Web app vs mobile app: which is better for your healthcare product?
11 min read
Medical health applications (med tech apps) have recently gained momentum as digital health innovators work to redefine and improve our healthcare system. Health is one of the top concerns of most people, and healthcare organizations are facing increasing pressure to improve care with digital tools.
There are several factors to consider when developing new applications in healthcare. The target audience, the budget size, and what features will be included are essential decisions that will impact your choice of platform. The primary consideration, however, should be that all decisions we make must support a user-friendly design. The ability to monetize your product idea and understand whether it needs certain features local to a mobile device are also among the top things to consider.
Read on to gain in-depth information about the pros and cons of web and mobile apps to help you decide which type of application will better serve your healthcare product. In some cases, a solution may require both web and mobile app versions to fully support user needs, but determining which format to prioritize first is critical to building momentum during the product’s early stages. We also take a brief look at progressive web apps, which offer improvements that deserve consideration.
What are the differences between web and mobile apps?
Although they provide very similar functionalities and their designs appear similar, web and mobile apps are separate categories of products. They are developed and deployed very differently, which results in distinct functionalities and user experiences.
Mobile apps are purpose-built for a specific platform, such as iOS (for iPhone) or Android (for Samsung, LG, etc.), using specific languages and Integrated development environments. Applications live on the actual device and can often work offline. They must be downloaded from an app store and can be given access to system resources such as cameras, GPS, contacts, and health data.
Pros of mobile apps:
- Enhanced functionality — access to system resources such as camera, GPS, microphone, contacts, calendar, sharing, saving, and Bluetooth connection to smart health tech devices
- Offline access (and possibly offline functionality)
- Reengagement opportunity — push notifications and having an icon on a screen offer potential to re-engage users due enabling habit formation
- Security — native apps must be approved by the app store before installation (though vetting standards vary)
- Marketing options — there are several ways to monetize an app via subscriptions, in-app purchases, and ads.
- Speed and performance — they are faster than web apps.
Cons of mobile apps:
- Can be more expensive to build in case it needs to be developed and tested for both Android and IOS
- As mobile apps are platform-specific, they need to be designed and built from scratch to be available on multiple platforms (unless they were written in a cross-platform coding language)
- Expensive to maintain and update (bug fixes, security issues). Some users choose not to update for several months, resulting in a mix of versions out there. There are ways to deal with this problem, but it takes time.
- It may prove challenging to get a native app approved by an app store, and the app store can completely deny it, adding more risk.
- Some apps can take up significant device storage space
- App stores take a sometimes significant share of the app’s earnings
Web apps are websites designed to respond fluidly to the size of the device they are viewed on (a smartphone, tablet, or laptop) and are accessible via an internet browser. Due to their responsive nature, they look and function a lot like mobile apps. However, they are not downloadable and not designed for a specific platform, so their functionalities can't use some of the inbuilt device systems. Web apps need an active internet connection through which they continually update themselves.
Pros of web apps:
- Don't need to be downloaded or installed — web apps function in the browser
- Easier to maintain than mobile apps due to having a common codebase
- Easier to make and release updates
- Quicker, easier, and more cost-effective to build than mobile apps
- Fewer barriers to launch as they do not require app store approval
- Easily accessible from any browser, regardless of device and operating system
- Better discovery on search engines than mobile apps
Cons of web apps:
- Some offline availability, but poses some security risks
- More limited features due to less integration with device functions
- They may not be as discoverable as mobile apps, as they are not listed in a specific store, such as the app store
- Potential security risks — web apps don't need to be approved by the app store
As you can see, there are several significant differences between web and mobile apps. To ensure you can develop all the functions your digital health product needs, you must consider all factors when deciding which format to choose. Additionally, this decision will significantly impact user experience and accessibility.
In the next section, we look at the pros and cons of mobile and web apps in the context of healthcare applications to help you make this critical decision.
Web app vs mobile app: which is the better option in healthcare?
