Mobile debate: Adapt website or build your own app?

This is the second of three stories about NCI's mobile Web strategy: what drove the agency to mobile development, how IT managers decided whether to develop an app or a site, and what kind of site they decided to build.

As mobile device populations explode and agencies work to make their services mobile-friendly, the mobile website vs. mobile app debate has intensified.

In 2011, annual worldwide shipments of smart phones exceeded client PC shipments for the first time, according to market researcher Canalys. Those devices, however, consume ever higher amounts of data. Mobile data traffic more than doubled last year, according to the Cisco Visual Networking Index.

Previous story:

How one agency followed its users onto the mobile Web

Against that backdrop, organizations such as the National Cancer Institute face the choice of developing mobile apps or mobilizing websites. The first option has the advantage of speed and the user’s ability to tap native features and tools. The second option, a mobile website, is generally less expensive to create and avoids the potential logistical hurdles of distribution through online app stores.

NCI decided to survey the app marketplace to see what existed in the cancer information niche. Lakshmi Grama, senior digital content strategist in NCI’s Office of Communications and Education, said the market research effort uncovered a number of players in the field, some of which used’s syndicated content.

“It didn’t seem to us that there was a crying need for us to immediately go into the app marketplace,” she said.

Grama also noted the challenges of developing for multiple mobile environments and promoting the availability of an app.

“People need to know there is an app out there and download it,” she said.

NCI decided a mobile version of was the way to go. At this point, the agency’s research had zeroed in on the audience and how to reach it.

“It seemed appropriate for us to really focus on mobile Web,” Grama said. “And so I think our strategy was defined by our analytics and persona and user research, and the platform was based on looking at what was happening in the marketplace.”

With the “who” and “what” questions decided, NCI still needed to consider the “how.”  To wit: how would NCI segment a portion of its data for the mobile site?

Grama said one of NCI’s primary goals with the mobility project was to share content from the desktop site rather than create content strictly for the mobile context. To that end, NCI enlisted a content management system to facilitate the sharing process.

Jonathan Cho, chief of NCI’s Communications Technology Branch, said the agency uses Percussion Software Inc.’s Rhythmyx CMS (now CM System). He described Percussion’s software as the technical foundation that lets NCI pool related pieces of content into different zoned areas of a website. It also gives content managers the flexibility to tag new content as mobile content, he added.

“It allows us to really look at content differently,” Cho said.

With this essential piece of infrastructure already in place, NCI could move on to actually creating the mobile version of This phase introduced new questions: What methods should it use to design and develop its mobile presence?

NEXT: NCI looks at responsive Web development, agile methods.


About the Author

John Moore is a freelance writer based in Syracuse, N.Y.

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Reader Comments

Wed, Aug 8, 2012 Fred Jorgensen Annapolis, MD

It's not one or the other with apps vs. mobile websites, but rather, trying to discern the "use-case" scenarios for your target audiences. Repeated, utility-based actions support the need for a native app that is high on functionality. Other mobile experiences that are less frequent, potentially more passive are opportunities for a mobile web presence.

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