How a small business can optimise a website for mobile and tablet users
August 21, 2014
Mobile browsing now accounts for approximately 31% of all Internet traffic in the UK. Perhaps a more startling consideration is that mobile commerce has grown by a massive 554% between 2010 and 2012, with this trend showing no sign of slowing down as 2013 progresses.
Tablets are proving to have significantly higher conversion rates than smartphones, with nearly 70% of tablet owners making a purchase on their device every month. As a business owner, these trends cannot be ignored.
But, as with search engine optimisation and every other web trend of the last 15 years, knowing how to make the most of this and importantly, where to start can be a daunting prospect.
Before speaking to your web or marketing agency about capitalising on this browsing behaviour, it's important to understand the different options for displaying your website across these various devices.
In this, the first of a two-part series, we will be examining these options and looking at each option in some depth. Part two will focus on the steps required to plan for your mobile web presence.
Websites & mobile. The options.
When it comes to assessing your mobile web requirements, there are really 3 solutions to choose from:
- Do nothing.
- Create a specific mobile website
- Create / adapt your main site to respond to each device as required
Option 1: Do Nothing
This option requires a very, very pragmatic approach, some careful thought and requires a thorough understanding of your market, audience and current visitor profile.
All modern smartphones will render your website pretty well as it is, keeping the same proportions but simply scaling everything down to fit on the screen.
If you understand that your users have no requirement for a mobile or tablet version of your website, and your business cannot accommodate the extra work and / or investment required to make your website work differently on these devices, then there is no harm in simply making sure your website renders on a mobile or tablet as it does on a desktop browser.
Moreso, if the actions that you ask your visitors to take can be achieved comfortably and without confusion on the mobile / tablet rendered version of the desktop site, then this approach may suit you.
A range of high profile websites still opt for this approach, including Econsultancy & The Daily Mail. In fact, the team at Go Cardless, a Direct Debit solution provider, recently ditched their mobile offering and decided to focus solely on desktop users.
The reasons for this focusses on the business goals & the audience – focussing on the context of a visitor in this case highlighted that a desktop website fitting comfortably on a tablet did a better job than a responsive mobile website.
- Pros: further investment largely not required; unified user experience across each device
- Cons: can be a risk whilst gathering usage data, i.e. should it transpire that users would prefer a device driven site, what impact has this lack of had on your user base whilst gathering that intelligence?; as devices continue to evolve with users' expectations, how ‘future proof' does your website become?
Option 2: Creating a specific mobile website
Back in the days of WAP emergence, you'd frequently see websites prefixed with a specific mobile option: http://www.yourdomain.com would become http://m.yourdomain.com.
In fact, even with other options available, larger organisations including the BBC, eBay and The Guardian continue to serve their users with a mobile specific version of their website when browsed on a smartphone.
What about tablets? Well, users who browse to these sites are faced with the desktop version of the website, simply scaled to fit a tablet screen.
Why the dual approach?
We can assume that, in the case of the three high profile cases above, research has shown that these websites require a level of interaction that is comfortably achieved when undertaken on a tablet, but that the content / actions deserve a mobile specific version in order to function as required when browsed on such a device.
- Pros: Only one device specific version to deal with; provides a strict means of testing mobile interaction without affecting desktop & tablet versions; generally (but not always) lower investment required; can be designed to allow specific actions to be taken very quickly; loads faster on mobile
- Cons: Minimum two sets of design files to maintain & update as required; without careful thought, the user experience can be lost between versions; SEO ramifications may cause issues if not handled well
Option 3: Creating a website that responds to each users' device – Responsive Web Design
Responsive web design is a coding practice that allows a website to intelligently re-size and re-purpose itself depending on the size of the device on which it is being viewed.
Heralded as the ‘future of websites', it is a big consideration for all new websites, although ‘retro-fitting' this option to a current website may be more difficult.
A responsive website is coded to recognise ‘break points' in screen sizes and apply different styling depending on these break points.
As an example, developers can code your website to recognise that it is being viewed on a device with a small screen and ask it to move each navigation item to fill the width of the screen in order to be easier to press within this smaller viewing area.
These break points, whilst dictated by screen size trends are arbitrary, meaning that responsive design is very future proof and device agnostic: rarely do you ask a website to respond to an iPhone, instead you ask it to respond to a typical hand held screen size.
Websites such as Amazon, Mashable, Smashing Magazine & even smaller sites with content volume issues, such as Barnsley News & Sport, make fantastic use of this technology to present a large amount of information in different, manageable ways to an array of users.
- Pros: one set of code to maintain; device agnostic so becomes future proof; user experience can be maintained; better for SEO (even acknowledged by Google); loads faster on mobile
- Cons: can be expensive to ‘retro fit' to current sites; a lot of planning & testing is required at every screen level to get this right on content heavy websites; investment overall can be more expensive depending on your site's requirements
What about apps?
There could be the consideration of a mobile application (“app”) in order to engage your mobile customers. But, unless you need the app to provide access to a specific task or set of tasks, one of the solutions detailed above will likely prove to be a better fit. Simply ‘wrapping' your website up as an app will likely alienate your users and do nothing to return that investment.
Each method clearly has its pros & cons, and each method suits different businesses as evidenced in the array of large organisations implementing each.
The important thing to remember is that, as with most things digital, there is no right or wrong.
When looking to optimise your website for this generation of mobile & tablet users, do take a pragmatic approach, and don't be pressured by cold callers who prey on this element of the unknown when vying for your business.
Through a measured and careful look at each solution, you can provide your users and just as importantly, your business with the perfect fit.