Mobile Sites Need Love (and Planning) Too.

What were once known as “Cellphones” have come a long way in the last few years, and now we are in the midst of a “Mobile Device” or “Handset” revolution. Since the iPhone came out in 2007, phone manufacturers have been forced to step up their game and take things to the next level. When you add in new offerings in the form of Google’s Android, Microsoft Windows Mobile 6.5 and the Palm’s WebOS we finally have plenty of good mobile OS options, and the consumer is benefiting from competition with more features and lower prices (if only the service providers would follow suit). If you don’t already have a smart phone, chances are that you are planning to get one when your contract is up. For those of us in the industry,  this is the transition to the time where the mobile website will not be just an afterthought, but in some cases may be even more mission critical than the traditional web site. This brings up a whole new set of challenges and concerns for the strategy and planning of a web presence.

Fundamental Questions that Should Be Asked Before You Invest in a Mobile Web Site

So you might be thinking to yourself, if all this new technology is making phones faster and better, why can’t they just view my regular website? Well, there are many reasons, not all phones are created equal; there are only a few phones that can handle flash, not all phones can run JavaScript, and network speeds aren’t always fast. The biggest questions that need to be asked are the how and the why a person would browse your website on their mobile phone. This will be different for each business and business model. Is someone just going to be browsing your site when they are waiting in the dentist office? Are they just looking for your address or phone number? Are they looking for a product manual while out in the factory trying to fix a machine? There are plenty of use cases for every website, the key for each business is figuring out which ones you can satisfy together and which ones are most important. You probably won’t be able to please everyone, so you may have to decide if you want an ‘OK’ site for everyone or a really good, functional site for your most important use case, or somewhere in between.

Technical Parameters and Limitations to Consider

While you are deciding how you want your mobile website to work, you’ll need to keep a few things in mind. Currently the most common smartphone resolution is 320 x 240, subtracting for browser dimensions and a scroll bar, it is common to design for a width of 220 pixels. While your site might not be as wide as some phones offer, most people with resolution below that don’t pay for mobile internet plans or have phones that are capable. I know that everyone wants a great visual design with the latest technology but mobile websites benefit from simplicity. You also need to keep in mind that the interface that each mobile user has is different, some people have touchscreens, others have d-pads, and some have mouse like pointers. You’ll want to keep your buttons big and not to close to each other to allow for fat fingers on touchscreens. You’ll also want to stay away from anything flash, there are only a few browsers that work with it and flash files are pretty large mobile phones already suffer from a pretty large speed penalty as it is. If you want videos on your mobile site, I would recommend using Youtube, as it is integrated with several phones. Not all users will be able to view them but you will have a higher percentage than if you went with flash or something else. JavaScript is working on more and more phones but I would still recommend staying away from anything heavy or any part of the site that is important to the use cases. Anything that is done with JavaScript should be written in a way to also work without it. Contact forms are another area that you need to optimize. Plan on leaving ample space between fields for touch screen users to click between them. Try to reduce the number of fields to the absolute minimum because typing on a phone can be a task and you don’t want to scare away users.

Making it Happen

After all of the planning and wire framing is done, you’ll be ready to build your site. There are a few things to keep in mind while building the site, most of these considerations are speed related, this should be a consideration when building any website but I believe that mobile sites are especially fragile in this sense. Without getting too technical, there are a few techniques that can improve the speed of your site without changing it. These techniques include minification, compression, combining images into sprites and they are all talked about in the W3CMobile Web Application Best Practices.

Testing Considerations

The testing variables are immense with mobile sites, this is one reason that i prefer simple designs and functionality. There are thousands of phones and so many browsers that need to be tested for their own individual bugs and quirks. Unless you have a test lab with all of these phones, you’ll probably be limited to testing a few major players and rely on emulation for the rest. There are a few tools that can help with testing, Microsoft offers a SDK for .Net Mobile, in this kit there are Windows Mobile Phone Simulators that can be setup and used for testing your website. Like Microsoft, Google offers an SDK for Android that provides you with a phone simulator. If you don’t want to setup a project or you’re just looking for a quick reference, there are some free virtual mobile browsers out on the internet. Opera offers the Opera Mini Simulator, I think this is probably the fastest way to get a quick look at a site in a mobile browser. TestiPhone.com has an iPhone Simulator, but it really does not compare to the iPhone simulator that comes with the iPhone SDK from Apple.

Mobile websites are becoming a more important part of medium and large business web presence, help improve your customers satisfaction by increasing their access to the information they want.

 

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