Why we went native (for mobile apps)

Many individuals today are inseparable from their smartphones. No longer just a vehicle for communicating, such devices enable people to bank, shop, book holidays or look for a new house no matter where they are. The convenience and level of performance offered by smartphones also means it has become the platform of choice for many people even when they are at home, liberating them from having to log on to a desktop computer or laptop. According to eMarketer, smartphone users will rise to 31 million this year, representing almost half (48.4%) of UK residents and three-fifths (60.4%) of UK mobile phone users.

App-hungry individuals are looking to expand the usefulness of their smartphones wherever possible. Employers are increasingly recognising that if they want to engage their workforce they must respond to this by providing employees with the facility to carry out essential tasks such as requesting and booking holiday on their phones. Trends such as BYOD (bring your own device) along with the consumerisation of IT are further fuelling this desire to shift tasks historically carried out at the desktop in the workplace to the mobile environment.

Consequently, self-service HR has become a major focus of mobile application development for HR software vendors. As such a developer, usability and the quality of the experience in the mobile environment has been uppermost in Cezanne’s mind when building a mobile HR app. Central to our discussions on the subject has been whether to build an HTML5 web app, a native one or take a hybrid approach, combining elements of both.

HTML5 vs native vs hybrid apps

Each approach has its pros and cons. HTML5-based apps can be far more inclusive and democratic for some applications. They are billed as a ‘write once, use everywhere’ technology and to a degree live up to this. They reside on a remote server (rather than the device) and are accessed through a browser. Many make use of responsive design technology which can adapt a single HTML5 page to different screen sizes and resolutions so that it looks as if it were designed specifically for the user’s device.. Increasingly though, developers are finding that while HTML5 provides a decent user experience for mobile apps (such as newspapers and magazines), when it comes to user interaction and more heavyweight usage they can fall short.

A native application is tailor made for a specific operating system (OS) such as Google’s Android or Apple’s iOS.

The developer has to create a separate app for each platform, but each of them can play to the OS’s strengths and take advantage of its in-built features. . A well written native app will generally deliver better usability and performance than an HTML 5 one. It will also have the same look and feel as other native apps running on the user’s device, ensuring a familiar user experience.

A hybrid app is an HTML5 app ‘wrapped’ inside a native one. The native ‘wrapper’ is specific to each platform, taking advantage of the device’s native features and providing tighter integration with the OS. The HTML5 portion, on the other hand, is shared across all platforms allowing a certain degree of code reuse. It may appear at first glance that these hybrid apps provide the best of both worlds, but in practice they lack the native look and feel and inherit many of the performance and usability issues prevalent in HTML5 apps.

Identifying priorities

The decision over which development route is best is never one to be taken lightly which is why Cezanne carried out extensive work testing the HTML5, native and hybrid approaches.

At the end of the day, our decision to go native was based on two factors. One was usability and the other efficiency.

In our view, usability must always be a guiding principal. We wanted employees to be able to do things like check their holiday entitlements, request time off or find contact information for a colleague, without needing any kind of training or familiarisation.

We knew that it was entirely possible that some individuals would only use the app once or twice a month and in some cases even as infrequently as once or twice a year. The app had to be familiar and friendly to use from the outset. Our research found that the native app handled data entry and interactivity most effectively and delivered the smoothest user experience.

HR applications must be highly interactive and need to be able to manage large amounts of data. We need to be able to pull information in real-time from the Cezanne OnDemand cloud-based HR application and, for instance, route requests through the appropriate approval channel/processes. It is also important that employees and managers only see the data in the cloud that they are permitted to view.

In terms of development time, we discovered that in reality HTML5 wasn’t much quicker, if at all, when building more interactive, data-driven apps.

While it means developing only one app, the raft of compatibility issues thrown up because of a lack of standardisation across the various platforms proved costly time-wise. Another primary driver for adopting native was the well thought-out standards that were already in place for developing on the respective operating systems. Suppliers have invested considerable time and money in areas such as what the ‘swipe’ experience should look and feel like, and where precisely the interactive element of the screen should be located as well as the size of buttons and keyboard. This all makes for a far more intuitive, simpler and familiar experience for users.

We’re not alone….

Cezanne is not alone in arriving at the conclusion that the native route is the best option for its needs. Indeed, a number of high-profile companies, which previously built their mobile apps using HTML5, have switched to native. As these companies have discovered, it is users who will decide whether an app delivers or not and developers must understand the potential impact of a sub-standard experience in the mobile space. Web-based development may seem a shorter and quicker route to market for mobile apps, but our opinion is that the performance and usability gains offered by native apps is far more important. A mobile HR app won’t, nor does it need to, offer identical levels of functionality as its desktop counterpart but any task it does perform it needs to perform well and native provides the best vehicle for achieving this.

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