As internet users become increasingly mobile, it's important to recognize what methods and technologies are available and how they can allow us to reach this rapidly growing demographic.
By now, most of us have come to realize that the sleek little device in our pocket is way more than just a phone. It can be a workflow enhancer, a social networking hub and a game console, just to name a few uses. Over the next three years, mobile internet users are expected to top their desktop counterparts and the average number of internet connected devices owned by each person in North America will rise to about six. Whether you're an entrepreneur, marketing professional, blogger or any other form of digital content publisher, you should be asking yourself: "What is the best way to deliver my content to and engage with an audience that wants to be informed, even when they aren't in front of a traditional desktop/laptop computer?"
There are currently three widely used outlets for reaching this mobile audience: mobile applications, separately built mobile websites and responsive web design. You might be saying, "Three options! That's neat, but one of them has to be better than the others, right?" Yes and no. Since mobile device technology is still in its pioneer phases, each method of providing content has its own set of benefits and drawbacks. While there really isn't one right answer for everyone, there's certainly a solution that suits your specific set of goals better than the others. Let's discuss.
Mobile Applications (apps)
The word "app" tends to dominate the conversation when discussing the delivery of mobile content. Everyone's heard about how Angry Birds and Instagram made boatloads of money for their creators, and that association has made apps status symbols for both large corporations and small startups. While it's likely that they do provide companies with a tech-savvy image, it's worth asking,"What is the true purpose of an app?" While they're used in all manner of ways, at their core, mobile applications should be tools. Whether they're directing, entertaining or calculating, each app has its own specific use.
What's great about mobile applications:
- They're fast. When you download a mobile application, you're downloading a large chunk of information in advance which won't need to be downloaded each time you use the app. This allows the user to move quickly through the app with a limited wait for page loads.
- They work seamlessly with your phone's assorted gadgetry. While mobile browsers are making technological leaps and bounds (Both Android and iPhone browsers now allow users to upload photos taken with smartphone cameras), this is currently the only solution that allows a user to interact fully with the hardware native to their phone, so if you'd like to incorporate the camera, GPS, microphone or gyroscope into your project, then apps are really the best way to proceed.
- Internet connectivity isn't necessarily required for use. If you're making something that doesn't have to show recently updated data, like a calculator, a game or an address book, it can be used in the middle of the woods somewhere far from a cell phone tower.
What's not so great about mobile applications:
- They're expensive to develop. Creating a custom product that works across multiple platforms (iPhone, Android, etc.) is difficult and time consuming. In my experience, developers don't often do difficult, time-consuming things for free.
- Approvals can be tough. There is sometimes an approval process before a product reaches the app store. This process can be lengthy and unpredictable.
Separately Built Mobile Websites
It's a common misconception to think that a mobile application is needed in order to accomplish a task or view information on a smart phone. If you don't need to take control of any of the built-in phone hardware (camera, GPS, etc.), a mobile-optimized website can actually be an incredibly useful tool. There are currently two ways to optimize a website for mobile use, and the first we'll address is a separately built mobile website. Let's say someone visits your website through the browser on a smartphone. If the website isn't mobile-optimized, this person has to do a lot of pinching, dragging and cursing to get to the information needed. The philosophy behind building a separate mobile site is that when your site detects a visitor with a mobile browser, it calls a mobile URL and displays a different, more mobile friendly, site than they'd see if they visited from their desktop.
What's great about separately built mobile websites:
- They make a great band-aid. Separately built mobile websites are ideal for folks who need a mobile presence but don't have the funds to build an app or redesign their website to be fully responsive. When we redesigned the Paramore site last year, responsive design wasn't as heavily documented as it is now, so we built a separate mobile site to make sure our content was optimized for mobile viewing until the next redesign.
- Separation has its advantages… sometimes. Not all experiences and functions translate well from desktop to mobile and vice-versa. In these cases, it's helpful to have separate builds.
What's not so great about separately built mobile websites:
- Where's my content!? Many times content is removed from mobile sites in order to streamline usability. This often leads to frustration when users visit a mobile site looking for specific content, only to find that it has been omitted for reasons unknown.
- Mo' URLs, Mo' problems. Due to the fact that a seperately built mobile site requires a different URL from your standard site, problems can arise when sharing links. For example, let's say you're unknowingly browsing the mobile version of a site on your phone, and you share the link on Facebook / Twitter. Someone looking at your feed from their desktop clicks this link to see what all the fuss is about, and they're shown the tiny mobile design on their full sized monitor. Yuck.
- It doesn't stop there. The separate URLs also divide visitor traffic. Depending on the amount of mobile traffic you recieve, this can water down your SEO efforts.
Responsive Web Design (RWD)
Wouldn't it be neat if your standard and mobile websites could somehow be the same thing, without all the fuss over weird links, misplaced content, SEO problems and the like? That's actually possible through a process called responsive web design. Basically, responsive sites detect the size of the browser window (also known as the viewport), and then optimize the arrangement of the content to best fit into dimensions of the viewing device. You know how you can put silly putty on a piece of newspaper and then stretch or squish the resulting image to your heart's content? It's kind of like that.
What's great about responsive web design:
- The layout always looks great. Using this technique, you can make a site that works nicely for both a user with a 70 inch smart television and a user with a 240 pixel wide cell phone, all within one set of design files. The mobile view will never accidentally display for desktop viewers and vice versa.
- The URL structure is consistent. Whether mobile or desktop, the URL structure remains the same, relieving the pain points that can occur during link sharing.
What's not so great about responsive web design:
- You'll need to start from scratch. Retrofitting an existing site to be responsive is not recommended. If you already have a site and don't have the budget for a complete design overhaul, you might consider creating a separate mobile site in the meantime.
In a Nutshell
Mobile Apps are fast and sexy, but if your idea doesn't require all the fancy gizmos built into your smartphone, a browser based solution may be what you're looking for. These solutions currently include seperately built mobile websites and responsive websites. Responsive web design is the ideal choice because it combines your mobile and desktop sites into a single URL and generally makes life easier. The main drawback to responsive web design is that it requires you to redesign and rebuild your website, so if you've recently redesigned you may be looking for another option that gets more mileage out of what you currently have. At this point a seperately built mobile site is worth considering, because this option allows you to add a mobile experience without affecting your desktop site. While it may be tempting to cut content when creating this seperate site, note that users can become frustrated when they can't find information that they'd expect to find on the full site, so cut content sparingly, if at all. It's also worth noting that all mobile technology is relatively new, so be prepared for additional advances and hurdles as time and knowledge progress.
Some Visual Statistics
I was inspired to write this article after creating the infographic below for Mashable. The piece is based on some fascinating forecasting research performed by Cisco. It's exciting to consider not only the total amount of internet connected devices that will be in use by 2015, but also the variety. I look forward to seeing what advances are made in devices like smart televisions and how they will effect the interactive design community as a whole.