The number of health tech apps is growing at an accelerated rate. Predictions suggest that this trend will continue, meaning healthcare providers will soon be expected to provide the best digital tools to medical professionals and patients.
To create efficient and accessible health apps, companies must make strategic decisions regarding their product. Deciding between developing a web or a mobile app is one of the first and most crucial steps in this strategic process.
In this section, we evaluate the pros and cons of mobile and web-based healthcare apps in terms of functionality, cost-effectiveness, accessibility, and user experience. We also consider the pros and cons from the perspectives of potential users, specifically customers/patients and health app owners/admins.
Pros of mobile healthcare apps
Mobile apps can be an excellent choice for your health tech app if the following features are must-haves:
Seamless user experience
A good user experience is critical to the success of any app. Intuitive and user-friendly apps promote user engagement and retention.
Many functions can be used offline, and data can be saved and stored safely for later reference or reporting.
Additionally, having the app readily available on the user’s personal device allows for an uninterrupted connection with healthcare providers.
Mapping and wayfinding are better supported on a mobile app due to the format’s ability to access a device’s inbuilt location services. Being able to gauge location allows several other useful functionalities, such as step counting, movement, position, connecting with a user’s contacts, and analyzing audio. The ability to connect with different body sensors via Bluetooth is also supported by accurate location gauging.
Mobile apps can send frequent push notifications to keep customers informed and to remind them to take important health-related actions, like recording their health status or keeping an upcoming medical appointment. The habit-forming effect of push notifications largely contributes to human-centered design and efficiency.
Mobile apps provide excellent security features for storing patient data and processing payments. Using face ID or fingerprint ID is a quick and secure way of re-logging safely into the app, and security is an essential consideration in the healthcare context.
Mobile apps are built according to specialized requirements and have accessible hardware. This feature allows for the possibility of helpful provider functions like remote monitoring and consultation with patients while having access to their medical history.
Mobile apps are faster than web-based healthcare apps due to their ability to access the phone's systems and internet connection. Mobile apps can also provide quick and secure access to the patient's medical history within seconds.
Cons of healthcare mobile apps
Some apps are only available on specific operating systems, reducing potential reach. For example, if an app is developed for iOS, it will exclude Android users. Fortunately, developing cross-platform mobile apps can help avoid this issue.
Another issue with mobile apps is that they don’t work on computers and laptops, further decreasing their reach. Very often, it also means that screen real estate will be limited, unlike web apps that can benefit from more screen area on these devices.
Eats up phone storage
Some mobile healthcare apps can take up significant space on smartphones, which often deters people from downloading them. High storage demands can be particularly troublesome for users with older devices, potentially making the app less accessible to populations more likely to have these devices: low-resourced and older groups.
Mobile app development costs are often higher than web apps. Maintenance and bug fixing can also increase the already high price of keeping them on the market.
Harder to find and initiate
Apps must be downloaded, installed, and configured on users’ phones; steps that require some effort on the customer's part. Additionally, most people use search engines (which do not index apps well) when looking for solutions and might not think to search directly in an app store.
Pros of healthcare web apps
Web-based apps can be an excellent choice if your product requires the following features:
In general, healthcare web apps have better reach because they are not platform-specific. Most people do their research on search engines where web apps come up among the results, unlike mobile apps. Web apps can be conveniently accessed from any device with a browser, such as a desktop, laptop, tablet, or mobile.
The user doesn't have to download an app to schedule an appointment; it's quickly done on web apps. As for the appointment, video calling is possible through WebRTC, allowing for face-to-face contact with the patient or customer. This means web apps are great for one-off transactional things and save you the investment of installing an app.
Web apps are less expensive to develop and require updates less frequently than mobile apps. Updates are also much cheaper, as web apps are built on a common codebase. Although this can be an advantage of web apps, there are now ways to decrease app development costs by using a shared codebase across platforms, minimizing the difference in cost between native and web apps.
