We've been saying it for years... "Mobile is going to be big." Well now it is, only a year or two later than expected. Smart phones are ubiquitous, app developers are making millions and every day more people surf the web using a mobile browser. In fact, Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile smartphones are now so popular and so advanced, they are replacing the every day use of computers. Unfortunately most websites have a lackluster mobile experience. Sure, mobile browsers can handle a normal website but they don't do-so particularly well.
A year ago I would have said mobile can be an afterthought, now this isn't the case. In fact, some authors stress you should design for the mobile web first. I can't say I disagree, it's a solid strategy. Mobile web design sounds easy, you're "just" designing a simplified website right? If only it were so easy.
The first consideration many overlook is the method of delivering a mobile website. The second is that the user experience of mobile interfaces are inherently different. As this is a mobile 101 post, we will first look at the approach to designing and delivering a mobile version of a site. Mobile UX will be examined in a later post.
Even before we discuss design methods, we must first clarify the difference between a mobile website and a mobile app.
Website vs Application
While seemingly basic, many still confuse mobile applications with mobile websites. The distinction is different because users interact with an app differently than they do a website. An application is a program which is downloaded onto the users phone. The program resides on the users device and can (but doesn't necessarily) connect to an online server. A mobile website isn't downloaded nor is it stored on a users device. It is accessed by visiting the site URL through a browser.
This can be confusing (especially for users) because some designers choose to style their mobile websites to look like mobile applications. There are some circumstances where this makes sense as the user is likely familiar with the interface and conventions, but often times they are just as familiar with web browsing (even in a smaller, more basic form.) Unless you are specifically trying to emulate a mobile application through a website it's best to avoid the "application style."
Mobile Application Usage
The use of mobile applications is very intentional. A user must search for the application (or a type of application), decide to download and install it and then learn how to use it. There is little chance of them "stumbling" onto it. Many mobile apps remain unfound because no one would think to try and find them. A shopping application for a local designer shoe store for example, will get very little usage for this reason.
Mobile Website Usage
Mobile websites are much more accessible. A user doesn't need to search, download or install anything. They just visit your website. Any marketing targeting your website also promotes the mobile version. It requires less effort for the user and the company/organization. The only drawback is lack of persistency. An app remains on the users device until they decide to remove it. A website is gone until the user decides to access it again.
Once you understand the distinction between application and website, you can consider your approach to mobile design.
Approaches to Mobile Website Design
There are four primary approaches to mobile website design, each with strengths and weaknesses. They are:
- Do nothing
- Modifying the existing design for mobile (using css)
- Designing a separate mobile site
- Design a responsive website
1. Do Nothing
As stated earlier, modern mobile browsers are capable of handling most websites "as is." Most mobile browser allow users to zoom in for reading and out for navigating a page. While clunky, users are getting acclimated to the workflow. Doing nothing is the cheapest of all the options because you literally "do nothing." It's also the least effective method. Sure mobile browsers are greatly improved, but as a whole mobile users are less experienced than before. It won't detour all mobile users from browsing your site but it will detour some.
2. Modify the Existing Design
Maintaining the original markup but tweaking the design for mobile devices is a long standing method of improving the mobile experience. Typically this is done by giving mobile browsers a different stylesheet which simplifies the layout, hides large graphics/animation and makes the navigation easier to use.
- Low cost to maintain and implement since you are only modifying presentation
- Capable of producing an improved experience over the "do nothing" approach
- Limited in the amount of changes that can be made
- Content is still downloaded causing speed and bandwidth issues (for the user)
- No ability to change content based on the context of the site
- Difficult to design for multiple mobile devices or screen resolutions
3. Design a Separate Mobile Site
For those with flush budgets, the most desirable approach is a separate mobile specific site. The mobile site is designed, organized and populated from the ground up with focus mobile users needs. Because the site is completely independent of a companies primary website it can be completely different. Even the content can be changed (and often should). This provides the best experience for the user, when they access the primary website they are identified as a mobile user and forwarded onto the mobile specific version. They can then browse a site design specifically for their mobile needs and tasks.
- Completely customizable for the best mobile experience
- Expensive to build and maintain
- Some users are accustom to the desktop version of the site and would prefer to browse normally
- Difficult to design for multiple mobile devices or screen resolutions
4. Design a Responsive Website
Responsive design is the new kid on the block (and his parents bought him a BMW.) Responsive design is useful and practical hence it's rise in popularity. The concept behind it is simple, rather than having one stylesheet which (hopefully) works for all resolutions, you use different stylesheets for different resolutions. The result is a site that expands and collapses based on the size of the browser window. Responsive design allows you to maintain the best presentation regardless if the user is on a mobile phone, tablet or desktop with a large monitor.
- Capability to design a good visual experience for multiple resolutions
- Less expensive than a mobile specific site
- More expensive to design / build than a mobile specific stylesheet
- There is little capability to modify the content/context of the site based on mobile usage
- Layout is constrained by source order
The first step in designing any mobile site is selecting your approach. The approach reveals design constraints and capabilities. Currently, their are four conventional methods each with strengths and weaknesses. The oldest, most customizable and expensive method is designing a mobile specific site. The lower cost long standing method is using a mobile specific stylesheet and the new (sexy) approach is to create a design which responds to different screen resolutions. If budgets are tight and mobile visitors infrequent, you can always do nothing. Modern mobile browsers offer an acceptable experience on their own.