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A mobile web strategy: why we need it?

Posted by on May 1, 2012 in Blog, Mobile websites | No Comments

The previous Little Blue Dot post was about the need for business companies to go mobile. This time it will be discussed why it’s important to have a strategy before you go mobile and what things should be considered.

Mobile web devices and web standards

How many brands of mobile devices do you know? I suppose it’s not enough fingers of both hands to count it. Now imagine that all those hundreds of different devices have different features, screen sizes, resolutions and web standards.

“Web standards” can refer to the actual specification how the language or technology works. In business the web mobile standards and best practice for mobile exist from the late 90’ ( “dotMobi Mobile Web Developers Guide”, 2010).

These mobile standards are evolving with the new devices. And this is one of the most challenging part developing a mobile website because the old standards and devices do not disappear and the new ones come very quickly. Furthermore, the mobile web devices vary how they render the content, that means that a very cool design in iPhones can look nuts in the first Nokia.

Two best options to go mobile

These days a lot of discussions go around between developers and designers: should the mobile website would be a separate one where the mobile users are redirected, or it should be the same desktop website but using a responsive design that “talks” with the devices’ screen sizes and adapts to them?

Later here it will be explained both options. In developers community you can find well known specialist that would stand only for responsive design or only for separate mobile website. To my personal opinion both options have their pros and cons, they both now are the best to use while creating a mobile website. But which one to choose? So here we come at the point where a mobile web strategy becomes important in every projects before starting to develop a mobile website for it.

Responsive web design

It is one of the way to make the website friendly for mobile devices. Responsive design means that your website automatically fits in the user’s device. If the users open your website with the mobile device, as a response to it, the design elements will rearrange that the main things would be first. Also, depending of the mobile user experience, the body text will be bigger, more white space around buttons that mobile user would fit his finger to touch the links and other features would be included.

The responsive design website could be a great option if you create a new website and would like that it also would be mobile user friendly. The important thing is that you have only 1 website to update that makes the maintanance easier.

Furthermore, if you think of new website for your business these days you already HAVE start thinking that the website MUST be responsive, cause the latest statistic show that web browsing on mobile is becoming the only one way for some people to browse the web and the numbers of such people are growing. Interaction designer Josh Clark points out:

A pair of studies late last year from Pew and from On Device Research showed that over 25 per cent of people in the US who browse the web on smartphones almost never use any other platform. That’s north of 11 per cent of adults in the US, or about 25million people, who only see the web on small screens. There’s a digital-divide issue here. People who can afford only one screen or internet connection are choosing the phone. If you want to reach them at all, you have to reach them on mobile.

But the responsive design is not always the best option to go mobile. Even a well known developer, evangelist of open technologies for Opera Bruce Lawson and a big fan of responsive design in this article “Why We Shouldn’t Make Separate Mobile Websites” agrees that sometimes there are the situations when responsive design just doesn’t work.

Mostly this option won’t work if you already have the website that is created 5 or 10 years before. I can not even count how many times I open the website of a company that is well known at least locally and see the outdated website and get scared seeing that is still programmed with the tables or all website is made of pieces of images. Then I start to think: doesn’t that company really care about its face? A lot of specialist will agree that a website is a companies face, it represents the organization, in many case it’s the way to attract new customers so it’s impossible not to care about it. But this is another theme to discuss.

The responsive design will hardly fit if your website is also based in Flash. While now working and living most of my time in Portugal I notice that Flash based websites were very on fashion few years ago, the animations and music on websites supposed to be cool stuff. But that is the point, it supposed to be. Cause if I open one of these websites with my mobile phone I don’t see anything, cause as a lot of people know, Flash is not supported by some popular mobile devices, as iPhone, for example. So in this case responsive design won’t help. Furthermore, using Flash in websites is going out from the good practice, cause nowadays a lot of features of Flash can be replaced by HTML5 and jQuery library, etc.

Also there are situations when you have a normal, well programmed website but now you think to turn to the mobile web users and still responsive design woudn’t be an option. One of these situations is described by B.Lawson.

Imagine you have a website with a lot of information and products to sell and the content management system (CMS). To turn it into responsive design requires auditing the content and changing a website with a high risk and then testing the whole website to ensure it work on mobile devices. And this is a huge task that requires time and money. So according to B. Lawson, “if the website is powered by a CMS, it’s often cheaper and easier to leave the “desktop website” alone, and implement a parallel URL structure.“

Separate mobile websites

Another option to go mobile is to create a separate mobile website in which the user is being automatically redirected while opening the main companies website.

One of the most well known web usability professional, Jakob Nielsen is a big advocate of idea that the mobile websites should be separate. His arguments are strong:

The basic point? The desktop user interface platform differs from the mobile user interface platform in many ways, including interaction techniques, how people read, context of use, and the plain number of things that can be grasped at a glance. This inequality is symmetric: mobile users need a different design than desktop users. But, just as much, desktop users need a different design than mobile users.

In general he says that the content for mobile users should be simplified and left only the most important one. Commonly the developers say that the mobile website should have only 20% of a full version website. Creating separate mobile website you should cut features, images, other content, enlarge interface elements and buttons and suggest the “light” version of your website for the mobile users that they could render it quickly and serve them best user experience. J.Nielsen says:

Good mobile user experience requires a different design than what’s needed to satisfy desktop users. Two designs, two sites, and cross-linking to make it all work.

The separate mobile website could be web based application or native application. So what is the difference?

Web app is basically a website that is specifically optimized and designed for the mobile devices. The main features of the web app are that the user interface is built with web standard technologies, it is available at the URL. You can not upload it on the iTunes or Android app stores.

To comparison, the native apps are installed in the smartphones and have access to the hardware and they are written with special language (for example, Objective-C for iPhone) and all apps can be installed through the app stores.

The web app can run on any device that has a web browser, the developer does not need to develop one app for iPhone, another for Android, etc. The development cycle is much much faster and costs much lower comparing to the native app development. Also the maintainance is easy and it is possible to fix bugs in real time. So these are the pros of developing the web based app.

The main cons of web app are the following: 1) it is impossible to access all the nice features of the smartphones, 2) it can be difficult to achieve sophisticated UI effects.

But comparing the web based app to responsive web design the first one has disadvantage by accessing mobile devices by User Agent (UA) string. It means that every mobile device has a UA string and using it in your full website you can redirect users to the mobile version. And J. Nielsen suggests to do it, auto-redirect users.

But B.Lawson reply to this that in reality it’s impossible to redirect ALL mobile users, cause every mobile device has its unique UA string but the problem is that there are hundreds of UA strings and new devices are coming every day with new UA strings. So you can never be sure if you reach ALL mobile users.

But here you can find the solution also: to provide a visible button of the mobile website in a full version and vise versus if the mobile device owner wants to access all the content of the desktop version.

What is the conclusion?

As you can see from all the article both options have their advantages and disadvantages and the discussions which option is the best one will always exist and the mobile web strategy is important part of every mobile project.

For the designer and developer it’s more than important to know the primary geographical location of the website, the users who visit the existing website through google analytics, what kind of mobile devices the users of your website have, what are the demographics of you primary target group, what are the goals of the mobile website: it’s more representative or more informational with frequent news updates, etc., etc. Some of these question the designer and developer can help answer, but he MUST have the analysis data before starting to develop mobile project because only in this way he can choose the best option for your business and the best user experience for your clients.

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