Making the mobile move

Mobile useage

It can be difficult to evaluate if the latest internet/web/technology development is a game changer (iPhones) or a fad (anyone with a Second Life account?). Smartphone usage is increasing and the effect of this is increased browsing of the web through mobile devices. There is no doubt that this is changing the way people use the web and is not a flash in the pan.

Creating a mobile version of your website will have a financial cost and require planning and commitment. It is not a decision to make lightly or to simply jump on the bandwagon.

When to go mobile

If you are planning to redesign your website, then you should assess the need for a mobile website. Determine this through:

  • Analytics – this will tell you what percentage of traffic is coming from mobile devices (including tablets). If it is steadily increasing, then it is a compelling reason to develop a mobile website, especially if your numbers are going into double figures.
  • Identifying mobile users – understand who is accessing your website via mobile and what their habits are. One starting point is to research the audience you want to attract and understand their online behaviour. Do they have a smartphone? Are they technically savvy? How often do they use their mobile phone to browse the internet? You should also ask these questions of existing users of your website.

With the above information, you can make an informed and sensible decisions about whether you should create a mobile website.

There’s more than one way to skin a mobile cat

You’ve done the research and the mobile man from Del Monte says “Yes”. Now you have to decide how to do it. There are two ways: responsive design and mobile-specific.

Responsive design

This means that the design “responds” to the screen size you are viewing the website on – it will automatically adjust whether you are viewing it on your computer, phone or tablet. Examples of websites using responsive design are Starbucks, The Boston Globe and Foodsense. Visit any of these websites and change the browser window size – you will see that the design “responds” accordingly.

This has become popular as the responsiveness is built when the HTML and CSS is created. It is not create a separate website and can be easily maintained. It can be done as part of the website redesign project. Responsive design is good for websites that are principally presenting information for users, e.g. services, news etc. These websites typically have little mobile specific functionality.

One downside is that the design may lack the “wow” factor that mobile-specific websites can have. This is not to say that it limits creativity but it is not seeking to create a separate, unique experience.

Mobile-only websites

Mobile-only websites are built as separate websites, with a different design and (sometimes) different content to the main website. It can however, still use the same database as an existing website and share the same functionality.

The advantage of mobile-only websites is that you can tailor a specific mobile experience for users that is completely different to your standard website. It is also a way of overcoming the need to develop an app on multiple platforms (though there are other considerations for this).

Creating this type of mobile website is usually done when users need to perform specific actions on their mobiles when they are out. A good example is National Rail – they have a mobile specific website where the immediate action is to search for a journey. A downside of mobile-only websites is that they are separate websites and therefore need their own maintenance and potentially support budget. This may be a burden that you don’t want or afford.

To app or not to app

When assessing what type of mobile website you want to create, the question of whether or not to create an app is likely to come up. Some companies choose to develop apps rather than mobile websites. Key differences between mobile websites and apps are:

  • A mobile-only website will render correctly regardless of what mobile operating system you are using. It is not limited to a particular company or phone type. If you are developing an app, you must select a platform or develop for all, which can be expensive.
  • Users do not have to update their phones to view your website but new features on an app have to be downloaded by users. If you need to make frequent changes, this could be annoying for app users.Apps can run without an internet connection (depending on what they do). A mobile-specific website requires the device to be connected.

Deciding on whether or not you should develop an app is the same process as mobile websites – ask and analyse your audience. You should create an app because it will enrich and benefit your client’s experience, not because “it’s cool” or “everyone else is doing it”.

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