How Native Applications Can Inspire Better Tablet-Optimized Websites

How Native Applications Can Inspire Better Tablet-Optimized Websites

Native tablet applications are often described as being “more engaging” than their browser-based web experience counterparts. There are characteristics of native experiences that “feel” different from most browser-based web experiences. In fact, when considering a responsive design approach to optimize web experiences for tablets, many aim to design a mobile web experience that is more “app-like”. But what does being “app-like” really mean? What can we learn from native applications that we can use to improve tablet-optimized web experiences?

There is currently a divide between browser-based web experiences that are optimized for tablet use and those that present existing desktop web experiences (perhaps with slight optimizations or none at all). Organizations frequently struggle with how to optimize tablet experiences, as the desktop experience can often be seen as “good enough,” particularly given the additional cost of optimizing web experiences for tablets. However, there are lessons from native application design that can be leveraged on the mobile web that can result in deeper user engagement outside of the native application approach.

Trip Advisor's Native Tablet App vs Web Experience
Trip Advisor’s Native Tablet App and Web Experience

The “Feel” of the Native Tablet App Experience

Many people describe native applications as beeing “smoother”, “more polished”, and “more engaging” than their mobile web counterparts. The reason for this overall impression is due to a wide variety of factors, but it’s important to realize that the “smoother” feel is not universal and need not be unique to native applications. Frequently, the reason for the better overall feel of native applications is a result of good design mixed with a good technical implementation, neither of which need to be exclusive to native applications.

Top Characteristics of Good Native Tablet App Design:

The following characteristics of good native tablet app design can be used as inspiration to improve the tablet web experience and to make interactions in the browser feel more natural and engaging on a tablet device.

  • Focus as a design principle: The best tablet applications focus each screen on a core user task or core piece of content to consume. Distractions that may take away from that core element are removed in order to simplify the experience and to make the best use of the device’s form factor. Interactivity and progressively revealing content is prioritized over adding too many features to any one screen.
  • Clean and simplified navigation paths: Tablet applications typically employ navigation techniques that keep navigation easy to find when needed without distracting from the rest of the experience. Additionally, navigation hierarchy is typically flattened to avoid having to access too many screens in order to access desired content. By getting users where they want to go quickly, tablet navigation doesn’t take up an overwhelming amount of prominence in the experience.
  • Persistent and contextual actions: Tablet applications frequently make use of toolbars that place commonly used actions within easy reach. Additionally, actions related to a particular piece of content are placed in close proximity to that item in a way that indicates how it can be used or manipulated. When each screen is focused only on the necessary content, contextual actions become easier to find.
  • Information views in lieu of full-screen transitions: Instead of transitioning a complete screen following a selection, many tablet applications aim to only manipulate the content piece or area that changes. For example, popovers and modal windows can be used to display contextual information instead of displaying that information in an entirely new screen. This helps users keep track of where they are in the experience, and helps to reduce the amount of navigation steps needed to move between content.
  • Use of transitions and animations to provide feedback: Subtle animations and transitions can help make tablet experiences feel interesting and engaging and can help to provide feedback when users complete an action. When animations are used following an action, it enhances the user’s sense of directly manipulating objects on the screen. This sense of manipulation is one of the key aspects that currently distinguishes native applications from many mobile web experiences.
  • Use of gestures to enhance the experience: Incorporating simple standard gestures into an experience can enhance the overall interactivity of a tablet experience. Instead of progressing through an experience through a series of taps, gestures can serve as shortcuts to interact with content elements. Gestures need to be used appropriately and with proper affordances to ensure they are easy to discover and remember.

Web experiences on tablets don’t need to copy all of the design choices made in native applications simply to obtain an “app-like” look and feel. In fact doing so could make maintaining a cross channel experience more difficult. However, there are elements of native app experiences that can be employed in different ways to optimize the browser experience on tablet devices.

Technical Aspects That Can Impact the Tablet Experience

Responsiveness and Overall Performance:

Frequently, but not universally, native applications respond more quickly to user inputs and can retrieve data more quickly than their web counterparts. This responsiveness is an important element of the overall user experience. A common user complaint of the web experience on tablets is that websites or web apps are too slow or too “clunky” from a performance standpoint. However, it’s a myth to assume that mobile web experiences by default are going to be slow and not very responsive to user inputs.

As Tim Kadlec explains, blame the implementation, not the techique. If web experiences are built with performance at their core, web experiences can start to approach the same level of performance that many native applications have achieved.

That said, there’s still going to be an element of performance and interactivity that native applications can accomplish that current browser-based technologies such as HTML5 haven’t quite caught up with yet. For that reason, it’s important to implement interactivity that’s going to be successful from a performance standpoint and isn’t just introduced in order to make a website appear to be more like a native app.

There’s Still a Place for Native Apps

While many of the design principles used to make native app experiences useful and engaging can also be leveraged within the browser, there are still plenty of scenarios where a native app can result in a better experience for your users. However, prior to investing in developing a native app experience for your users, you may want to consider optimizing the tablet browser web experience to ensure that you’re meeting the immediate needs of your users where they’re most likely to begin engaging with your content. Native apps can then be developed to support functionality that goes above and beyond what’s available in the browser to deliver an optimal total experience for your users.

Catriona Shedd

I am a User Experience Designer with a passion for making people’s lives better through design. I have helped over a dozen organizations obtain a competitive advantage by delivering great user experiences across desktop, mobile, tablet and other channels.

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