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How to Avoid Mobile Site Suckage

  |  June 6, 2011   |  Comments

The mobile web is different. And so are mobile users. Here are eight differences you must understand to create a successful mobile presence.

The recent release of the Hype HTML5 editor has generated…well…a lot of hype. For the first time designers can generate HTML5 animations using a Flash-like timeline editor, bringing easy-to-create animations to the Flash-phobic iOS platform.

It's nifty for sure, but what it got me thinking about was the whole mobile website vs. app debate. If you (or your clients) have been thinking about going mobile, I'm sure you've had more than a few arguments about whether or not you should produce an app (with its attendant issues of expense and having to choose a platform) or whether you should just "mobilize" your website via CSS, a process made a lot easier with most modern content management systems (provided you avoid Flash, formatting snafus, and interface elements that don't translate well to mobile devices).

For a while now, the answer seemed to be the ever-popular "it depends." If you wanted something simple (a calculator, access to your website content, etc.), creating a mobile site seemed like the way to go. On the other hand, if you wanted to do something highly interactive (such as a game), an app seemed like the way to go. Besides - be honest with yourself, now - saying you had an app seemed a lot cooler than saying that you reformatted your website.

But do most companies need actual apps? If you want to sell your creation through Apple's App Store or Android Market, the answer is "yes" (especially if you want to scam people caught up with their new toys...check out this list of the "Top 10 Most Expensive Mobile Apps" for some real doozies). But if you want to provide mobile content to your customers and prospects, it may be time to think about swallowing your pride and taking the more economical route of going with a mobile site, especially now that tools such as Hype are coming along that make it a lot easier to create an "app-like" experience on your mobile site. Heck, Chrome just released a browser-based version of Angry Birds!

There's no question that people like to make apps: Apple recently approved the 500,000th app on the App Store, and according to this infographic (see bottom graph on the left) the pace of app creation doesn't appear to be slowing down.

But lots of folks are going mobile with their websites, too. By Q4 2010, there were over 3 million mobile websites, a 2,000 percent increase over 2008's count. New advances in HTML5 technology are surely going to increase that number exponentially. In fact, I'd predict that by mid-2012, mobile-accessible sites will become the norm, residing comfortably side-by-side with their desktop-web counterparts.

But here's the problem: most of them will probably suck.

Harsh? I don't think so. Why? Because most of these mobile sites are simply going to be reformatted versions of desktop websites.

You know you've seen them: "mobile" sites that don't take into account simple truths, such as the fact that people use their fingers to navigate and that entering data is tough with a tiny on-screen keyboard. Other mobile sins include text that's too long, problematic navigation widgets, images that take up too much of the screen, and too many menu choices. If you really want to see a travesty, check out Britain's The Sun, recently named the worst mobile newspaper site in the U.K.

But as we poise ourselves for the inevitable onslaught of mobile sites, we have to face bigger issues than just formatting and usability quirks: we've got to rethink the very nature of the website in the mobile age if we're going to avoid suckage.

Let's begin by taking a look at this recent analysis of the most common consumer mobile platform activities. What do people like to do? Download stuff to make their phones more fun (ringtones, graphics, games, etc.), keep in touch via social networking, entertain themselves with audio and video, manage their money, and find stuff with location-based services. If you think about your own mobile behavior, you'll probably see a lot of your own activities in that list.

What won't you find there? Reading long scrolling pages of marketing copy; filling out complicated forms; learning your company history; browsing lists of your "team;" downloading PDFs. In short, you won't find them doing a lot of the things that many companies offer on their desktop websites.

If you dig a little deeper into consumer behavior with wireless devices, things get even more interesting. A recent survey from Prosper Mobile Insights found that eight out of 10 smartphone users used their phones to look for products and services while on-the-go. They also used their phones during their shopping to read reviews, scan QR codes for more info, and perform other product research. Interestingly, more than half (55.9 percent) of smartphone users actually prefer their smartphone over their computer when accessing the Internet…another indicator that mobile web access is going to be even more important for marketers in the future.

But what are tablet users doing? Well, 75 percent of them are using iPads, according to iPass. The same report also found that 34 percent of "mobile" workers who don't have a tablet plan to get one in the next six months. And what do they want to use it for? Note taking, contact management, office suites, social media, and web conferencing topped the list.

Tablet users (and smartphone users, too) also tend to make the devices a part of their lives, using them in situations where they previously probably wouldn't have thought of using a computer. A recent study by Nielsen (that examined consumer behavior in Q1 2011) found that high numbers of tablet users reported using their tablets while watching TV, lying in bed, hanging out with friends and family, in the bathroom, and "waiting for something."

If you're one of the 43 percent of marketers now using mobile technology (or one of the remaining 40-some-percent who plan on going mobile in the next year or so) and you don't want to suck, it's vital that you understand one thing…

The mobile web is different. And so are mobile users. If you're going to create a successful mobile presence, you need to understand what those differences are:

    1. Context matters. It's not just who your users are, but where they are when they access your mobile offerings and who they're with.
    2. They've got short attention spans. They're bored and waiting in line. They're driving. They're getting jostled on the train during their commute. Requiring them to focus for more than a minute or so isn't going to fly.
    3. They're trying to solve problems that people on-the-go need to solve. They need directions. They want to look up a price (or see what store has an item for less). They're trying to find a friend. They're in a new city and they're hungry and they're looking for food that reminds them of home. They're on a job site and need some fast specs. They're trying to decide between retirement plans on their first day of work while HR folks stare at them. They need solutions, not exposition.
    4. They're trying to connect to other people. Mobile social networking apps are popular for the same reason mobile phones are popular: people want to connect with other people. Make it easy to connect to your company via your mobile site using the built-in facilities of the phone…its ability to call.
    5. They're all thumbs. On-the-go data entry isn't easy. Don't require people to fill out complicated forms or navigate tiny text links. If you must gather textual information, make it short and sweet.
    6. They're not using computers. This is an obvious one, but it's one that many people seem to forget: a phone is not a teeny-tiny laptop (and a tablet isn't a laptop without a keyboard). Leverage the unique abilities of the device your customers are using to access your site. How can you use the camera? Can you let them record and submit audio? What about VOIP chat? Can you utilize knowledge of their location to help them solve the problem they came to your site for in the first place?
    7. Screen real estate is sacred. Sure, you may have a killer infographic or a map that looks great on a laptop, but on a smartphone screen people are going to have to scroll around to see the whole thing. Chances are by the time they get to the bottom they'll have forgotten what they're looking at. Ditto for menus and text. Keep it simple and keep it on as few screens as possible.
    8. Less is more. If your computer-based website and your mobile site are the same thing (only formatted differently), you're doing something wrong. Your mobile site should be a subset of your main website and should focus only on the kinds of information and features mobile users need. Pare down mercilessly. Put yourself in the shoes of your mobile customers: was there ever a time you were on-the-go that you desperately needed to read a motivational message from the CEO or watch customer testimonials?

I didn't think so.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sean Carton

Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.

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