Mobile – Part II

By Stephen Saugestad
April 13, 2012
MobileSEO

It’s been a bit over two years since our last post on mobile – actually an eternity considering the speed at which this discipline is evolving (and forgive us for the lack of posts, we’ve just transitioned from an article to blog format).

Even the title feels dated because we no longer say “mobile web”. “Web” is “web”, regardless of whether you’re reaching it from your desktop, phone, or TV. Browsing the web on a mobile device may have seemed novel at the time, but that’s no longer the case.

Usage

When we wrote the original article, we were talking about 1.4 billion mobile subscribers in the world. In a span of almost 3 years, we’re now at 6 billion. Different. Safe to say mobile is the next revolution/thing/disruption in technology, much in the way that social was in the late 2000’s.

So what do we know about the cell phones now? Well them teenagers sure text a lot. Turns out guys talk more than gals. And most people sleep next to their phone, among other things. The point here is that people today are very intimate with their phones. It’s there when they sleep, when they wake up, and when they’re on the toilet. They’ve become ubiquitous, like in a “TV in the living room” kind of way.

I’ve heard recently, and there are studies out there that say within 2-4 years, mobile will outstrip desktop usage. That’s surprising, but it lacks context. We need to think about the differences in the way consumers use the web (and between each demographic), usage patterns broken down into time segments, whether we’re counting laptops and tablets, the differences between developed and developing nations, and so on. And mobile browsing tends to happen under different circumstances; users are on the go, they’re killing time, referencing something on TV, magazine, or newspaper, comparing prices in a store, etc. So assigning value is a bit of a tricky proposition.

Once we add context and look at the data on a more granular level, the impact of this trend becomes more disparate between industries. And generally it’s going to take longer for most industries to reach that number. Facebook isalmost there, but I would consider them to be an outlier. Looking at mobile usage among our own clients, nobody is getting anywhere near 50% – most are around 10-15%. Among the most wired and tech savvy (read: young and affluent) audience, it’s closer to 25%. Still a ways to go, but it’s right around the corner. Businesses who do their due diligence will be well positioned against their counterparts.

Some say that up to 61% of users don’t come back to a website if it offers a poor browsing experience on mobile devices. Other reasons cited include “slow to load”, “crashes”, and “formatting issues”. Setting aside the accuracy of that number, I tend to agree wholeheartedly. Visiting a site with a poor mobile experience is frustrating. Conversely a great mobile experience creates a very favorable impression. Good or bad, the experience is memorable. But proper, even adequate investment in mobile is still an afterthought for some of our customers and prospects. This is puzzling. To me a $500 factory mobile site is akin to a luxury hotel with a McDonalds in the lobby. I just doesn’t fit, and there’s a lot of missed opportunities.

Techniques

I won’t go into much detail here, but generally there are four approaches to mobile friendly design: responsive, adaptive, device specific, and apps.

“Responsive” is device agnostic – the content displays properly regardless of the device the user is visiting on. Like this website you’re on. “Adaptive design” and “progressive enhancement” refers to the same thing – catering to the user’s capability by serving the appropriate level of technology. “Device specific” means you create separate versions of your website for specific to devices (e.g. Android, iPhone, Blackberry) or device types (e.g. smartphone, tablets). Usually that means creating an alternate version of the desktop site that’s caters to the user’s bandwidth, screen size, and suitability of content. Apps are software applications that are device specific, where users have to download through a proprietary marketplace like iTunes.

But here’s the rub: users don’t care what your mobile strategy is. They just want it to work, and they want access to information as quickly as possible. A poorly conceived mobile strategy is an obstacle, and the hyper-fragmentation of mobile devices ensures this will make a bullet proof strategy all the more elusive.

Fragmentation

The fragmentation of devices poses two major issues for companies like us. It makes it hard to test properly, and planning a solid mobile strategy is difficult when we don’t know the devices people will be on. Take Blackberries for instance. They release a new device seemingly every month, and they have a very uncertain future here in Canada. But they’re still gaining market share in the developing world. We suspect that people on Blackberry’s don’t do a lot of web browsing because the experience is so poor, and this is borne out in my research. I asked a few of my Blackberry friends to confirm – they said “what’s internet“?

Browser sniffing is also problematic. This is the method used to determine the user’s device (user agent), to send them to the right place, and serve them the appropriate content. But the code is outdated by the time it’s written. Mobile devices (including tablets) are being released at a torrid pace. This is especially true of low end, Android devices proliferating in developing countries. But this trend will continue indefinitely. So dealing with low end devices with uneven support for display technologies will become the norm.

Plan for uncertainty

There are no panaceas in technology, period. And the truth is that nobody knows what the mobile landscape will look like in two years. Users will come to you on an 8 year old Nokia, a 7″ tablet, a no frills Android device, an infinite number of Blackberries, or those weird fold out things. And the bandwidth among these users will vary significantly.

So outline your objectives, consider the future, figure out who your audience is, and provide the best experience for as many of those in that group within the constraints of your budget. Then in six months, do it all over again.

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