For clarity, apps (applications) are a type of software that allows you to perform specific tasks. Apps for desktop or laptop computers are sometimes called desktop apps (think dropbox, slack, even Microsoft word), and those for mobile devices are called mobile apps (think flappy bird!). When you open an app, it runs inside the operating system on your device until you close it. This article discusses the two main types of mobile-enabled applications: native and web apps. 

Native apps

What is it? A native app is an app developed for a particular device’s operating system that you download directly to the device itself.

How is it different? It has permission settings that allow it to use additional functionality of the device. A desktop application would be a native app since it is downloaded to the device. They are typically more expensive to develop than a web app. For example, a rental listing native app can access your location to identify properties nearby, you can call directly from the application rather than copying down the landlord’s phone number, and it can provide directions and sense how quickly you are driving to inform you of your ETA. It can only be used on a mobile device and not on a desktop computer.

Web apps

What is it? A web app is basically a website, accessible through a browser like Chrome or Safari, that looks and feels like a native app, but is not downloaded to the device.

How is it different? It does not have any access to additional functionality of the device like the camera, location, or motion sensor. They are typically less expensive than a native app. In the rental listing example, the web app could be used to search and filter by neighbourhood, email could be sent through the web app, and it can provide directions via google maps. Most web functionality has a mobile functionality counterpart; for example, when on a mobile device google maps gives you the choice of opening it via mobile or web.

Questions to ask when considering an app

If you decide some kind of app might be the right solution, ask yourself these clarifying questions:

  • Is this information already available elsewhere? Is it easy to find?
  • Does it need to be mobile? Is your site already responsive?
  • Who will use the app? How often will they use it?
  • Will this app use all the different functions of the smartphone?
  • How will this app be valuable for people, why would they use it?
  • How will this app be valuable for your business?

If you can answer these questions then you probably have a pretty good idea of which kind of app you want.

Can I tell the difference when using it?

Short answer, yes you can tell the difference between a web and native app, but only because the functionality is different. If you were asked to complete the same set of tasks in well-designed native and web apps you would likely not have too much trouble, but one may be preferable to you.  There are certain situations which may require one kind of app over the other. Either way, identifying if you even need an app to solve your problem is the first step to take.


This article is part of UX101 – a series designed to educate and inspire complete UX newbies.