Q&A: What to consider when designing a mobile website

An expert shares insight on the intricacies of designing a website for mobile users.

For many enterprises, mobile means mobile web, because there aren’t compelling reasons to invest in custom line-of-business iOS and Android apps. But customers are increasingly accessing the web on their smartphones and tablets, creating the need for multichannel content delivery on PCs, smartphones, tablets and soon televisions. According to Google, 67% of customers are more likely to buy on a mobile-friendly site, while 61% are likely to leave a mobile site if they don’t quickly find exactly what they want.

Although the skills employed in building a mobile site are more easily transferable from desktop web development, many of the challenges to creating a well-performing mobile experience are different. The importance of design is compounded by the lean-forward intent of smartphone users. I asked Adrian Mendoza, Founder and VP of Mobile Design at Marlin Mobile, to help explain what enterprises should do to ensure that the mobile web experience bring their customers back. Mendoza is a UX designer who innately sees every misplaced pixel and misused millisecond.

Q: How is designing a mobile website different?

Mendoza: The most fundamental difference between the mobile web and desktop web UX is in understanding the smartphone user’s intent and satisfying it in as few steps as possible on a much smaller screen. The tools and best practices for testing and optimizing a mobile site are not much different from those used in the creation of the desktop web. Optimizing a mobile website by minimizing code, optimizing images, caching, compressing and simulated performance testing are not new to website designers. But building a fast mobile site is hard because so much depends on performance delays that can’t be modeled with simulated performance testing tools.

Q: What are the dependencies?

Mendoza: The last “over the air” mile, the speed of the smartphone, the routing distance from the DNS and content and the design of the content chain are the major dependencies.

Q: What do you mean by the last “over the air” mile?

Mendoza: The network speeds are very inconsistent and depend on the smartphone user’s location. Because of carrier 4G advertising, many smartphone users believe that 4G networks are fully deployed and the carrier network is not the bottleneck. But today a user is more likely to connect to a 3G rather than 4G network. Google Engineer Ilya Grigorik summed up the state of mobile data networks at Google I/O that he restated it at the Velocity Conference when he said:

"The not so good news about the 4G world is 4G will take a while to come…the dominant network type of this decade…will be 3G networks… You have to assume that your users will be using a mix of 3G and 4G networks."

Q: How does the speed of the smartphone effect the load times?

Mendoza: We have over 40 million rows of actual performance data collected in “the wild” from real users’ smartphones. The snapshot chart below for some smartphones’ performance using the browsing the site target.com shows how dramatically page load speed depends on the device.

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Q: How can a mobile website be optimized given these unpredictable situational factors?

Mendoza: Simulation of your website will get you part way there, but the website needs to be tested in “the wild” with real users. Marlin Mobile crowdsources this type of testing using an instrumented browser based on the webkit standard that we incentivize users to install. We can customize tests to match the user profiles of a website. We collect a lot of performance and situational data that is anonymized of personal data that helps the mobile website creators make UX-related decisions. In “the wild” testing lets designer make data-driven design decisions. For instance, a different content chain might be employed to improve performance when a slow device or slow network location or both are encountered. If given an unfavorable routing distance, content could be rebalanced at a more favorable routing distance.

Q: Is there a big data play here?

Mendoza: Yes, right now we use the 40 million rows of “in the wild” data to publish generalized snapshots of the thresholds for good, tolerable and unacceptable mobile web performance. We also use specifically tailored segments of the data to optimize our customers’ mobile websites. As the data set grows, we will have valuable trend data on the subjects, such as the performance effects of mobile website design strategies and device performance.

Mendoza made clear that the mobile web won’t be replaced by apps because it is a better fit for many enterprise multi-channel content delivery strategies. Mobile websites are very appealing for many reasons. Web developers are in general more plentiful and they can leverage the languages and technology with which they are familiar. It also allows developers to maintain one cross-platform codebase to support a multi-channel content delivery strategy. Designing for mobile web performance will be a top-ranking factor in user acceptance of mobile websites.

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