The Mobile Web: Taming the Beast

By Geoff Agnew
February 8, 2010
Mobile

It’s no secret that recent advances in mobile devices have dramatically changed the way people use the internet. Spurred by development in OS and browser technology, faster wireless networks and improved device affordability, more people are using the mobile web than ever before.

How does this effect creators and managers of online content? Follow along as we explore the opportunities – and challenges – presented by this burgeoning technology.

To better appreciate where the mobile web is currently, and where it might be heading, let’s stop and consider these figures. As of 2008 there were 1.4 billion TV sets on the planet. There were 950 million personal computers (laptops and desktops combined) and 1.2 billion fixed landline phones. Impressive numbers to be sure, but what’s really breathtaking is this: as of January 2009 there were approximately 4 billion mobile phone subscriptions. 4 billion. Though many of the 4 billion subscribers won’t have internet capabilities, it’s a figure that proves mobile phones have become as fundamental a part of our lives as television or automobiles. If one were to follow this trend to its natural conclusion, it would be safe to assume the mobile web will, in time, enjoy similar market penetration.

According to a report published by The Nielsen Company in September 2009, there were 56.9 million American mobile web users in July of this year. That represents a 34 percent spike in audience from the 42.5 million a year previous. Interestingly, the jump is not fuelled by tech hungry young urbanites or business people, but rather teens and seniors who are embracing the mobile internet with remarkable alacrity. While men still comprise the largest percentage of mobile web users, women have recently outpaced male numbers in terms of growth.

Though mobile web usage will likely continue to proliferate; the new technology is not without its growing pains. Depending on whom you ask, the current mobile web experience ranges from downright agonizing (those using Feature Phones) to marginally acceptable (Smartphone users). The discrepancies in user satisfaction are partially the result of device and browser sophistication, and partially the result of website insensitivity to the qualities of this new technology.

What steps can businesses take to minimize user frustration?

We’ve established that mobile web browsing is a growing activity; so what’s next? It’s clear that at some point, most companies will need to incorporate a mobile strategy when managing their online efforts. There are no hard-and-fast rules on how best to integrate a mobile website as each project should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. With that said, here are some general recommendations on how to make the most out of your mobile site.

1. Content organization and user types.

Of all considerations, perhaps the most crucial is why mobile users are coming to your site. Your content can be unnecessarily cumbersome to visitors if it ignores the context in which it is viewed. The better you understand why people are coming to your site via mobile device, the better you can organize information to quickly satisfy their needs. Listed below are three potential user types that illustrate the point.

The Casual Visitor. These are people that have time to spare and can afford some leisurely surfing. The individual may be waiting to see their dentist or riding the bus. Rather than flip through a magazine or stare at the odd looking fellow across the aisle, they plug in your url to see what’s new. If your site focuses on the kind of information that appeals to the casual visitor, it’s recommended you organize content so it satisfies interest while being mindful of length and complexity. Though the casual visitor may have time to wander, they aren’t likely to stick around if content is hard to locate or excessively long.

The Repeat Visitor. The repeat visitor is one that consistently returns for specific news or data. For example, if your site offers information on stocks or sport scores, it’s likely you have a lot of repeat visitors. Identify the content streams that users want most and let them bubble to the top.

The Urgent Visitor. These are visitors that have little time to waste and need very specific information with as little searching as possible. This could be something like finding a location, business hours, or making a reservation. Whatever their purpose may be, it’s paramount this content is at their fingertips with the least amount of effort.

2. Mobile specific design.

In a perfect world mobile devices would share the same browser support and use screen sizes of similar dimension. Unfortunately, standards are far from a reality at this moment, and as such, these differences need to be taken into account when creating a mobile website.

Due to reduced screen space and potentially slower internet connections, it’s important visitors have access to critical information with minimal distraction or delay. While the liberal use of graphics, animation or video is often warranted on a conventional website, the same visual treatment in the mobile environment can result in unnecessary download time and data use. Visitors are often concerned with the consumption of resources when surfing via mobile – minimizing nonessential visual decoration not only ensures a snappier browsing experience, but also shows respect for the user’s data usage.

3. Take advantage of unique opportunities provided by the mobile web.

The mobile web is more than the desktop internet environment on a phone; it’s an entirely different platform with its own set of unique strengths. Mobile browsers can take visitor information and use it to provide a better experience for the customer. By instructing your site to gather geographical data about a visitor, you can minimize the number of steps that person has to go through when executing location dependent queries. The less work a customer has to do to achieve their goal, the happier they’ll be and more likely to return.

Okay, so what are my options?

So you’ve decided to act. Excellent. What site-wide steps can one take to improve their online content for mobile web users? Listed below are three strategies for mobile web integration.

Do nothing.

Simply provide the same website to mobile browsers as you do to desktop browsers. Let your conventional site handle mobile traffic and hope for the best. Support for formatting and presentational markup is limited and varies significantly between mobile devices, so final display is somewhat unpredictable. Under this scenario, different users would see the website in many different ways. IPhones will largely be able to display a website as your desktop browser does, while many other not-so-smart-phones will provide an uglier experience.

Supporters of the “do nothing” tactic point out that mobile technology is so varied and changing so quickly that it is a waste of money to try to create a website that displays well across all devices.

Use “raw HTML” for mobile devices.

This means we disable the presentational attributes in the style sheet for the website when a user arrives on their mobile device. All the styling elements will be removed, so the user is left with a page that would resemble a word document. All the headings would be in larger font, and navigation would be displayed as a bulleted list.

If your website was developed using modern standards in code, this approach does a reasonable job at providing the user access to content. However, browsing a website in this state on a mobile device can potentially mean a lot of scrolling and wading through long and not-so-friendly content for the small screen, like lengthy forms or long navigation lists.

Create a separate, “mobile specific” website.

We believe this to be the best solution. This means creating a separate mobile site with fewer pages and images, a simpler navigation, and content that is tailored to specific user types (see above). For a hotel, this might mean a simplified design that fits well on the small screen, and providing only Contact, Location, and Booking pages.

When it comes to the mobile web, there is no shortage of things to consider. Content organization, screen size variance, browser discrepancies and user conditions add a new degree of complexity to web development. Daunting as it may be, all signs suggest it’s with us for the long haul. The question is how we, as developers and managers of online content, will confront the challenges presented by the mobile web.

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