Strategy on the Go: The mobile tsunami

One of my favorite futurists, Ray Kurzweil is credited with saying “Exponential growth looks like nothing is happening, and then suddenly you get this explosion at the end.” I think this is as true today with mobile computing as it was 30 years ago with personal computers. Let me take you back five years… Browsing the web on your phone was a novelty, laptops were bulky and cumbersome, palm pilots were already a fading fad of yesteryear, and the next big thing was a slightly nicer version of the DVD.

Nate Parsons
#Mobile | Posted

One of my favorite futurists, Ray Kurzweil is credited with saying “Exponential growth looks like nothing is happening, and then suddenly you get this explosion at the end.” I think this is as true today with mobile computing as it was 30 years ago with personal computers. Let me take you back five years… Browsing the web on your phone was a novelty, laptops were bulky and cumbersome, palm pilots were already a fading fad of yesteryear, and the next big thing was a slightly nicer version of the DVD.

Unseen forces were busily at work though, and a new era was already underway. Moore’s law continued to hold, computers got smaller yet still faster.  LED and other low power screen technology continued to be improved, and somewhere in Cupertino Steve Jobs was busy plotting a revolution. The way most people experience computers was about to change dramatically, forever. By 2014 more people will browse the web on mobile devices than desktop and there are already over 1 billion “smart phones” out there in the world. (Microsoft) Of those using their mobile devices for web browsing, 86% use them while watching television.

In the tech & design worlds we’ve been talking about mobile computing & mobile friendly websites for years -- watching this tsunami approach. But it’s been a hard row to hoe for those preaching that websites be built for “mobile first” and built up for the desktop. We’re still mostly designing websites for desktops, still making the grand assumption that most of our audience is going to be looking for and viewing our content on big, wide desktop monitors at their office and at home. Every year that’s less and less true, which means if you’re redeveloping your website today, you should be concerned with how untrue that is likely to be in 2 or 3 years.

So what should you do now? How do you keep your website from being relegated to the desktop of yesteryear? How do you plan on reaching this mobile audience? Do you even know who this mobile audience is? Are they the same people as your desktop audience? (Again that used to be a pretty easy question to answer! Historically the answer has been yes, but going forward your answer may not be so cut and dried.) Let’s go through a little though exercise, shall we?

When I’m planning a mobile website, my first question is usually this: Do my mobile users need different things from my desktop users? This probably depends a lot on what people use your website for. I like to use the hotel example. If you are a hotel, you probably have two main kinds of site visitors -- those who are thinking of booking your hotel and those that already have. The ones that are considering booking your hotel are very interested in all sorts of pre-sales information, they want to know where your hotel is, what it looks like, what else is near by, if the hotel matches their expectations, etc. After that person has booked, however, their priorities change dramatically. They want to check into their room, get room service, see the hours of various services, quickly pull up contact info for the front desk, the spa, and, heck, these days they might even want to unlock their room door. Much of customer type distinction can be made based on if they are visiting the site on a mobile device or a desktop. Maybe you’re mobile users have different priorities too?

The second question you might want to ask yourself is whether there is a particular demographic I would like to reach? Typically Apple devices skew towards higher income levels, Blackberry devices skew more towards business users, and Android devices are becoming the lion’s share of the general smart phone market. (Which means they are likely to become the entry phone to the smartphone world for a growing number of people.) In some cases, smart phones may be a family or person’s very first experience with a personal computer. Knowing your audience can help you decide where to focus your mobile strategy in terms of content and design, as well as with which devices to target.

Ok, next question: How much do I want to take advantage of the “touch” experience vs. the “mouse” experience? Your mobile site might look nice on a smaller screen, but does it actually take advantage of touch gestures? Can mobile users happily swipe through your photo gallery, expand and minimize the nav, easily use their current location as an input to your site? (For instance, a store locator tool.)

Also important, how customized do I want the experience for each mobile device? Do I want to have one for just small screens, such as the iPhone, or do I want a customized experience for iPad users? Should I design for Kindle users? We’ve used the generic term “mobile” to refer to the iPhone sized form factor for so long that many are unprepared for the myriad form factors and capabilities of each device. (There are mobile devices with everything from 3-11” screens, while many desktop users are using 20”+ screens.)

And finally there is this: How much time do you have to speak just to mobile users? Do you have content you want to publish just to them? Do you want just one place to manage and coordinate stories, or two, or one per mobile form factor? Deciding on how much editorial control you need vs. how much time you want to spend curating that content is essential. With a CMS it’s easy to re-use content for both mobile and desktop users, do you want to just do that?

Once you have a mobile strategy in place, picking which mobile technologies and techniques to use will be relatively easy. Instead of just blindly asking for the latest mobile buzzword -- currently “Responsive Design" -- you can pick the techniques that will speak to your audience directly, loudly, and clearly. And almost assuredly with a higher conversion rate.

In a future post I hope to tackle some of the pros and cons of different mobile web technologies are and how they match up with you newly identified mobile strategy above. In the mean time, if you have questions leave them in the comments!

Nate Parsons