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August 14, 2012

Go Mobile: Grab a Seat, Get Back to Basics

Thought by Jim Doria, Information Architect

The smartphone and tablet revolution of the last two years has introduced not simply another platform for viewing web content, but a cornucopia of them. We have smartphones of various sizes and flavors, 10-inch tablets, 7-inch tablets, and for each, both portrait and landscape displays, as well as set-top boxes and game consoles thrown into the mix. (4,000 varieties of Android?! Say it isn't so!)

The pioneers in designing for this new brace of platforms (which are generally lumped together and called "mobile" but more on that in a minute) started out by creating mobile-only web properties in gated communities, often with "m." at the beginning of the URL. Lately, the second wave of settlers has arrived, under the banner of "One Web" and with a new bag of tricks, which taken together make up "responsive" web design, or RWD.

Seeking some clarity in this sheep ranchers vs. cattle ranchers climate, I went to a panel discussion on July 24th co-sponsored by PhillyCHI and Tech In Motion called "Applications of Responsive Web Design". Six panelists related their stories of real-world mobile design projects, followed by a lively Q&A.

Turns out, mobile may describe the devices, and initially it was thought to describe the consumers, but one of the stats that bubbled up from the panel was that 90% of "mobile" content is actually consumed in a sedentary position. The device may be mobile, but the consumption is taking place on the couch, sitting at the table, or while traveling as a passenger.

Although there's currently no "one perfect way" to approach mobile, or even One Web, some best practices are emerging. The biggest barriers, however, are likely to be cultural. Although "mobile first" is widely seen as the optimal approach, organizations are still concerned primarily with the desktop experience. For many clients, this is their comfort level and this is where they expect to start the conversation. Mobile is still seen as an add-on or an afterthought, not the lean kernel of the site experience upon which the rest of the presentations rest. Compounding this is the fact that many web design projects are actually re-design projects, with the additional challenge of paring down an existing (and often overloaded) desktop site into a mobile presentation.

At FFW, we are meeting these challenges by encouraging our clients to go back to basics and focus on business needs, which are what drives any kind of website in the first place. The needs of the project are the only way to really determine whether a responsive design or a dedicated m-dot mobile experience will best serve the site's owners and visitors. But either way, mobile should be taken into account. Time is running out for the necessary mental shift to occur; sometime in 2015, mobile is projected to overtake desktop as the platform via which most visitors will experience a website. Smart companies will be planning for that eventuality now.