and it shows no signs of quieting down. With the demise of Yahoo blamed on lack of mobile development, plus recent studies on mobile’s large role in consumer spending, eCommerce merchants are starting to recognize and accept mobile’s importance in online selling.

But, eCommerce merchants often struggle to adopt the mobile approach that works best for their businesses and shoppers—mobile apps or responsive design? What’s the difference and why choose one over the other? Here’s a quick overview that gives you some answers.

Mobile Apps


An app is software that shoppers download to their mobile devices. It’s not technically considered a website because it’s independent of a mobile browser.


• Can be optimized for a specific device, which makes features and functionality very user friendly
• User experience can be designed to solve viewing problems common on mobile websites
• Some features can be used without Internet access, which benefits shoppers who have limited data plans
• Speed and performance are improved over standard websites


• Distinct user experience can be off-putting to shoppers
• Must be developed and maintained independently of websites
• Cost and development efforts are high
• Multiple versions of the app will be needed based on the device and operating system
• App must be updated to remain compatible with newer versions of operating system
• Can’t be used as a customer acquisition tool by improving SEO health or ranking

Mobile App Examples:

Adaptive Design


Adaptive design is when separate experiences are created for each device. The user experience adapts to fit whatever device is being used.


• Web pages load faster because the server only sends content relevant to the device being used
• User experiences can be tailored for different devices based on customer intent
• Less design limitations
• Doesn’t require rebuilding an existing website; can be bolted onto an existing one


• Higher development and maintenance cost and complexity; multiple sites to create versus only one
• Inconsistent user experience across devices can frustrate shoppers and make it hard for them to find content
• Unless dynamic serving with a single URL is used, SEO may suffer

Adaptive Design Examples:

Responsive Design


Responsive design means that a single experience is created for each device. The user experience responds appropriately for the device being used.


• Consistent user experience and branding across all devices
• Least expensive and fastest time to market with no additional resources needed for upkeep
• Preserves SEO and link authority with single URL that has no redirects


• Pages load slower because the server sends all content to the browser regardless of the device being used
• Higher number of design limitations
• Doesn’t always support older browsers and devices

Responsive Design Examples:

A Plan for Mobile-First

As you consider what approach to take, focus your effort on these six areas to learn what will work best for your eCommerce site and customers.

Analytics & Testing:
• Track shoppers by traffic source, device type, and mobile activity to learn their mobile behaviors
• Test and measure your experience; adjust and test again

• Design for the smallest screen first
• Build from the bottom up instead of from the top down
• Keep content simplified, relevant, visual, and seamless

• Ensure CTAs are visible and usable
• Keep mobile site search consistent with desktop search experience
• Make product filtering and sorting easy

Conversion & Checkout:
• Understand how shoppers convert on different devices
• Simplify mobile checkout forms
• Limit modal and iframe usage

• Create one experience across devices
• Ensure functionalities like shopping cart, wish lists, registries, and payments have consistent experiences

• Ensure emails are optimized for mobile viewing
• Enable geolocation, especially for multichannel retailers
• Consider paid mobile search
• Incorporate social media and user-generated content

Steve Susina is the marketing director at LYONSCG and a Demandware Strategic Tier LINK Solutions partner. He is an engineer by education and a marketer by choice, leading LYONSCG’s demand generation, thought leadership, and branding initiatives.

Steve Susina

About the author

Steve Susina

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