More ideal for whitelabeling
For businesses interested in building a solution that can be distributed, personalized, and rebranded by other organizations (i.e., white-labeled), a web app format may well be preferable to a native mobile app format, since it removes the necessity to interact with app stores. This is because each version of a mobile app will need to be submitted separately for app store approval (even when the only changes to the product are cosmetic). App stores don’t tend to like reviewing the same product multiple times, further complicating the process. Creating your solution as a web app can help avoid a time-intensive and risky process when it comes to product roll-out.
Cons of a healthcare web app
Web apps have limited functionality, as they can’t access the phone’s systems, such as the camera, GPS, contacts, and calendar. This can be an issue as modern portable on-the-go devices rely on these functionalities to collect longitudinal health data that will be shared with the individual or their doctor.
Lower security requirements
Web apps are not launched through an app store; therefore, they don’t need to meet their security standards. This may prove to be a problem when working with personal and private information in healthcare, as they can be used for phishing attacks.
Progressive web apps in healthcare
Although web and mobile apps are very successful in the healthcare industry, progressive web apps (PWA) have also gained much attention in the app development market. Due to the new technologies, PWAs bring to the table; they are worth considering as a platform for building healthcare apps.
PWAs are cross-platform applications looking to combine the uncomplicated and smooth use of native apps with the API power of websites, thus creating a better user experience, boosting engagement, and increasing sales. In other words, PWAs are web apps that open with the browser's help, can save on the home screen, are accessible offline, and receive push notifications.
PWAs are called progressive because they have encrypted HTTP protocols, service workers for maintenance, a fast loading time, and a manifest file. These features contribute to the information safety necessary for healthcare apps while providing an app-like user experience.
Pros of PWAs in healthcare
As a new technology in the app market, progressive web apps bring the
following advantages to health-app development:
Quick and easy access
PWAs are installed from the web browser straight onto the device by pinning the healthcare provider’s icon. This way, the app remains on the device's home screen and is easily accessible. Having this feature significantly lowers user abandonment. Installing PWAs, however, is not obligatory. Users can also access them simply via the URL, making them flexible and reliable.
PWAs have built-in service workers, and the features and information are saved and stored (cached). This can come in handy when users have a weak internet connection and, for example, need access to their patient information.
Some native app features
PWAs have the feel and look of a native app due to their similar effect on user experience, design, and speed. They also allow push notifications, geo-location, camera, and contact-picker for better user engagement.
PWAs are responsive to all devices and screen sizes, meaning they are usable across devices. Due to this feature, PWAs can provide a continuous experience to their users even if they use the app on multiple devices.
PWAs are cross-platform, meaning that they don’t need to be developed separately for different operating systems reducing development time and effort.
Cons of PWAs in healthcare
Although progressive web apps hold great promise for the future, they still have some drawbacks that need to be mentioned.
Not widely supported
Although PWAs have been around for nearly a decade now, support for them is limited across mobile devices. Only iOS platforms running versions 11.3 and above currently support them, substantially limiting the number of possible users. Apple’s slow embrace of PWAs also shows up in its subpar technical support of the format, increasing the likelihood of these apps having bugs or surprises.
Limited functionality compared to mobile apps
PWAs are still evolving and often fall short in performance when compared to native mobile apps. For example, PWAs still offer limited offline functionalities, while apps can work entirely offline. PWAs also have less access to device features than native apps.
When deciding whether to build a web or a mobile app for your healthcare product, consider several factors. Start by taking stock of your users’ needs and wants, and then explore what features might be needed to support them (e.g., robust offline functionality). Once you’ve envisioned the characteristics of your user-centered solution, solidify them into technical requirements, resources, and constraints in preparation for discovery, design, and development.
Jana DiSanti leads content strategy for Twenty Ideas. She brings nearly a decade of digital marketing, content creation, user research, and project management expertise to the table to advance the goals of the 20i agency and its clients. She specializes in promoting brands and products focused on improving the health of people, communities, and the planet.
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